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Locarno Ballroom
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23 Market Pavement - Basildon Town Centre

A short history

Before 1958 Basildon town centre had not existed but with a rising population and the ongoing construction of new housing estates Basildon Development Corporation, established just nine years earlier and tasked with the job of building the new town, were by the mid 1950s submitting detailed plans to the Housing Ministry for the main town centre.

These were passed in 1956 and later the same year work on building the first shopping block began and in August 1958 the first shop opened in Market Square.

The development corporation were mindful of the need to create a balance of shops and social amenities and to this end prepared plans for a bowling alley, public house, cinema and a large 'function' hall.

At this time in the towns short history there were few places to enjoy indoor social events, these mainly being at the two pre-new town cinemas at Pitsea and Laindon, school halls and other halls of which the recently completed community centre at Laindon was the largest.

Of the four new amenities planned for the town centre the function hall was the first to be undertaken, and its location would be above the western end of the proposed South Walk shopping precinct.

Building work on the four-storey building was soon underway and by 1959 the first phase of Blenheim House, as it became officially known, was completed. The new shopping block of 4 units were subsequently numbered 1 - 4 South Walk and the as yet unnamed function hall given a Market Pavement address, this being No.23. The remainder of the South Walk shops in Phase II were then completed during 1960 and began opening around December the same year.

Interest in the function hall, which had become the responsibility of the Church Commissioners', was soon taken up by Mecca Dancing Limited who announced in January 1960 to have taken out a 99 year lease on the building. The entertainment group, who had established a large network of ballrooms throughout Britain, then pledged over £50,000 towards preparing the building for use. Along with the main dance floor were bars, a ground floor box office, ladies' bourdoirs and a gentlemen's stag room. The one major change externally was the installation of a fire escape stairway.

The ballroom, which had been named Locarno in keeping with Mecca's other ballrooms, had its 'grand carnival opening dance' on Saturday March 25th, 1961. Admission for the event, which ran from 7:30pm - 11:30pm, was priced at 7s/6d (37½p). Don Darby & His Band and the Harvey Kelson Trio provided the entertainment.

The ballroom soon proved very popular with the locals and with a standing capacity of 850 persons the venue was able to join Mecca's entertainment circuit in booking the popular artists and groups of the day.

As well as dance evenings and a Saturday morning disco for teenagers, a variety of other functions were held including bingo nights, dance lesson classes and presentation events.

It was during these early years that some of the country's leading bands were booked to appear and these included: The Dave Clark Five, who held down a long residency throughout 1963; The Who, who appeared three times between July 1965 and September 1966; The Kinks, Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Nashville Teens, The Move and the Jamaican reggae band The Upsetters in 1969.

In 1970 the first change of name occurred when Mecca dropped the Locarno branding and the ballroom became Tiffanys through to early March 1974 when following another refurbishment, it reopened under the name Raquels on 6th April.

Mecca Ltd. had remained a dominant force within the leisure industry and by 1977 were operating over 100 nightclubs nationally. Their Basildon venue continued to host live acts like Edwin Starr, The Equals, Ben E.King, Desmond Dekker and The Platters, though name artistes became less frequent as time went on as the emphasis was geared towards DJ run disco evenings and a popular Monday evening 'Teen Scene'.

During the 1980s the nightclub went through another refurbishment and suttle name change to Raquels II The Discotheque, and things continued much as before. The change of name adorned a new white backed black lined illuminated sign in the shape of an upturned isosceles triangle positioned high on the west facing wall. During this period, musician, producer and Pinkees band manager Keith Bonsoir was recruited as the main dj. He would later go on in 1991 to found the Time discotheque in Time Square, Basildon. Another popular dj was local man Micky Laudat.

It was also in the early 1980s that Basildon's biggest act appeared at Raquels. Depeche Mode, who had formed in 1980, had released three singles and an album by the time they appeared for their second appearance at the nightclub in November 1981. Their main songwriter Vince Clarke left the group the following month but was back on the stage again for two shows the following August with Basildon singer Alison Moyet in the successful synthpop duo Yazoo. Another famous band from the 1980s Culture Club, fronted by the charismatic singer Boy George, also played one of their early gigs there in 1982.

