Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Nostalgia: Memories of Moseley Institute

A search for Moseley & Balsall Heath Institute on the internet leads to the illustrated price list of Gibbs and Canning Limited of February 1900. It refers to the building’s ornate Victorian décor, including heads of William Shakespeare and Michaelangelo on the exterior and Macbeth on the interior. For many local people, however, the Institute is important for a different reason: many courtships, marriages and even families in Moseley had their beginnings at dances held there.

I talked about the Institute between the 1930’s and 1950’s with Bill Knee, a sprightly and dapper 89 year old, now living in Solihull. Bill recalls that he started to arrange “select dances” to raise funds for the Moseley Amateurs Football and Social Club. The first dance was held at St. Anne’s Parochial Hall on Saturday 22nd December 1934.

This was a great success and prompted Bill to organise dances at the Institute “near the tram depot” which boasted a spacious ballroom with a beautifully sprung floor and stage. Bill hired the ballroom and laid on the band and refreshments. He put on his dinner jacket in which to act as master of ceremonies and was ready to go.

A ticket for the Grand Carnival dance in1935 featured Teddy Thomas and his six piece band, a running buffet and dancing continuous from 8pm until midnight. It cost 1/6d with 2d for the cloakroom. A Grand Coronation Night Gala Dance in May 1937 ran until 1.30am and cost 2/6d. It featured not only the Ambassadors Dance Band but a demonstration of the latest dances and judging of a slow foxtrot competition with Alex Hooper and Mary Millin “including their famous Tiger Rag Quickstep”.

Over the years Bill hired many excellent dance bands, including Nat Gonella’s famous band. Others appearing were Stan Hurley and his Embassy Boys, Sid Yates and his Melodance Band and the Imperial Players Seven Piece Band.

On one memorable night, the Squadronaires were appearing at the Hippodrome in Birmingham. After the performance, they decamped en masse to the Institute and sat in with Bill’s band late into the night and enthralled the dancers in Moseley.

As well as dance competitions and demonstrations by couples such as Dorothy Betteridge and Billy Bocker, the World Open Champions in 1935, the Institute hosted crooning competitions and comedians.

From the outset the dances were very popular. Bill mad a point of ensuring value for money. Music was guaranteed to be continuous with the sessions from the band interspersed with dance music from the organ.

After small beginnings, weekly dances increased to three nights a week. Numbers were strictly limited to 300 dancers each night. Bill comments: “some evenings it grew so warm on the dance floor that the cloud of perspiration rising to the ceiling of the ballroom returned as a gentle rain.”

Before a licence was granted, dancers had to make do with non-alcoholic refreshments. Although gallons of lemonade were consumed, many customers felt the need for alcohol. Pass out cards were handed out to enable some of the male dancers to obtain lubrication in the local pubs and return for more dancing.

Dances continued for some time during the war and Bill was even given some extra petrol coupons to make journeys connected with arranging this essential morale-boosting entertainment.

After the war Bill’s dances resumed and continued to be well–received. People were eager for entertainment in a time of austerity. The local newspaper referred to the Monday night dances at the Institute as “drawing the largest crowd outside the City Centre”.

Naturally the dances reflected changes in society and popular taste. It has always been necessary to find ways to enable ballroom dancing to co-exist with be-bop. As time passed in the 1950’s, there was more demand for jive and rock and roll and a portion of the dance floor was cordoned off near the band so that early “boppers” didn’t get in the way of the strict tempo dancers.

Bill ran the dances at the Institute until about 1955 and from there moved on to other venues around the City. He juggled his full-time career in engineering, raising a family with wife and dance partner Sylvia, running dances and teaching, demonstrating and adjudicating dance. He still looks back on many happy evenings at the Institute and is pleased to have helped bring so much pleasure to many hundreds of dancers in Moseley.

On many occasion in far-flung places strangers have stopped bill saying: “I’m sure I know you from somewhere. Oh, yes, I remember you in your DJ on the stage at the old Moseley Institute dances. They were happy days.”

*With thanks to Mr Bill Knee, a real gentleman. This piece first appeared in Birmingham 13.

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