A new form of entertainment
Grand balls were the earliest recorded dances that took place in Brighton. Wealthy visitors to the town would assemble not just to dance, but also to eat, drink, converse and to ‘see and be seen’ in fashionable society. Balls were held at The Castle and Old Ship Inns from the 1760s. In 1766 the owner of The Castle, Samuel Shergold, built a large new ballroom in his premises which was ‘considered one of the largest and most elegantly covered rooms in the kingdom’. Local balls attracted large numbers of people. In August 1765 it was reported in the local press that there was ‘the largest and most brilliant ball at Shergold’s that ever was there; near 400 gentlemen and ladies, some of the first rank were present, who declared they never saw so numerous or splendid assembly before’. Such was the success of the balls that it was felt necessary to appoint a Master of Ceremonies to oversee them in 1767. The regular visits of the Prince of Wales to Brighton from 1783 onwards saw a great increase in the scale and grandeur of balls. A ball held at ‘The Castle’ in 1807 to celebrate his birthday was attended by the Prince, his brothers and over 700 guests.
Get up and dance
By the mid 1800s the popularity of grand balls had waned. Although balls were still held, especially to mark special occasions, they no longer dominated the social scene in the way they had in Georgian times. In the Victorian era the number of people visiting and living in Brighton had grown rapidly, as had the range of entertainment available to them. More informal dances and concerts replaced assemblies and balls. Dancing widened its social base, with many middle-class people taking part in dances in the ballrooms of the new hotels on the seafront.
Dancing as a major form of entertainment really took off in Brighton during the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Dance’ music, much of it American, was becoming popular in the years before the First World War, spread by sales of sheet music and gramophone records. However it was in the years immediately after the war that the so-called ‘dance craze’ took place, encouraged by the spread of American-style ‘jazz’ and ‘dance’ bands. In Brighton a number of dance halls were established to cater for the new demand. The most famous of these were Sherry’s Dance Hall, in West Street, and the Regent Dance Hall, in Queens Road.
Formal to informal: Sherry’s Dance Hall
Sherry’s Dance Hall opened in August 1919, with its own café, bar and accommodation for 2,000 dancers. An American Jazz band, ‘The Ohio Quintet’, were engaged to supply the music. Sherry’s was designed ‘to appeal to the upper strata of society’ as the admission price of four to five shillings clearly demonstrated. This exclusive approach does not seem to have been a success, as by early 1930s the standard admission price was one shilling. Although a popular social venue Sherry’s developed a shady reputation, being seen as a haunt of Brighton’s criminal elements. It continued in business until 1949, when the building was converted into a roller-skating rink and then became the Ritz amusement arcade in the 1960s. In 1969 the site was redeveloped as a night-club known as Sherry’s Dixieland Bar, and an amusement arcade called the Crystal Rooms. The new Sherry’s had an 125 foot (about 40 metres) bar, adjustable dancing floor, two band stages and could accommodate up to 600 people. It aimed to provide ‘a Mississippi atmosphere in a very stylised way, well suited to informal entertainment with music and drinking’. During the disco dance boom of the 1970s Sherry’s became one of the most popular night spots in Brighton. In 1983 Sherry’s was taken over and was renamed the Pink Coconut night-club. Today, it is the Paradox Club.
Bold and jazzy: Regent Dance Hall
The Regent Dance Hall was opened in December 1923. It was constructed in an arched superstructure on the roof of the Regent Cinema, which had originally been intended to house a roof garden. Decorated in a ‘jazz’ style, with zigzag and square patterns painted in strong primary colours, giant lanterns in a variety of shapes and illuminated by multicoloured lights the dance hall made a major impression. 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 on its specially sprung floor, which it boasted was ‘the finest spring dancing floor in the world’. The Regent hosted afternoon tea dances, evening dances, cabaret, dancing competitions and balls. One could also learn to dance at the Regent, which had a staff of ‘expert professional dancing partners for both sexes’.
The rise and fall of the Regent
By the 1930s famous dance band leaders such as Jack Hylton, Billy Cotton, Harry Leader and Henry Hall were playing at the Regent. The dance hall soon became one of the leading social venues in Brighton. A regular visitor to the Regent in the 1930s, remembered ‘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’. The Regent’s popularity continued during the 1940s and 1950s, people danced to big band and swing hits played by resident band leader Syd Dean. However changing tastes in music and dancing styles saw the Regent’s popularity decline in the 1960s and in July 1967 the dance hall was closed and converted into a bingo hall. In 1974 the Regent Cinema and Dance Hall building was demolished, today a branch of 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’.