Rowing Club Stories 4 - Social Activities

 

It is quite remarkable that during the 1960’s and 1970’s Leicester Rowing Club had a very strong social membership. We had built a bar, but that in itself can’t have been the reason for the support we had from non rowing members. Our crews, such as we had, were not very good and regatta successes were rare. This was not for the want of trying, but coaching was non existent because anyone good enough to coach was needed in a crew. The first social members were wives and girlfriends and then it kind of “snowballed” as their friends, and friends of friends, joined in.

I think the most likely reason for non rowers joining us was that there was such a great atmosphere and sense of ambition in the club at the time. We had little, but it wasn’t going to stay that way, seemed to be the attitude. People would come to the club for the first time and be given a paint brush or a screwdriver – and they came back! Everyone did their bit to try and improve what we had.

Sometime in the 1970’s, Tony Green brought some of his pupils from Beaumont Leys School to the club and they went on to great success around the regattas. With the rowers, came their families and friends and the social membership became stronger than ever. Non rowing members took over the day to day running of the club whilst the rowers could finally get down to the business of rowing and coaching and, when we went to regattas, our “supporters club” came too!

Social Activities

Whenever the club was active, the bar was open. It was run by a small committee who took it in turns to ensure that refreshment was always available to those who wanted it. When we were expecting a good number of members we sold filled cobs, pork pies and ploughman’s lunches complete with a good range of pickles in addition to the usual beer and crisps. I remember an old childhood friend of mine who regularly called in for a chat and his Sunday dinner! The rowers considered themselves’ athletes, of course, and often wouldn’t drink the beer. Instead, the most popular drinks for them were the “Batman” and the “Robin”. “Batman” was a pint of orange cordial and lemonade and the “Robin” was half a pint of the same stuff!

Special Events

In addition to the usual gatherings in the clubroom, we frequently held parties and “themed” events. The parties need no real explanation except to say they used the usual excuses of birthdays, weddings and even the occasional rowing success to have a good time together. The themed events were a bit more organised. One, very popular theme was a Victorian Gentlemen’s Evening where the members and their wives and girlfriends dressed in Victorian costumes and, on occasions, slipped into a strange, upper class way of talking, don’t y’know! Another, similar theme was the Edwardian Smoking Evening. This was similar to the Victorian one but at about midway through the evening the ladies were required to withdraw to the drawing room (what used to be the blade store, but was now an annex to the main clubroom). This was necessary in order that the gentlemen could smoke without causing offence to the ladies! It might be supposed that the ladies would feel aggrieved at this imposition, but in actual fact the move to the other room was quite popular because it contained a Pianola. For those unfamiliar with this instrument, it is a sort of piano which works by pumping two foot pedals up and down. This pumps air through a perforated roll of thick paper which passes over a rotating metal drum which, in turn, causes the hammers to hit the strings. With a little practice, even the least musical of people could appear to be an accomplished pianist! The only drawback was that we could only play the rolls that had come with it. There were a lot, but they were somewhat dated! The most popular were the songs from a musical called The White Horse Inn. This may have been appropriate for the theme of the evening but it seemed a little strange to hear young men singing the words to these long forgotten songs in the days that followed!

Strippers

Much has been said over the years about a form of entertainment that was staged a few times in the club bar. I am, of course, referring to another type of “Gentleman’s Evening” which usually involved two strippers and a dodgy comedian. Most of the stories and opinions have been expressed by people who were not involved and, in some cases, not even born at the time. As one of the members who actually helped to organise these events, I think the time has come to tell the story as it was.

The time was, again, the early 1970’s and the club was still desperately short of money and struggling to survive. It was also a time when many other organisations were experiencing similar problems and all were looking for ways to make money. During the previous ten years, or so, the laws governing obscenity, nudity and entertainment with a sexual content had been steadily relaxed following the acquittal of Penguin Books on charges of obscenity for publishing D.H.Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. The producers of entertainment in all areas of the media, including radio, television, the cinema and the theatre all behaved like little boys in a sweet shop and tested the new freedoms to the limit. Others, on the edge of the entertainment industry were not slow in joining in and the result was a thriving industry in providing strip shows for small organisations. A phone call to one of the agents was all that was needed to arrange a show and the most popular venues in Leicester were city centre pubs. I would estimate that roughly half of the pubs in Leicester city centre had “lunchtime strippers” every weekday and some had topless barmaids as well! In the evenings, the same performers moved to the pubs on the outskirts of the city and to the sporting clubs, rugby and soccer being the most popular. The strippers were then accompanied by a “blue” comedian who often doubled as a bodyguard for the women.

