Name Dropper, Chapter 4
Beatles, Water-Rats, Elephants
And Flying Machines
By Peter Wills……..
Beatles, Water-Rats, Elephants And Flying Machines
Back home and temporarily out of work, I turned my hands to other things as a way of starving off the boredom, getting out of my parents house – it’s hard to go back when you have had the freedom of independent living – and, of course, making a little money on the side.
I came to an agreement with the local vicar to hire the parish hall and put on dances with live bands for the local teenagers. At this time, there was a surge of amateur bands springing up, all trying to emulate the professional groups of the day and the kids were grateful for an opportunity to let their hair down, without having to travel too far or spend too much money.
Parents seemed happy to let them out too, because it was local, it was in a church hall, it was going to be policed (at my cost) and the bar would be non-alcoholic!
The hall had a good stage, good lighting and proper front tabs, (curtains) and I did my best to dress the stage appropriate to the band that was going to be playing. The names of most of the bands have long disappeared from memory and they can’t have been that good as they never made it to anywhere other than the local circuit. That’s except for two, both made up of local Midlands lads who went on to be very famous; Slade from Wolverhampton and The Rockin Berries from Birmingham.
They were my top costing bands and were well worth the money I paid them, £80 for the night as they brought followers from far and wide. My dances were established; the hall was filled once a month, I made quite a bit of money, and there was never any trouble. The local beat bobby that I was paying for used to spend most of the night in the pub across the road with the instructions that he should be called if needed. He never was!
The reputation of the venue and my name as a promoter seemed to get around and one day I got a call from a guy, whom I later discovered to be Brian Epstein, offering this band that he managed for one of my gigs. He said they were from Liverpool and had got a good following and should go down well at my venue. I asked how much they charged and when he said £100 I said that was too expensive. I explained that my top bands only got £80 and I was guaranteed a full house because they were known locally. “Yes, but they’ve got to travel from Liverpool”, he said. I said “sorry but I can’t afford them and in any case, I’ve never heard of them so I guess most of my regular kids won’t either”.
That’s the day I turned down The Beatles. If only I had known!
* * * *
Flushed with this entrepreneurial success, I decided to form an entertainment agency and quickly secured contracts to supply dance bands and cabaret acts to local hotels and for private functions. These included comedians, singers, speciality acts and even strippers. None of them were well known but one, a comedian from Birmingham called Al French became a regular and also a good friend. He was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, a charitable organisation, similar to the Variety Club of Great Britain, made up of senior figures from within the show business fraternity.
Formed in 1889, the Water Rats staged many events, including an annual bonanza show to raise money, mainly to support those in show business and their dependants, who have fallen on bad times or are in need. They also raise money for other charities as well.
At this time, chief show organiser was a guy called Terry ‘Toby Jug’ Cantor, an outstanding comedian and show producer of the musical hall and variety theatre era. I was introduced to him by Al French and, to cut a long story short, became his localised (in Wolverhampton) assistant for the Grand Order of Water Rats Variety Show, to be staged at the Grand Theatre on Sunday 16th February 1964.
The line-up for the show was like a Royal Variety Performance – certainly the biggest thing to ever hit Wolverhampton. It included, Ted Ray, Wilfred (Steptoe) Bramble, Joe Brown and The Bruvvers, Tommy Cooper, Reg Dixon, (The famous Blackpool Tower organist), Val Doonican, Bud Flanagan, The Three Monarchs (famous harmonica players), Bill Pertwee, Beryl Reid, Frankie Vaughan and the “V” Men, Jewell and Warris, Arthur Worsley and his puppet Charlie Brown, Sir Donald Wolfit and three rather shy boys from Ireland, making their first live performance in England, The Bachelors.
Needless to say, The Bachelors were the big hit of the show and, of course, went on to be fantastic stars (whom I was also to meet later on my travels, along with several others who were on the bill).
At the after-show party we mixed and mingled, with my then fiancee and now my wife, Angela, somewhat overawed by the occasion. She collected autographs, but stopped short of a kiss for Tommy Cooper in exchange for his; happily obliged Ted Ray and then spent the rest of the evening in a corner, chatting to Declan (Dec) McClusky of The Bachelors who was relieved to be away from the grandness of the occasion.
Despite all the hype, I have found that many stars and celebrities are at heart, just ordinary folk, who do remember people and places and like to relax in conversation on a one to one basis. They like to talk about ordinary things, away from show business as I was to find out in the future with several of the people above.
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As an aside, another person I met on this occasion was Cyril Dowler and his fabulous wife Rhoda Rogers. In the business they were well known as comedy actors in variety shows and producers of some of the best pantomimes throughout Britain. In addition they owned the famous (or should it be infamous) Revue Bar in Birmingham and later Sunset Strip in London’s Soho.
Rhoda was billed as “Britain’s latest and greatest Strip Star” and “Britain’s Bridget Bardot”.
