Name Dropper, Chapter 6
The Stars Come Out at Night
and sometimes in the daytime too …
By Peter Wills……..
The Stars Come Out at Night
and sometimes in the daytime too …
Little did I know when I joined the Trusthouse Forte Leisure group, that I would spend the next six months going to work on a building site, kitted out in wellington boots and a hard hat. Surely this was not the way a sales and marketing manager should be dressed!
My office too was not the most salubrious of places. A wooden hut on the site, shared with a soon to be general manager, a secretary, an accountant, an architect and a gang of burly site foremen, engineers and a continuous stream or other workers and specialists, charged with building this magnificent new edifice.
Yes, I was literally in at the start of The Night Out. A 1500 seater theatre, restaurant and conference venue in the centre of Birmingham that was to play host to many of the top British and American stars of television, music and entertainment.
Modelled on the style of the world famous “Talk of The Town” in London’s West End, this new venue with its tiered seating and dining facilities and a stage with technical capabilities that would equal any major theatre, would come to provide me with the opportunity of getting to know personally many famous names.
The shows also included a full orchestra, a smaller dance band and a team of resident singers and dancers. Rehearsals and ‘band-calls’ were always held on a Monday afternoon and it was part of my job to meet the artistes and discuss with them any special promotions that I had lined up, including press calls, radio and television interviews and very often, additional ‘personal appearances’.
Although the bulk of ticket selling and pre-show publicity had been done weeks or even months before, with a venue that large, there was nearly always the opportunity of filling a few extra seats or of gaining valuable future publicity.
So, over the next few years I met a lot of famous stars. The list is a little like a “Who’s Who” of show business. From the theatre’s opening night starring Des O’Connor, others included, Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, Little and Large, Les Dawson, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Cannon and Ball, Lulu, The Black Abbotts, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Matt Monro, The Grumbleweeds, The Flying Pickets, Showaddywaddy and many more. From America, there was Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Drifters, Jack Jones and from France, Sacha Distel and Charles Aznavour.
There are a number of other artistes with whom I had a special relationship or where special occurrences warrant a more detailed recollection.
But probably the most significant of the ‘celebrities’ I was to meet whilst I was in Birmingham were not at The Night Out at all.
At around the same time as we opened, the National Exhibition Centre (or the NEC as it is more frequently called) was to open just a few miles away and we decided to exhibit with a stand promoting our theatre restaurant. Here was an opportunity to get our sales message across to thousands of local and international visitors.
Our colour-scheme at the theatre was green and purple so I was decked out in a purple suit and green shirt and, as if that was not enough, to attract attention to our stand, I had with me two gorgeous, blond, scantily dressed, leggy dancers, complete with ostrich feather head-dresses.
When we booked the stand, we were unaware that Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were going to perform the official opening ceremony of the exhibition centre.
I have never been one to miss a photo opportunity (it’s the ex journalist in me), so as Her Majesty and The Duke toured the exhibition, the two dancers and I were one step ahead of the Royal Party, making sure we were in prime positions to be caught on camera by the press and television. At about our third or fourth location, the Duke took a step towards us and with a twinkle in his eye said, “I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.” As he eyed up the girls, I swear I could detect a sign of disapproval from the Queen!
But, I digress! Back at the theatre on our first anniversary, the star of the show was Danny La Rue. We had a special birthday cake made for the occasion and Danny and I visited the Birmingham Children’s Hospital to present them with the cake. Obviously it was mainly a publicity stunt, but Danny was reduced to tears as he toured the wards and witnessed the state of many of the children. After the visit, we went back to the Albany Hotel, the top Birmingham hotel of the time, and recovered over coffee. We became established friends and met on several occasions in the future.
Tommy Cooper was also resident at the Albany Hotel, when he played the Night Out, but he was always very reluctant to get out of bed. The only way we could guarantee that he got to the theatre on time, was to go and fetch him! This duty fell to me on several occasions and in his typical witty style he once said “if it wasn’t for you getting me up, I think I would retire”. Thankfully he never did, but unfortunately collapsed and died on stage, during a live television performance from Her Majesty’s Theatre, London in April 1984.
