Dancing Memories

“1950s, the days of dancing to the Big Bands”

In my youth, the early 1950s, kids liked to dance so much, that they would attend their local dance hall at least three times a week. No solo dancing then, it was all contact with your partner, a waltz, quickstep (to the popular song of the day) or a cha, cha, cha and jive etc. Then along came the 60s and with it the Rolling Stones, Elvis, the Beatles and the Trad Dad era of Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball, from then on all contact dancing died and people started to use beat clubs as they were called in the 60s.

Pre-pubescent kids either went to 6 the local YMCA for a dance which in Leith was Junction Place, or church halls. On a Sunday night, I used to go to St Mary’s Star of the Sea church halls in Constitution St and on occasion would take a friend with me, if he was a non catholic, I had to brief him before going in as the priest would ask the test question “What colour of vestments was the priest wearing at mass this morning?”

Most very young kids of my era used Stewart’s dance hall at Abbey Mount as a dancing nursery. Age fifteen. I’d go there every Saturday morning feeling quite grown up. The dance hall was a long rectangular shape; boys would sit to one side the girls on the other. Stewart... (The owner of the premises)... and his wife would start up the music and give a demonstration, this done, the music started up again and those who could dance, in a fashion, got up and did their thing, leaving the male and female wall flowers standing on just watching. At this point, Stewart and his wife would go around the hall matching up the wallflowers whether you could dance or not and forced you to get up, after a few weeks of standing on toes and many embarrassing moments you became more confident, even indulging in immature chat lines up with the girls such as the old standard “Do you come her often” I still cringe at that chat up line, but you came to love dancing and look forward to Saturday mornings.

After the kindergarten dancing phase was over, you felt more confident to move on to a place more grown up, so in Leith, that would be the Assembly Rooms or just the ROOMS to us. This dance hall was located at the bottom of Constitution Street just opposite Nobles Bar (now sadly converted into flats) and in its time most Leithers held their wedding receptions there. The Rooms were open six days a week. If you attended on the Monday, you got a free ticket to come back on the Tuesday.  No Rock N Roll bands, you danced to Alexander and his Band, a seven piece unit with not a guitar in sight.

Jiving in dance halls in those days was banned, primarily because it interrupted those who wanted to dance traditionally. Never the less, if an appropriate jive tune was played you‘d do a wee jive in one of the corners, keeping your eye out for one of the bouncers. However, if you were good at it, you would attract a wee crowd around you clapping with encouragement, thus drawing the attention of the stewards who immediately asked you to leave and barred you for an indeterminate time, usually until they saw fit to let you back in. It happened to me once and it broke my heart getting turned away every time for about three months, all just for jiving.

Aged 17, I was in the Merchant Navy and my ship sailed from Leith to Rotterdam every week. We would return to Leith on the Sunday usually at midnight and on the Monday night would go straight to the Rooms and back again on a Tuesday regardless of the fact my ship always sailed at 11.00pm on that night.. I remember on one occasion almost missing my ship and having to do a pier head jump..(Nautical term for getting on your ship by jumping aboard from the dock just as she was pulling in her last rope and moving out)…..

Moving on, I’d asked a girl that had taken my eye if I could see her home, having carefully checked out her geography .. Not her figure..  I’d already done that .. But where she lived, making sure she did not live as far away as Granton for example. I was in luck; it was only a few hundred yards from the dance hall, after a bit of innocent necking, as you do. I realized I’d left myself little time to go home, get my kit and get down to my ship. Making a quick farewell gesture and see you next time, I ran all way home from Bernard Street to my house in Ballantyne Road in Great Junction Street, grabbed my gear and had to run all the way down to the docks where the ship could not have been berthed further away, the coal berth at the Imperial dock, a total distance I reckon of at least a mile from my house.

When I entered the dock gates, I heard my ship blowing off her horn. Heart beating and about to burst I saw she was bow out and about to release her after spring, throwing my wee case with gear aboard to a deck hand; I made a jump of about five feet. If I mistimed the jump I’d have ended up being chewed up by the propeller. Praying that the skipper had not seen this manoeuvre, I went straight to my cabin and hit the sack... Ah young love!

As you matured, the Rooms seemed a bit juvenile to you, especially for me after a short spell at sea and feeling all grown up and a bit of a Jack the lad, so having heard of the more mature venue of the Palais de Dance in Fountainbridge, the university you might say and final qualifying stage of your dancing years. I decided to move on to a more sophisticated environment.

Compared to the Assembly Rooms, the Palais (Sean Connery’s haunt in my time) was a huge dance hall, elegantly decorated and could probably hold well in excess of 2,000 people, the biggest in the UK at one time; a rectangle auditorium with an all surrounding balcony. The hall at the far end had a revolving stage, when one band finished their set and playing off with their signature tune, another band would come around playing on the other side. The two bands consisted of a big band 11 or 13 piece orchestra and a small quartet. The resident band in my time was the Basil Kirchin orchestra and the Geoff Rowena quartette. On occasion you would get a big guest recording/ radio band featuring for a week.