It was in November 1995 though when the nightclub's fortunes changed following a national news story involving the death of an Essex teenage girl. The girl, Leah Betts from Latchingdon, had taken an ecstasy tablet at her 18th birthday party and collapsed before falling into a coma from which she didn't recover. The illegal Class A drug was purchased by a friend of a friend from a dealer operating at the nightclub. She had previously lived in Basildon and attended Nicholas School and was currrently taking an A-level course at Basildon College. The huge level of publicity generated by the tragedy damaged the nightclub's reputation causing the management to react quickly and Raquels 21 year run came to an abrupt end on Friday 29th December 1995.

The nightclub's last major event was held a week earlier on Friday 22nd when recently retired two-weight world boxing champion Nigel Benn was the special guest dj.

Interestingly, at the time of closure, the management were in the process of applying to the council to extend its current 2am licence to 4am and change the nightclub's name to Gold.

After an appropriate break of nearly a year the venue was relaunched as Uropa and reopened on 5th December, 1996.

Unfortunately its time as Club Uropa proved short lived and after less than 18 months owners European Leisure closed it down in January 1998, seemingly for good.

Strings

Although this brief history is concerned with the nightclub, it wasn't the only social amenity within the building. An annexe to the dance floor known as Strings - The Piano Bar was opened in the late 1980s. The area was capable of holding around 250 people and featured a small stage on which stood a white grand piano. It closed in early 1994 to be replaced by the Buzz Bar.

The Buzz Bar

By 1994 Strings was experiencing a noticeable drop in custom so the area was completely refurbished and the American themed Buzz Bar opened.

Foyer Bar

The Foyer Bar was opened during the dance hall's final months as Uropa.

Rileys

Rileys bar American pool and snooker club, which had its entrance in South Walk, was opened in 1999. It had 10 American pool tables, 4 English pool tables and 4 snooker tables, located upstairs in the former dining area on the top floor. There was also a giant screen TV, £250 jackpot slot machines and a 'darts zone' with multiple boards. It operated as a members only club and open for up to 12 hours a day 7 days a week from midday.

The Future

Following the closure of Rileys in December 2014 both upper floors are now empty and awaiting some future use. As for the nightclub, it's now approaching twenty years since Club Uropa closed and there seems little likelihood of another nightclub or entertainment concern opening anytime soon. We'll just have to wait and see.

Since it opened, the buildings outwood appearance has changed very little over the years. Sometime after 1984 the four small windows on the second floor wall overlooking the market approach road were bricked up. This may have occured during the conversion to Strings. On the same wall the original Locarno lettering, removed around 1970, can still be made out as can the former illuminated Mecca Dancing letters, removed in the early 1980s. To the front of the building the short canopy on which the Locarno name was displayed was taken down sometime during the 1970s. All trace of the Club Uropa signage has long since been removed and the dark pink and blue paintwork and other fixtures are now in a bad state of neglect.

Notes

(1) European Leisure Limited, who had taken over Raquels in the early 1990s, at the time of final closure operated approximately 66 discotheques across Great Britain and went on to operate over 100 Rileys American pool and snooker clubs.

(2) The rebranding to Gold, although in the event not chosen, was applied, along with the Club Europa name, to a number of nightclubs within European Leisure's leaseholds.

(3) The property freehold of Market Pavement and the 4 South Walk shop units now rests with London retail property investors Green & Partners.

(4) Basildon wasn't the only new town to feature a Locarno ballroom. Mecca Dancing opened one at Stevenage in Hertfordshire in autumn 1961.

(5) The Church Commissioners' were the landlords for all of Market Pavement and units 1-4 South Walk.

(6) The grand opening had been preceeded by three special free admission 'open days' on the 18th, 20th and 21st March.

(7) The building when completed in 1959 did not have a fire escape. This was built in 1960 after Mecca had taken on the lease. Its brickwork surround raised the height to the left and side frontage and also required the removal and bricking up of the outside windows on the east facing wall.

(8) The manager at the time of opening was Mr. M. Green.

For more information on groups and artists known to have performed at the venue follow this link.

Text researched and written by William Cox, 2017.
Copyright © 2017, B. Cox - Basildon History Online. All rights reserved.
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Page added: 29/05/2017
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