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Decades of diamonds, debauchery and dancing: an oral history of the Rivoli Ballroom

The mighty venue has hosted thousands of punters since opening in 1913. Here, we look back on its glittering history

A collage of people at the rivoli ballroom
Image: Time Out / Jamie Inglis
Image: Time Out / Jamie Inglis
Alex Sims
Written by
Alex Sims

What do Tina Turner, The White Stripes and a tuxedo-wearing donkey have in common? They’ve all graced the glossy dance floor of the Rivoli Ballroom in south east London. 

Sat on traffic-clogged Brockley Road, you could easily pass its unassuming exterior without a second glance. Step inside, however, and it’s hard not to take a sharp intake of breath at its crimson velour walls and vast, barrel-vaulted gold ceiling, hung with rows of Austrian crystal chandeliers and red balloon-like Chinese lanterns. Walking through the foyer is like nestling into a velvet-lined jewellery box. The whole place shimmers with the promise of glamorous nights that won’t ever be forgotten. 

Before Crofton Park was littered with wine bars and tapas joints, the main reason people made the long journey south of the river was to dance in London’s last intact 1950’s ballroom. Its immaculate interior has attracted plenty of attention, with music videos including Elton John’s ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ and Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ filmed on site. There have been special gigs played there by Florence and the Machine, The White Stripes and Kings of Leon, and it’s a regular Hollywood film location, most recently for the soon-to-be-released ‘Wonka’.

Outside of the rivoli ballroom
Photograph: UrbanImages / Alamy

Locals, like me, are used to the sight of film trucks lining the residential streets around the place – in 2014 the area was buzzing with rumours that Scarlett Johansson had been spotted in Crofton Park Co-op while filming ‘The Avengers’. We can pop by for film screenings, discos and gigs, Goldsmiths College has student balls there and local groups hold community meetings in the gilded surroundings. At Christmas, cards painted with scenes of the ballroom on New Year’s Eve pop up in the shops. It’s the kind of place you could walk into once and end up working behind the bar for 30 years. Its unwavering, timeless presence is a local touchstone. 

From Hollywood film stars and famous ballroom dancers to gender-bending club nights and exquisitely dressed punters, this is the story behind a place that really needs to be seen to be believed. 

A family affair

The Rivoli Ballroom has worn many different guises over its history, but its current owners, Bill Mannix and his wife Jeanie, are to thank for preserving it 

Jayne Williams (granddaughter of Bill and Jeanie Mannix): ‘I was always told the Rivoli was built in 1913 as a music hall. Then it was turned into a cinema for a little while, called the Crofton Park Picture Palace. When I was a child we still had the projection equipment and lights. In the 1950s it was turned into a ballroom. My grandfather collected antiques with the person who owned it before him. He wanted to retire and my grandparents really loved the business, so they took it over in the 80’s. My grandfather’s 85 now and my grandma is 81 and they still oversee everything with myself, my uncle and my mum.’

Andrew (bar manager): ‘Some friends invited me to go line dancing at the Rivoli and I got chatting to Bill who asked me if I wanted to do some bar work. That was about 29 years ago when Jayne was four or five. Bill is very sentimental, he doesn’t like modern technology, he doesn’t like to change things. He keeps going because he loves the place. It’s his baby, his whole life.’

He keeps going because he loves the place – it’s his baby, his whole life

Jayne: ‘When I first started working here I emptied ashtrays, did the cloakroom, helped with cleaning and washing the glasses. When I was old enough I worked behind the bar. I like making sure everything works seamlessly. For years we had developers interested in buying the building. Then English Heritage listed it, so it’s always going to be a ballroom. Deep down I know my grandfather wouldn’t have sold it. It’s a part of him. It’s all we’ve ever known as a family.’ 

Alex L (member of the Rivoli’s events team): ‘There’s a joke that the Rivoli is like Hotel California, once you’re in you can’t leave. Everyone who works here has their daytime lives and then their Rivoli lives.’  

Jayne: ‘The people who work here aren’t staff, they’re family. Lots of people who used to work here have sadly passed and they just loved the place. They had old skills you don’t find anymore, like Derek who was a sign writer and did all our posters by hand. We had a woman on the door called Doris. She was in her eighties and when I was little she told me stories about when she was evacuated in the war and the mischief she got up to. She would drink her gin and tonic and take her teeth out and work on chaotic club nights. The people here have seen me grow up. It’s home.’