The balcony in the Palais was a very strategic place where you could reconnoitre the talent on the dance floor before moving in on one you had selected. Alcohol was never sold on these premises only coffee, coke and other soft drinks. There were three coffee bars. On the left of the stage was Cupids bar decorated appropriately with hearts etc, on the other was the Knights bar with suits of armour, coats of arms and such like. On the balcony was the stucco plastered simulated Spanish bar. Lady usherettes were in attendance, almost dressed like Playboy bunny girls of their time, short skirts and fish net stockings.

Dancers would locate different positions of the hall for personal reasons. Those (generally ladies) the wallflowers as they were unkindly referred to, were mostly those with less confidence so they stood just inside the hall at the edge of the dance floor. Down the left hand side were tables and chairs that mostly couples occupied; on the right were your standard confident dancers, until you got up to the right hand side of the stage  which was known as Yanks Corner, so called because American airmen stationed at Kirknewton occupied this area surrounded by ambitious girls hoping to snare a yank, an attraction relic of the 1940s. The Americans comparably had more cash to spend than Your average Joe, this caused some friction with the local lads and many a fight broke out because of it.

The Palais owned by Mecca would hold special promotional nights and give away small samples of after shave or perfume or hold dance competitions; one was an ideal bachelor night. Unlike to-days casual but cool dress code, the standards then was very high at most dance halls and a necktie was a must. Men and women then did take great care and pride in their appearance. Most men of the time would never think of buying a suit off the peg. It had to be bespoke, made to measure and the big favorite tailor of it’s day was Jackson’s in Leith and you had to wait 6 to 8 weeks to have it made.

                                                               Sample to the left taken at Jerome’s photographers Leith St 1954 Silver grey, single                                                                 breasted one link button drape back jacket, trousers 16 inch bottoms, pink shirt with                                                                 black, pink stripped tie. This cost me 17 guineas (£17.17 shillings) to have made; a                                                                    lot of money then, probably about £400 today.

                                                              The only down side of going to the Palais was meeting girls from all corners of the                                                                   city, so one of your first enquiries whilst dancing was to say in a matter of fact way                                                                    “And where do you live?”  That was obviously in many cases the acid test before                                                                    asking to escort her home, If she said Sighthill, Broomhouse or Newington for                                                                           example you had to give it careful consideration because trams and buses stopped                                                                  running at 11.00pm, meaning a long walk home. Needless to say that question was                                                                  cast aside if you fancied her a lot.

                                                              Coming back from the dancing after walking a girl home in the early hours, on a                                                                      cold winters night you would stop for a rest at a road works bothy to get a heat from the night watchman’s brazier (a metal grill fire basket that smelt heavy from the coke fuel they burned (redundant now). Or pausing at the bakery shop who worked through the night baking stock for the early morning. One in particular I visited was in Leith Walk not far from the old Alhambra cinema that used to be on the corner of Springfield St, to gorge on a freshly baked greasy mince pie or hot rolls which gave you enough sustenance to make the last leg home, whilst at the same time saying to yourself with a degree of regret, why am I doing this when I could have been in my warm bed hours ago. Nevertheless, by the next week the long walk forgotten you did the same thing again, no lesson learned. You were totally at the mercy of your hormones.

Another great dance venue of its day was the double venue auditorium of the Eldorado (known to Leithers as the ELDO) in Mill lane Leith. One hall for wrestling bouts the other for dancing. Once again a huge place with a sprung dance floor; usually only open once a month for a 12pm to 4.00am big dance. Dance halls then closed at 11.00pm so when the Eldo was open we would leave the Palais at 10.30pm and join the queue her for another session. These were big events starring all the big bands of the day Harry Gold, Ray Ellington, Ted Heath, Geraldo and many more.

The city had lots of dancing venues then,  Lansbury rooms on the corner of Academy St and Duke St Leith, above what was once Smiths bakers and tea rooms, this venue was the HQ of the Labour Parties Leith branch, the Plaza at Morningside, Cavendish Tollcross, Excelsior (XL) Blackfriars St off the High St, Fairley’s Leith St and Tony’s Picardy Pl. Plus many more.
Each generation has had their hairstyles influenced by one celebrity or the other.

Today, expedient to those of the thinning hair fraternity, it might be fashionable to have the “East Ender” cut to the wood crop after some of the TV soap characters.

In the 80s in was Duran Duran with the Mullet,  70s long hair, but with the mandatory Mexican mustache reminiscent of the actor Peter Wyngarde in his TV series Jason King. The 60s the long hair of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Late 50s the neat style known as the Perry Como look or Jerry Lewis crew cut crop.

Early 50, my era, shown in the picture…. Long before  Elvis and Cliff Richards adopted the quif, was the original quif copied by us all, the Tony Curtis with DA score down the back of your head, DA replicating the ducks rear end. To get this you combed both sides of your hair at the back towards the centre, and then took your comb down the middle to get the duck effect.

