Builders uncover ‘lost’ dressing room in Bradford where little girl sang Happy Birthday to John Lennon

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Only the coat hooks on the wall and the curtain rail above the window remained as Karen Grimaldi surveyed the backstage room where John Lennon had picked her up and hugged her.

It was 1964 and The Beatles were playing Bradford for the third and last time. The Gaumont had suspended its engagement of Cleopatra to accommodate their two performances that night.

Karen Spence chats with Bradford Odeon historian Mark Nicholson at the spot where she met The Beatles.' Picture: Tony Johnson.

Karen Spence chats with Bradford Odeon historian Mark Nicholson at the spot where she met The Beatles.' Picture: Tony Johnson.

Their dressing room was full of reporters and photographers as John, Paul, George and Ringo did their best to make themselves at home among the makeshift furniture scattered beneath the emulsioned brick walls.

“Karen has been practicing singing Happy Birthday,” said her dad, journalist Tom Spence, to Lennon, who turned 24 that day.

The lyrics fresh in her mind from her own birthday a few weeks earlier, the five-year-old girl was held aloft and placed in John’s arms.

“I remember that it went silent for a moment and then there was a burst of flashbulbs and I was on John’s knee,” she said.

A signed postcard to Karen Grimaldi, who was invited to sing Happy Birthday to John Lennon on his 24th birthday at Bradford's Odeon cinema.

A signed postcard to Karen Grimaldi, who was invited to sing Happy Birthday to John Lennon on his 24th birthday at Bradford's Odeon cinema.

The pictures on TV that night captured what seemed to be genuine delight on Lennon’s face at the impromptu performance, although Ms Grimaldi is not sure how much, if any, of the song she managed to get through.

The moment had lingered pleasantly in her memory ever since, but only yesterday was she able to retrace her footsteps. Rebuilding work that will return the Gaumont to a live music venue has exposed the dressing room after decades “lost” behind false walls and partitions.

The corner in which The Beatles had tried to relax could still be made out, though in front of it lay a precipitous drop into a deep pit of builders’ rubble.

The old cinema, better known now by its later name of the Bradford Odeon, is being transformed after nearly 20 years of disuse into a performance space that will accommodate a 4,000 audience.

Work began in earnest in January and is expected to be complete by the end of next year – following protracted arguments within the city about whether it should be knocked down.

The Neo-Renaissance style building was the biggest cinema outside Greater London when it was put up in 1930, next to the Alhambra Theatre.

But little of its ornate interior remains, following extensive internal remodelling.

Mark Nicholson, the building’s archivist, said: “The dressing room where The Beatles held their press conference has been inaccessible for 50 years.

“The theatre was converted into smaller cinemas and a bingo hall in the late 1960s but those subdivisions are now being dismantled.”

It had been a different atmosphere on October 9, 1964, when, with Beatlemania at its height, the band arrived to kick off a 27-date tour which also took in the ABC in Hull and the Leeds Odeon.

Ms Grimaldi’s father, a music and art critic on the left-wing Daily Worker, had met Lennon before and, perhaps sharing a political sensibility, would see him again before he died in 1968.

But for his daughter, it was an experience never to be repeated.

“I didn’t stay for the show that night and I never met John again,” she said.

She also never saw The Beatles perform elsewhere – though she credits them with kindling a lifelong love of music.

“It was a wonderful experience at such a young age,” she said.

A grandmother of two, she still attends concerts in Leeds, Manchester and even Amsterdam, though not Bradford, and plans to celebrate her “big birthday” this year, when she turns 60, at a gig.