Let’s (Sheffield) Hall pull together

Keith Roe for classical page
Keith Roe for classical page

SHEFFIELD’S landmark performing venue, the City Hall, reaches its 80th birthday in September and a month of events is lined up celebrate it, beginning this Saturday with a Big Band Ballroom Dance.

It can be said that it was lucky to reach its 20th birthday. “Has no-one blown the place up yet?” asked Sir Thomas Beecham on one occasion when he returned to conduct a concert there.

The ‘place’, specifically the main Oval Hall, survived his verbal onslaughts and the stage area, the target of many of them, has been transformed over the last 50 years from the one he knew.

Unchanged since it opened 79 years ago in 1933 is the one-of-its-kind art deco Ballroom beneath the Oval Hall where Keith Roe and his Fellowship Big Band will be leading a rapidly filling full house treading the light fantastic on Saturday.

The fourth Big Band Ballroom Dance he has organised at the venue, Keith knows it well, having started playing there over 40 years ago as an 18-year-old semi-professional saxophonist with Brian Kirby and his Band every Saturday night.

Latterly, he played for Ken Outram’s Band at the Saturday Night Dances until the disco scene arrived in the 1990s, but he remained convinced that there was still a significant demand for ballroom dancing. The overwhelming interest being shown in this Saturday’s dance seems to prove it.

Although best known for his hugely popular Christmas Musical Cavalcades in the hall above every December, dance bands are in Keith’s blood.

His mother, Margaret Roe (née Chappell), was a member of Ivy Benson’s professional All Girl Band in the late 1940s and played in her brother Walter Chappell’s Band, which was resident at the Cutlers Hall when Bernard Taylor’s Band was in residence at the City Hall.

“It was often the case that for private dances, Walter and Bernard crossed the city centre to entertain their followers in each other’s ballroom!” says Keith, the knowledge no doubt imparted by Margaret, as he wasn’t born at the time.

“It was common to have 700 dancers filling the City Hall Ballroom. That was a time when the seeds for many a wedding were sown and sitting down between dances wasn’t a high priority.

“Nowadays, the maximum for dancing is set at around 400 in order to cater for more chairs!”

He specifically cites Margaret as remembering “a time when the people of Sheffield used to flock down to the City Hall Ballroom on several occasions throughout the week; a time when drinks were not allowed anywhere near the ballroom floor.”

And his own particular memories?

“The Ballroom being full to the rafters for the New Year’s Eve Dance and the City Hall manager, the late Frank Gummer – ‘Mr City Hall’! – delivering his New Year speech in his own inimitable way at midnight to the throng of people assembled on the dance floor.”

An earlier City Hall memory for Keith was his most memorable schooldays musical experience when, at a Firth Park Grammar School speech day in the venue’s Oval Hall, he played Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No 1 on the hall’s badly under-used, magnificent Henry Willis III organ.

It, too, is 80 this year but is seemingly not being given an opportunity to let itself be heard the during venue’s 80th birthday month celebrations.