Top Hat and tales…

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May 21, 2014 by Whispering Smith

Memories of nights at the Top Hat Club

Chris Adam Smith

The Ronnie Smith Big Band
Photos courtesy of Chris Adam Smith SUS-140430-123920001

The Ronnie Smith Big Band Photos courtesy of Chris Adam Smith SUS-140430-123920001

WHEN Carol Turner, a Littlehampton ‘Facebooker’, posted the idea of a Top Hat/Clifton Café reunion on Littlehampton Flashback’s Facebook page, the response was immediate and very positive. Readers from near and far thought it a great idea, and so it will come to pass at Wetherspoons (The George) in Littlehampton’s Surrey Street on Friday May 30 from 8am onwards.


Wetherspoons is the ideal location for the event, as the dance hall was then situated above the pub and entered by a small side door which has long since vanished.

So what is it from back in the day when the unholy trinity of the Top Hat, the Clifton Café and to some extent the Cairo Club that triggers such weird, wonderful, sad and happy memories among the current townsfolk and of those who have wandered far and wide?

I can only see it, remember it, from my own perspective, but I suspect that view is not too far removed from those of other users. They were fun places, places to hang out, to meet friends in relative safety – unless that Bognor lot were about…

Gilda Pirella’s Clifton Cafe, now demolished and replaced by flats, offered a football table, juke box – I still have my 45rpm of Wolverton Mountain Gilda gave me after I played it to death – and a tea or coffee, or sometimes a milkshake, you could make last for hours.

And there was sausage, egg and chips on a Friday or Saturday if the fates had been kind. Affable manager Fred Blackman, Rosa, the girls – including Anita (later Roddick) and, of course, Gilda created an atmosphere I suspect none were fully aware of at the time.

Motorcycles lined up outside like painted ponies at some western hitching rail, Brian Wright’s Thunderbird usually next to my Bonnie.

A meeting place, a gathering of like young minds, boys and girls, a rugged innocence not lost in nostalgia.

Where do the youngsters go now, I wonder?

The Top Hat was the main venue for the older set, and one of the two regular town dance halls, and by far the most popular.

It was launched in 1951 by ex RAF sergeant and local entrepreneur Bob Gaitley with a red blazered band called The Cardinals and, later in 1952, continued with the regular, superb Ronnie Smith Big Band.

Smith moved on in the early 1960s when the big band era ended and pop music and rock and roll became the vogue, the music the young people wanted to jive and listen to.

During the following years, Bob booked and managed several young groups of the day including The Diamonds, Beau Brummell and Deke Arlon and the Tremors, but is remembered by most for the masterly presentation of swing music in the hands of bandleader Ronnie Smith, whose lead saxophonist John Haselip still plays for Littlehampton Concert Band like the Peter Pan he is.

The drill was simple enough: have a few drinks at The Dolphin or The White Hart – the Hat did not sell booze – pop up the stairs, dance, jive, do the creep, and chase the ladies. There was never any real trouble; the odd punch up, but no knives – just a few bruises and the odd broken nose.

Noisier perhaps when the Fleet Air Arm contingent from the Naval Air Station at Ford were in town.

One Saturday night, the ‘jolly sailors’ lifted the lightweight ‘bouncer’ off his feet and deposited him, unhurt, in Surrey Street before closing the door on him.

The jazz performances on a Sunday morning or a weekday evening also proved popular.

Bob later opened another dance hall in Worthing called The Mexican Hat, but, as drugs came onto the club scene and the protection racketeers moved in, he quit both Hats and the music business altogether, shutting the doors behind him.

He moved into antiques and later, with his buddy Pat Fowler, ran furniture shops and an auction house in Rustington.

Bob died, aged 87, in 2010, he had a humanist funeral service and went out to the music of Glen Miller and Woody Herman. The service was packed and the bands played on.

The Top Hat finally closed in the early 70s and the empty space above Wetherspoon’s is just a memory – but, oh, such a memory. Tootie Miles, Graham Gunn, Graham Edwards, Brian Robinson, Don Lee, George Blair and, sadly, so many more…

And The Cairo Club? Well that was for a slightly older generation – the same crowd in many ways, and it was where that same group graduated, too, when rock music took over.

Great evenings hosted by George and Gracie Collier together with Joy, their daughter.

Joy is still around town, still remembers the old crowd and still laughs at the times shared and times remembered by so many.

Yes, that was Littlehampton back in the day: three dance halls, three cinemas, several coffee bars frequented in the main by young people, night clubs and youth clubs. Now we are fighting just to keep one part-time cinema open.

Ironic, isn’t it that town’s motto is ‘progress’?

Chris Adam Smith wanted to thank John Haselip and Valerie Gaitley, Bob’s widow, for their help with this feature.

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