Opening in 1937, the Granada cinema located in the northwest London suburb of Harrow, epitomized the height of the “golden age” of cinema design and technology. The work of Russian theater designer and production director Theodore Komisarjevsky, the Granada seated an audience of 2,300 on two levels. The interior décor was palatial, as was a trend in cinema architecture. A stage and orchestra pit with a Wurlitzer organ fronted the ornate proscenium. Backstage were four dressing rooms, little used until the late 1950s when Granada management recognized the earning potential of touring “pop music shows.”
My mother became a cashier at the Granada in the mid-1950s. I started as a part-time usher in 1963, working weekends to supplement my earnings. By this time, the “pop music shows” were coming on thick and fast. The format consisted of a headline star with as many as six supporting acts and usually two shows each evening. Although I was on the weekend shift, all Granada staff were called in to work the shows, which generally took place on a weekday. Before working there, I recall seeing acts such as Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Gene Vincent, Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, and many, many more.
Monday, January 6th, 1964, was the advertised date for another “pop music show.” This one intrigued me. The headliner was an American girl trio, The Ronettes, who currently had a major transatlantic hit with “Be My Baby.” Opening for them was a band I saw as aggressive, raw, and pugnacious looking. I was not at all sure if I liked them or their music but was nevertheless intrigued. They were called “The Rolling Stones.” This evening was to be the start of their first-ever nationwide tour.
I had worked a few shows and always managed to somehow contrive to get backstage to at least encounter, if not meet, the artists. When I showed up to work the Ronettes and Stones show, the Granada manager, a Mr. Wescott, asked a favor of me. “Butler! You have a brass neck,” he said. “Yes sir?” I replied, not really knowing where he was going with this. “My daughter wants autographs from those scruffy yobs called the Rolling Stones. Would you go backstage and get them for me? Especially that singer chap, is it Jagger or something? My daughter likes him, god knows why.”
So, I would get to be backstage, not by some flimsy, contrived excuse, but on the order of the cinema manager. The chief of staff who typically assigns ushers to specific duty and location for each event merely asked me to let him know whenever I got the autographs. This allowed me free rein to hang out backstage with a cast-iron excuse for as long as I could string it out.
The four dressing rooms were located up two flights of stairs, along a corridor that ran the width of the stage. Two of the rooms were small, and the other two were larger. They were all recently painted a uniform light grey with a white and yellow fleck effect. On show nights, dressing rooms were usually open, and the corridor a throng of socializing entertainers, agitated managers, and some hangers-on. This night was no different. The door to the first dressing room, one of the larger ones, was open. Inside was a sight, the like of which I had never seen before. Three stunningly beautiful black American girls in their stage costumes and make-up were seated and casually chatting. Their shining black hair was piled up at what looked to me about a foot high in beehive style, as was the vogue at the time. It was the lovely and talented ladies from Spanish Harlem, The Ronettes. One of them smiled at me. Maybe she smiled at everyone, I didn’t care and counted it as definitely meant for me and me only.
Further down the corridor, in the other larger room, I found the Rolling Stones, a different story. All five were there, plus their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, and keyboard player, Ian Stuart. All of them were lounging or pacing and engaged in a highly animated discussion I didn’t at first follow, except it was connected to possible recordings and a setlist. Far from “stage costumes,” except for Charlie, they looked as if they had all just returned from working a shift at a local factory. “Surely they won’t go on stage like that,” I mused to myself as they continued their vociferous debate, accompanied by the quaffing of white wine. I must have stood there listening and observing for maybe 20 minutes, totally enjoying the banter, before anyone finally asked me why I was there.
Eventually, got the needed autographs as the Stones headed downstairs to go on stage. Mick pulled a grotesque face as he passed by on his way and asked me, jokingly, if I wanted a photograph. I followed them down but continued below stage level to the basement entrance to the orchestra pit. I had found this to be an excellent spot for watching a show. The all-black walls and floor rendered an occupant pretty much invisible from either stage or audience while providing a unique and intimate view of whoever was performing. After “I wanna be your man,” “Roll over Beethoven,” and a couple of other numbers, all there was time for is such a package show; I became a fan, and remain one to this day.