The Rowing Club was a little slow in jumping on the bandwagon but, hearing how much money was being taken elsewhere, decided to give it a go. A show was booked, tickets were sold and the event took more money than we had ever taken before. I can remember the bar being packed to capacity but I remember nothing of the show itself, after all, two girls taking their clothes off and a scruffy part time comedian telling dirty jokes is not something to stick in the mind for 40 years! 42nd Street at Drury Lane, it was not!

I think there were two more evenings of this type and one evening when someone showed a grainy porn film called, if I remember right, “The Sex Olympics”. He probably thought this was an appropriate choice for a rowing club! I don’t remember the film at all because I was too busy serving at the bar but I do remember that he wasn’t much good with his projector because the film kept breaking and I don’t think anyone saw the end!

The last strip show was one that nobody who was there would ever forget! Parts of it are forever planted in my mind but before I describe the show, I should outline the events preceding it. As usual, the phone call was made and two strippers and a comedian were booked. Tickets sold out fast and everything was set for another profitable evening. Then it all went wrong! During the week before the planned event, a phone call was received to say that only the comedian could come because the two girls were in police custody for performing a “lewd act” in Newark! This was no good – nobody came for the comedian! Furthermore, we were informed that no other strippers were available.

After a period of panic, someone had the bright idea of phoning a theatrical agent. This provided a solution to the problem, but at a cost. The agent didn’t manage “strippers” but could arrange for an “exotic dancer”. What’s the difference? An exotic dancer is paid twice as much because she is classically trained and holds an Equity Card! We could only afford one of these, so we made do with her and the comedian.

The evening arrived, the comic had done his first turn and now it was time for the “exotic dancer”! She had agreed to do two routines and appeared for the first wearing a leopard skin bikini and leather thigh boots and carrying a bullwhip and a large sports bag which she placed on the floor behind where she was going to perform – all very mysterious! The music started and she began to gyrate around the room cracking the whip over the heads of the audience. It was immediately apparent that this girl could actually dance! Articles of clothing fell to the floor or were draped over the heads of some of the audience (Actually, there was not much to arrange!) but the attention of the audience was wandering. The sports bag was moving. Yes, it wasn’t the beer, the bag was moving! Noticing the inattention of the audience, the young lady put down her whip and unzipped the bag to reveal a 5 foot long python! This became an integral part of her act for the next few minutes until she put it back in the bag and carried on without it. All was well until the python found that she had not fully zipped up the bag and made its escape whilst she was at the far end of the room. It headed straight for one of the rowing club’s finest, a powerful man standing over 6ft in height. On this occasion, he was in a crouching position, backing away from the snake along the bench seating and using the discarded whip to defend himself! Of course, everyone else was enjoying his discomfort which finally came to an end when the performer rushed across the room shouting, “Don’t hurt my snake!” and put it back in its bag.

For her second performance, she did a very proficient fire eating act using two flaming torches. At this point, I should describe a feature of the construction of the clubroom. For its entire length, the roof was supported by a large concrete beam. We had made a feature of this by fixing a sheet of plywood under its bottom edge with a vertical lip on either side. Inside this were strip lights which projected a warm, reflected light off the ceiling. Back to the action! – As a final flourish to her act, she waved the torches over her head in two spectacular arcs. What nobody was to know was that the lighting channels had collected a considerable amount of dust, cobwebs, crisp packets, etc. and as the flames reached the ceiling, all this caught fire and, accompanied by a strange humming noise, a flame shot the entire length of the room. “Bloody hell!” she exclaimed, “It ain’t never done that before!”

As far as I remember, no more evenings of that nature were organised. It was very much a thing of its time and people were beginning to look for different forms of entertainment. To the critics I can only say that I make no apology for helping to raise hundreds of pounds to keep rowing alive in Leicester.

 

Malcolm Neal