Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Night of a Thousand Stars

As this post concerns both a South East London story and documents a club scene I wasn't sure whether to post it at my localist Transpontine blog or here. So in the end I decided to put it on both.

Going out this Saturday (September 26th) to the Grand Vintage Ball at the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley (SE London). Should be a good night, but as always on the rare occasions when I go to the Rivoli nowadays I am hoping to recapture some of the magic of one of the best nights out there has ever been (for me at least) in Brockley or anywhere else - Club Montepulciano's Night of a Thousand Stars.

The club started out at the Rivoli some time in 1997 I believe - anyway I know that I went to the 4th night there on Saturday 27th September 1997 (flyer below) and at that time it was running more or less monthly in Brockley. The club promised 'style, glamour, comedy, dancing, cocktails and kitsch' and it always delivered.

The host was Heilco van der Ploeg with the Montepulciano house band Numero Uno - among other things they did a cover version of the Cadbury's Flake advert song from the 1970s ('tastes like chocolate never tasted before'). The format was usually a floorshow featuring a mixture of cabaret and dancing turns. Among the former I recall seeing Jackie Clune doing her Karen Carpenter routine, Earl Okin and burlesque act Miss High Leg Kick; among the latter were Come Dancing finalists like The Kay and Frank Mercer Formation Dance Team.

Then the DJs took over - usually Nick Hollywood and the Fabulous Lombard Brothers - playing kind of loungecore kitsch, but always very danceable - Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Peggy Lee, Perry Como and Andy Williams. The latter's House of Bamboo was something of an anthem - anybody who ever went to that club must surely have a flashback if they hear the line 'Number 54, the house with the bamboo door...'. The dance floor was invariably packed with a mish mash of styles - mods going through their paces in one corner, couples doing ballroom and Latin moves, and disco bunny hands in the air action (that was me anyway).

Xmas 1997 flyer
There were themed nights too. Moon over Montecarlo was themed around Motor racing, complete with an 8 lane Scalextric track.

There was a 1998 Halloween Night of a Thousand Vampires featuring one Count Alessandro, who performed a punk-flamenco-operatic version of Psycho Killer before wandering through the crowd biting necks with his vampire teeth. Sometimes there was a casino - but not for real cash - or you could get even get your haircut.

If all of this sounds a bit too arch, I must emphasise that it wasn't full of people being cool or ironic in a detached sort of way. It was a full on 90s clubbing scene with drink, drugs, sex in the toilets and other madness. As usual in clubs when the queues for the women's toilets got too long, the women invaded the men's toilets and I remember seeing one woman peeing standing up at one of the urinals.

But above all else there was dressing up. I went to lots of clubs at that time with supposed glamorous dress codes - Renaissance, the Misery of Sound - but none came anywhere close to Night of a Thousand Stars. And while at these glam house nights, dress codes were arbitrarily enforced by bouncers to create some kind of dubious sense of style elitism, at the Rivoli nobody had to dress up to get in - but everybody wanted to. It was a mass of sequins, feather boas, suits and dresses in velvet and fake fur (zebra, patent snakeskin you name it), sombreros... There was a real sense of entering a fantasy world where every man and every woman was star.

Planning what to wear was all part of the fun, sometimes I would go up to Radio Days (retro shop in Lower Marsh, Waterloo) to buy a new shirt especially. Feeling like a million dollars, and thousands of pounds in debt - I'm still paying off my credit card bills from that extravagant time, but that's all part of the proletarian dandy experience.

The other star was the venue itself - the red velvet and chandelier splendour of the Rivoli Ballroom. I'm not sure exactly when the club finished in Brockley - I think it was some time in 2000 and the rumour was that in all the time it had been running the venue had never really had a license for late night drinking. It moved on to the Camden Centre and Blackheath Halls but I don't think it was ever the same. I went to the latter in 2003 and it just didn't have the stardust.
Xmas 1998 flyer

It was all very handy for me living within walking distance, but it wasn't 'a local club for local people'. People came from all over London - one flyer said 'Get out your A-Z'. When the club closed, the taxi rank up the road was transformed into a post-ballroom chill out as the best dressed queue in town hung around chatting and waiting for a lift home. Bliss was it in that Brockley dawn to be alive.

Heilco van der Ploeg went on to open the Kennington tiki bar, South London Pacific. I thought I saw him pushing a buggy round Brockley last year.

More details of the Grand Vintage Ball here.

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