In the 50s.The Yanks at the Palais used Old Spice after shave, much admired by the girls. Then  this was not available to men. The large variety of after shaves and  colognes that we had today.  All we had was Cussons Imperial Leather and that was about what it smelt like leather. But the Yanks had the ultimate Babe magnet Old Spice. I was one of the lucky ones able to procure this deadly man made pheromone. Having just returned from a year long trip on the American coast with my ship, I hit the town with a liberal spray of Old Spice to my face, a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes with the mandatory Zippo lighter in my pocket, I was more than ready for action and now on an even playing field with the Yanks you might say, and having spent that time in America, the accent came easy, so it was a case of bring ion girls. Unfortunately I can not detail the results this produced in a weekly family newspaper.

Leith Pageant

This was another great event well noted on the calendars of Leithers. Originally, the pageant was held to generate money for Leith Hospital, but when National Health came into being the funds were redirected to Lambs House in Burgess St. down by the shore.

The parade would meander over a pre-designated area, covering most of the main streets of Leith. There would be pipe bands, brass bands, Service men and women, school children in their hundreds.

There were fully decorated floats representing all the industries and business of Leith. Leith Provident (Co-oP), Coopers, Buttercup and Lipton Dairies, Crawford Biscuits, Breweries, Whisky Bonds and Distillers, Drambuie, VAT 69, Highland Queen, Bond 9. Their massive Clydesdale horse’s hooves clanking on the cobbled streets, pulling decorated carts, tails and mains tied up with award ribbons. Highly polished brass buckled harnesses.

Decorated lorries and vans from, Youngers Breweries, Abbeyhill Breweries, Henry Robbs, Browns, Menzies shipyards, Duncans chocolate factory, Scott Lyons the bakers, Barries rag merchants, Ranks flour mill, Roperie, Buttercup and Maypole Dairies, Crawfords biscuit factory and many others  .. It took ages for the floats to go by .. The parade terminated at Leith Links for the awards of prizes to the best floats in different categories. The day ended with the shows (funfair) on the Links. 

Summer Holidays

Word would get around, that the Ebenezer Church (between Junction St, between Bowling Green St and Bangor Rd,(now in Bangor Rd) Sunday picnic was coming off and no matter what religion you were, everyone managed to know someone who could get you a ticket. The picnic trip would be either some fields at Davidson’s Mains, Liberton Dams or some such like place.

On the designated day, all dressed up in your best clothes and newly blancoed rubbers, (to-days trainers) snake buckle belted trousers, tin cup on a string with your name attached strung over your shoulder, you meet the double decker bus or a tram outside the church, centre of Bowling Green St. and Bangor Rd. On arrival, they conducted a variety of races for the kids with prizes. If it rained, you ended up in some church hall.  Food consisted of a couple of sandwiches, maybe a sausage roll, cake, apple and an orange and a mug of tea.

Trips to Victoria Swimming baths and plunge were regular if you hadn’t a swim suit, you could hire one and a wee tablet of carbolic soap, and there were briefs with a red strip down the centre, with writing stating property of Edinburgh Corporation. These were made from cannibalized hand towels . I had an all in one swimsuit, straight from the 1900s. It had broad black and bright yellow stripes, just like the suits you see on these Blackpool postcards, made me look like a bloody wasp. In embarrassment, I’d roll them down to look like trunks. Must have belonged to my grandfather.

Most working classes were quite poor! If you had holes in the sole of your shoe, lino or cardboard acted as insoles, if your socks had no toes in them you folded the toe of the sock under you feet and walked crippled, Cotton jerseys that if pulled and stretched at play, kept that shape until after the next wash. Haircuts at Jessie Baxter’s North Junction St., she was a butcher and kids were terrified of her manner, she stood no nonsense, Jim Bowies of the Kirkgate also, accused of placing a bowl on your head and cutting around it.

The plunge area of Victoria baths were rows of cubicled baths. For those who had no such thing at home.

On the summer school holidays, picnic trips with your folks to Hillend Park, the Pentlands, camping with friends in the Braids with your bottle of water, a few sandwiches a wee bag of tea and sugar, a Tate & Lyle Syrup tin acted as a tea pot. You lit a wee fire and got on with it, trips to Liberton Dams, Colinton Dell, Portobello outdoor swimming pool and beach, Tallytoor ( Martellow Tower an Napoleonic structure north of the Imperial docks (now a restricted area) Inverleith park to watch the model boats and yachts racing, fishing for Minnows at Anderson dam (Anderson Pl. ) and Pudicky (the bridge crossing the Water of Leith at Warriston and Powderhall) Stealing apples at Bangholm.

During the war, West Cromwell (kids called Comando buildings) street off Coburg Street was blocked off at both ends and used by the Home guard for war games. The tenements here had no floorboards, just rafters, as kids, we would precariously climb these buildings looking for spent cartridges and playing commandos, until the police chased us.

Going messages for neighbours was mandatory, you dared not refuse to go these errands or you got a clip on the ear from your mum. Most often you were not rewarded for this task, or at most you got a bread and jam, condensed milk sandwich or if unlucky a piece with margarine and raw sugar. YUCK! You fed this to the pigeons.

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