Barrowland Ballroom History

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Entertaining Generations

JENNIFER CUNNINGHAM tells the story of Glasgow's Barrowland Ballroom


There could only ever be one answer to the question: What do Donatella Versace, Runrig, and - here's the giveaway - Billy McGregor and the Gaybirds have in common? It is strutting their stuff at the Barrowland Ballroom, along with Dizzie Gillespie, Joe Loss, Henry Hall, Ray Fox, Johnny Dankworth, Lulu, and Simple Minds.

The story of the Barrowland is colourful, even by dance hall standards. Tradition has it that Margaret McIver, the extraordinary entrepreneur who, with her husband, James, built up the Barras market from one barrow selling fish and fruit, gave a dance for all her stallholders every Christmas. It was after finding the local St Mungo's Halls already booked one year that she decided to build her own. The original collection of outdoor hand-barrows was covered over in 1926 after Maggie's observation that the hawkers, having been out in all weather gathering their wares during the week, got the clothes washed and dried at the steamie and then hung them up at the weekend only to have it soaked by rain "so that it looked like washing hingin oot again".

By 1931, the market was completely enclosed, which allowed Mrs McIver to build a second floor, which was opened as a dancehall on Christmas Eve 1934 with a Barras night out which was to become an annual event, which, it's said, led to many a marriage between stall-holding families.

For the rest of the year the ballroom was let to Billy Blue and the Bluebirds, but the queues for the regular dances brought home to Maggie McIver that she had a money-making opportunity she was failing to exploit and she poached the Bluebirds' drummer, Billy McGregor, to form a new resident band. It became Billy McGregor and the Gaybirds and packed in the foxtrotters and tango-turners throughout the thirties with American servicemen racily introducing jiving and jitterbugging during the Second World War.

At that time the neon sign on the front of the ballroom was in the shape of a man pushing a barrow. It was a landmark which was to turn Barrowland into a footnote in history. Lord Haw Haw described it in such detail in his propaganda broadcasts claiming to bomb the Barras that it was removed. Nevertheless, the jiggin' continued. The particular attraction of the Barrowland Ballroom was the atmosphere created by Billy McGregor, whose band was not only top musicians but entertainers, providing stunts like the Indian rope trick as well as a patter to rival the barkers below. Immensely popular were the mystery boxes opened during spot dances when the dancer in the spotlight could win anything from a rotten egg to 500. Two of those boxes discovered in the most recent renovations were presented by manager Tom Joyes to the People's Palace, which has a Barrowland display.

The music suddenly stopped in 1958. The first sadness was the death of Maggie McIver, "Queen of the Barras" and by that time a millionaire, in June. In September her ballroom was gutted by fire. It was rebuilt by her family as a tribute and the business is now run by her grandson. The new ballroom was built to comply with new regulations and The Barrowland Ballroom, as proclaimed by the spectacular neon sign which remains a Glasgow icon nearly 40 years later, was re-opened with some splendour on Christmas Eve 1960.

Now it has re-invented itself as a rock concert venue; not just a venue, but number one in Britain according to a poll of bands a couple of years ago. It is a little difficult to believe that it tops not just the big-name stadiums but even the top-notch competition now offered in slightly more salubrious quarters of Glasgow by the Royal Concert Hall and the SECC. Yet, "Rocking Scotland into the 21st century" is Barrowland's new slogan.

Tom Joyes sums up its secret in two words: atmosphere and character. "Glasgow audiences," he says, "always provide a great atmosphere." That hardly gives anything away, but, according to Joyes, who has managed the complex of markets and hall for 15 years, there are top bands who prefer three nights at Barrowland to one night at the SECC. His explanation is that his hall is more laid-back. The stand-up hall is better than seating for rock concerts, with fans having access to the bar within the hall throughout the concert. Even with a capacity crowd of 1900, he claims that from the back of the hall you can see the whites of the performers' eyes.

That may not be quite what viewers want at a fashion show, but it does promise that all-important detail of tailoring and decoration can be fairly judged. Over the first weekend in September, fashion-EYE, The Herald's fund-raising initiative to support Concern Worldwide

in a programme of rebuilding schools in Kosovo, will be an entirely different kind of spectacular from the glory days of ballroom dancing and the new frenzy of rock, but will provide colour, light, music, and special effects to vie with Paris and Milan in a way that belongs only to Glasgow. The inlay in the lino at the entrance to the ballroom depicts a few bars of music. Guess which.

You will find a copy of the original article by Jennifer Cunningham at:

www.theherald.co.uk/living/archive/13-8-1999-21-36-27.html

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