Children under the age of 16 were not normally allowed into the theatre restaurant but on my daughter Rachel’s 5th birthday, a special concession was made. Whilst it was a very ‘grown-up’ occasion for her, just to be going to a show and having a meal, what she didn’t know was that I had arranged for the star that night, singer Vince Hill, to dedicate one of his songs to her. The place was in uproar when Vince announced that his next song was for a very special little girl, who shouldn’t really be there, who was celebrating her birthday that day.
After the show, I took Rachel backstage to meet Vince in his dressing room and to this day, the only thing she really remembers about the occasion was that having divested himself of his stage clothes, Vince was sitting there in his pink spotted, white boxer shorts !
There is also a sequel to this story. I was also a good friend of Chris Tarrant and had previously met him on many occasions in his capacity as a reporter for ATV – Associated Television – the independent television provider for the West Midlands. Chris had recently started to present the Tiswas Show on a Saturday morning along with Sally James and I had arranged to take Rachel along to the live broadcast, the morning after she had been to the Night Out. Again, I think she was the youngest member of the studio audience and Chris kindly sat her on his knee and interviewed her ‘live’ on air. When he said he believed she had had a special evening the night before, she couldn’t remember who it was that she had met. She said, “I can’t remember his name, but he had pink spotted boxer shorts on.” I guess, in her mind at least, that is how he will always be remembered.
Ken Dodd was another star I met at the Night Out, but he features later on in my Namedropping encounters, as does the famous Irish comedian, Dave Allen, so for now, I will leave it there.
The “stars” were not always on stage though!
There were many ‘special events’ held at the Night Out, one of these being a huge fundraising event to send British Athletes to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.
A Sportsmen’s evening attracted many internationally known British stars, including Wolves and England Captain, Billy Wright; Wolves footballer, Bill Slater, boxing supremo Henry Cooper; show-jumping legend Anne Moore plus many others. My enviable job that evening was to host them all for cocktails and the dinner that followed.
On another more intimate occasion, my wife Angela and I, entertained the famous Northern Ireland and Wolverhampton Wanderers footballer, Derek Dougan and his lovely wife Uta. It was supposed to be a totally private affair, but word soon spread around the 1500 audience that “The Doog” was in the building and so our dinner was constantly interrupted by fans wanting autographs. As the gentleman he always was, he happily signed away, even though his dinner went cold.
The unfortunate thing is though, I cannot recall how I came to meet Derek in the first place!
Isn’t it terrible to lose one’s memory! It must be old age!
* * * *
Still on the football theme, another visitor to the Night Out was Dave Mackay, popular manager of Derby County Football Club. I can’t remember whether he was on a private visit to see a particular artiste or whether it was another sporting occasion but once again it was my pleasure to play host for dinner.
During the evening I happened to mention that my friend and neighbour was a big Derby County fan, as a result of which we were invited to visit the Pride Park Stadium to watch “The Rams” play a floodlight match against Chelsea from the Directors Box no less.
At half-time we were invited to take tea in the Directors Board Room and the end of the match we returned to the Board Room for drinks and to meet the players.
My friend was in awe of meeting Archie Gemmill, Alan Hinton, Charlie George, Francis Lee and Bruce Rioch to name but a few.
For as many years as I can remember after that, I was a hero in my friend’s mind and he told everyone of his eventful visit to his cherished football club.
I shortly took over the responsibility of marketing the Talk of the Town in London and also the Golden Garter Theatre Restaurant in Manchester, in addition to my work at the Night Out. At these two venues I again met many of the above mentioned stars plus Mike Yarwood, Michael Barrymore, Morecambe and Wise, Anita Harris, Lulu, Dana, Val Doonigan and one of my all-time favourite singing groups, Manhatten Transfer.
And so my portfolio continued to expand and became almost nationwide which resulted in me meeting Jim Davidson at Great Yarmouth and Rod Stewart (and The Faces) and Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones at the Belle Vue arena in Manchester.
Then began another chapter in my life with a move to Blackpool, still with the Trusthouse Forte Leisure company where I was to remain for the next 32 years.
Then regarded as the entertainment capital of the North of England, I was in for a treat of show-business euphoria. I have never been “starstruck” but I have to admit that it’s always interesting to meet people who are in the public eye. At the end of the day, they are just people, but if you can engage with them in normal conversation you can discover some interesting things about them and their life which otherwise, you might never have known.
Look out for the next part of my story – ” The Golden Mile” 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