I was asked to handle the marketing and PR for their pantomime at The Hippodrome, Dudley, which was “Goldilocks and the Three Live Bears” starring, of course, Rhoda as Goldilocks.
Dudley, of course, is not a million miles from Birmingham and you can imagine the problems I had convincing the press and ultimately the public, that this was not going to be a pornographic pantomime. What was more, a stripper appearing on stage with three live bears. Sex and animals, whatever next!
As it happens, it was a fabulous and extremely successful show and the season was extended by three weeks. Were the kids coming to see the bears or was it the dads coming to see Rhoda? We shall never know!
* * * *
Skip forward a couple of years and I found myself working for the Goodyear Tyre Company in their Advertising and PR department. In essence, it was my job to ensure that the Goodyear name and logo was prominently on view wherever the public were likely to see it. This included all sorts of special occasions and I am reminded of two events in particular where celebrities were involved.
How it came about I don’t really know, but Goodyear acquired a life size mechanical elephant which was powered by a Ford V8 engine. I also can’t remember how it came about that I ended up driving the bloody thing! The elephant was called “Nellie”. I guess in the Indian costume I had to wear, complete with turban I was probably called “Bradford” or “Twit”.
We used to take this elephant on the back of a low-loader caravan transporter to fetes, galas, carnivals etc. all around the Midlands. You can guess the attention we generated as we travelled on the motorways. How there weren’t some serious crashes I don’t know.
Once at the event, we rigged up the seat on the elephant’s back and I climbed up to my seat behind the ears and fired up the engine.
Nellie made her way off the transporter and I spent the day giving everyone rides.
Including on one occasion, a petrified Pat Pheonix – Elsie Tanner of “Coronation Street” fame. Pat was the celebrity opener of this particular gala and as you would expect, the press were out in force. Well, of course, they insisted that Pat got up on to the back of Nellie to take a ride.
What they didn’t know was she was actually petrified of real elephants. And Nellie looked very real. I also recall she was wearing a very tight fitting pencil slim skirt which she had to hitch up well above the knees in order to get onto the seat. So with her dishevelled attire, her abundant fear of the beast and the lurching movement as I started up the engine, Pat clung onto me for dear life, but managed to put on a brave face and a big smile as she whispered to me, through gritted teeth, “Get me off this thing as fast as you can.”
I don’t know whether word spread, but I never had another celebrity on the back of Nellie!
Goodyear were also a big name in the aviation industry and for many years, especially in America, they had been responsible for organising the Goodyear Air Trophy Race.
It was decided that the British arm of Goodyear would run this race in August 1967, at Halfpenny Green aerodrome, just outside Wolverhampton. I was put in charge of organising the event in conjunction with the local flying club who used the aerodrome as their base. The race was to be 22 miles in length flown over a circular circuit, marked by four structural beacons.
In was indeed a grand event and one of the first of its kind to be held in Britain so with a significant purse of prize money and a magnificent trophy up for grabs, it attracted a large entry of qualified solo pilots. The best known of these was Sheila Scott, who, a few months previously, had just completed her record breaking solo flight around the world in her Piper Comanche aircraft – an epic 31,000 mile and 33 day journey.
On arrival at the aerodrome, the day before the race, she quickly checked in and collected her paperwork, which is when I was introduced to her. “Can I have a look at the course”, she asked. She was shown a map but said she would like to fly it. As I was the only person there who knew exactly where the turning beacons were located, she suggested I should accompany her round the circuit – in the air, of course.
What a pleasure it was, and still is, and one I shall always remember, only the second time I had been in a light aircraft, but a memory I shall treasure.
Unfortunately, Sheila only came in fourth in that race. But a non-flying pilot also there on that day, to present the prizes, was the famous wartime pilot Group Captain Douglas Bader whom I was also privileged to meet.
* * * *
This has also reminded me of another connection with flying and a meeting with the other very famous war-time pilot, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.
As a child in senior school and a member of the drama group, we were asked to participate as extras in a film being made at another ex-wartime aerodrome just outside Wolverhampton. This time it was at Pendeford aerodrome and the film was “Man In The Sky”, starring Jack Hawkins. I can’t remember much about the film, but I do remember that Jack Hawkins did come up to us kids between takes, and asked if we were enjoying the time off from school!
Leonard Cheshire is, of course, famous for his rehabilitation homes, originally set up to care for people with disabilities. My mother worked as a volunteer at the Wolverhampton home and I was introduced to him on one of their ‘open days’.
Look out for the next part of my story – “Carrots and Clarinets, Chihuahuas and Contessas” coming very soon.
With thanks to all the celebrities and personalities for their pure existence, without whom this book would not have been possible.
And with special thanks to all of those who took the time and trouble to act as ordinary people, happy to meet with ‘their public’ and discuss the facts of everyday life.
Also with sincere apologies to anyone I have left out. It’s either because I have forgotten you or the memory of you wasn’t worth recalling