The Regent Ballroom Brighton

No building in Brighton evokes more affectionate memories than the one time Regent Ballroom near the Clock Tower. Many an invitation to dance on the beautifully sprung floor resulted in wedding bells. Dancing really took off in the town during the 1920s and 1930s, and the Regent was created in 1923 to cater for the demand. In the years immediately after the Second World War, when the dance craze broke out – encouraged by the spread of American style jazz and dance bands – it became the place to be. Built on the roof of the Regent Cinema in place of a planned roof garden, its decor was amazing. The concept was ‘jazz’ with zigzag and square patterns painted in strong primary colours. There were huge lanterns in a variety of shapes and the multicoloured lights made a striking initial impression. A local newspaper, the Brighton Herald, described it as ‘like an artist’s expression of exclamation. It is jazz in its highest development. To enter without preparation into that great new hall… is to get the effect of a rocket bursting in one’s face. The hall is like an explosion of all the primary and secondary colours, flung hither and thither in a restless, intersecting criss-cross of blazing light.’ The Regent could accommodate 1,500 dancers and, especially on a Saturday night, it often did. One regular visitor recalled: “Saturday night at the Regent was a must for us. It was an escape from reality for thousands of shop assistants, factory workers and employees who could afford to go out only once a week.” Nelson reminisces on the Shoreham-by-Sea Forum: ‘looking forward to Saturday nights at the Regent but having to summon up enough courage to walk out on to the dance floor to ask a girl you fancied for a dance only to suffer the embarrassment when she refused and taunts from your mates as you attempted to walk back to the bar as if nothing had happened.’ On one such night, Mike met his future wife in early 1947. ‘We were married in 1948 and her bridesmaid was also with her at the Regent that evening.’ It was at that time the ballroom was popular among the many naval officer cadets who were training at King Alfred on Hove seafront. Some 4,000 young men a year passed through Brighton, and surely part of their training in Officer Like Qualities was in the hands of the young ladies of the Regent. The training staff officers would also be visitors. Any out of order behaviour and the sailor concerned would be fired as a failed candidate. There were tea dances, evening dances, dancing competitions and balls… a myriad dancers gliding over the vaunted ‘finest sprung dancing floor in the world.’ If you couldn’t dance, the Regent offered a staff of’expert professional dancing partners for both sexes,’ once a week. With the arrival of the 1950s, girls with heavily lacquered beehive hairstyles and nylon frilly petticoats took to the floor. Teddy Boys leaned against the bar, eyeing up the talent. The Ted culture with its signature hairstyle, a Tony Curtis kiss curl at the front and DA at the back (7s 6d at the barbers in Brighton’s Boyces Street), the drape jacket with felt trim on pockets and lapels had begun in London. It emerged in Brighton a bit later and was at its height between 1954 and 1957. Beryl’s entry on the WRVS Heritage Plus site recalls: ‘I was 15 when I first went. I couldn’t afford a drink. I was a smoker though. I used to get a sub of ten bob off my gramps. That paid for the bus, entrance to the Regent and a packet of smokes. I went with my friend, a tiny little lassie, who worked on the production floor at Green’s. She was 16, four months older than me but she couldn’t even get into the bar because she looked too young. I could at 15. There were bouncers on the door but it was never any trouble to enter – I sailed in. I used to have a Babycham when I could afford it.’ For more than 30 years, the Regent was managed by Lionel Stewart until he retired in 1955. His trademarks were a cigar and his ever-present smile. In her affectionate memoir of her father, Sarah Jane Roome writes, ‘He was known for his generosity and kindness, and played Cupid to many dancers.’ Top names such as Billy Cotton and Jack Hylton took their bands to Brighton, making guest appearances. Harry Leader began his professional career at the Regent and returned there as resident bandleader between 1959 and 1963. But it is the name of Syd Dean, which is synonymous with the heyday of the Regent Ballroom. The popular band leader used to say: “There’s Rottingdean, Saltdean, and Syd Dean.” Dean, who lived in Hove, imposed strict discipline on band members and coaxed sweet sounds from them. A Regent Ballroom regular said: “Every Thursday night, when Syd Dean’s band broke into The March of the Mods, you just had to get up, form a line and stomp around.” Amiable and elegantly dressed, Dean was also a national figure, who frequently broadcast on the BBC. In 1946 he did the first of his 177 Music While You Work broadcasts, some from the Regent. Over the years, he brought several singers to fame, notably Jill Day and Rita Williams. One day he encountered a bubbly young singer who so impressed him he arranged an audition for her at the BBC. When she failed the audition, Dean decided his judgment was flawed and let her go. He was mortified when she topped the Hit Parade. Her name was Alma Cogan. The band was so popular in Brighton that when he decided to leave in 1959, the local evening paper described him as a ‘marvellous unofficial ambassador for Brighton, having publicised the resort in many ways.’ He played elsewhere but in 1963 returned to the Regent where he stayed for another three years. Although he specialised in ‘straight’ ballroom music, in common with other bandleaders, he needed to move with the times and even included a guitar in his band. But rock and roll had dulled the public appetite for dance music, he realised teenagers didn’t want his kind of music and decided to freelance. The ballroom and cinema closed in 1967. When the building was demolished, the dance floor was sold off and some of it ended up as church hall flooring in nearby Patcham. Part of the Regent Ballroom survives in the town. Today a Boots stands on the site. As local resident Arthur Clarke observed in 1984: “When the cinema and dance hall finally closed, Brighton lost the finest entertainment centre south of London. Nothing has ever replaced it.”

Jennifer Pulling