Chandeliers and crystals

In 2008, English Heritage listed the Rivoli for its ‘highly unusual’, ‘luxuriant, exotic and deeply theatrical’ interior. It has been a team effort to repair and restore the huge building’s ruby red decor 

Jayne: ‘My Nan is very artistic and my grandfather has the overall vision. So as a team, they’ve taken care of the place and repaired things using authentic 50’s materials.’

The Rivoli ceiling
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Alex: ‘In 2016 I was in between jobs and a friend of mine had a spare ticket for a cinema night at the Rivoli. On the way out I met Bill and he got me a shift at the bar. One day he said, ‘‘You’re a bit arty aren't you? Can you do my chandeliers?’’ So I started cleaning and restoring the chandeliers. All the walls and ceilings of the ballroom are covered in tiny scarlet crystals, which are all slightly different. Bill realised some were missing, so I scavenged online to find ones similar to the originals and went around with a glue gun fixing them on. It took a year to do the whole ballroom. I still have leftover loose crystals knocking about in my house.’

Dancing every night of the week 

In 1959, a local businessman called Leonard Tomlin transformed the Rivoli from a cinema into the plush ballroom it is today. Described as a ‘dancing devotee’ in a report by English Heritage, he added a Canadian maple sprung dance floor which has seen many light feet over the years

Jayne: ‘Until ten years ago we used to have a lot of ballroom dances and tea dances with cream cakes and old school coffee cups. A lady called May, who was a real character, would serve all the teas and coffees.’ 

Anton du Beke (ballroom dancer and Strictly Come Dancing judge): ‘The Rivoli was one of the first venues I competed in. It’s one of the first places I met Len Goodman, who judged the Sunday competitions they had. I won my very first championship at the Rivoli, the English Championship. That’s a moment I remember in my career. They were lovely competitions with great costumes. The World Champions turned up once and it was terribly exciting: it was the first time I’d ever seen a World Champion couple dance and that was really inspirational. She seemed to be more beautiful than any of the girls in the room and he seemed to be more dashing than any of the other chaps. It was all ever so slightly more magnificent. I still think of those competitions because it’s your grounding, it’s where you start.’ 

May, the tea lady
Image: Jayne WilliamsMay, the tea lady

Andrew: ‘There used to be dancing every night of the week. On Monday nights we used to do ballroom lessons. On Tuesdays it was social dancing. Wednesday night was always country and Western, line dancing. Thursday it was social dancing and on Friday it was singles nights. My favourite night was the first Saturday of every month when they did gay ballroom with same sex partners. People would come from Paris, Ukraine, Poland, America, everywhere, to dance here.’

Anton: My old teacher did lessons out of the Rivoli. I’d have a lesson on Thursday evening at 7 o’clock, then I'd stay and practice. At 10.36, I’d go across the road to Crofton Park train station and get the train to Bat and Ball station in Sevenoaks where I lived.’

Jayne: A lot of local people will tell me they met their partner at a dance at the ballroom and now they have kids, grandkids and great grandkids. It's like having a little story in their history.’

Anton:The Rivoli is a venue that deserves people dancing in it. There are very few actual ballrooms left in the country, so it’s important we have more fabulous nights there.’ 

‘Night of a Thousand Stars’

In later years, tea dances and competitions made way for sequins, feather boas, knife-wielding cabaret acts, fruit flinging compares and raucous DJs as the Rivoli became the regular home for a London clubland institution that went on to shape the way we partied: Club Montepulciano. 

Nick Hollywood (DJ & founder of Club Montepulciano): ‘My business partner Heilco van der Ploeg started Club Montepulciano. After he started it, he put out an advert for a band. I joined his band then very quickly became part of the whole thing. We started at The Water Rats in Kings Cross before moving to the Rivoli in 1994. We did the night every month until 2002 and it sold out every time.’ 

A couple dancing
Photograph: Club Montepulciano

Jayne: ‘We called it Club M, because Club Montepulciano is a tongue twister, especially when you're drunk.’ 

Nick: ‘At the time everyone was taking ecstasy and all the big club nights were banging raves, whereas our thing was a parody of a Rat Pack style event, which was very countercultural at the time. The event matched the venue completely. We put on lounge music and weird cabaret acts. ‘Time Out’ said we were one of the 99 things you had to do to be able to call yourself a real Londoner. 

‘The atmosphere was extraordinary. Every night had a different theme. There was ‘Swinging Safari’, ‘Night of a Thousand Stars’, ‘Night of a Thousand Vampires’ for Halloween – the information on the flyer was written in reverse so you had to hold it up to a mirror to read it –  and ‘Night of a Thousand Bunnies’, a Playboy-style cabaret for Easter. I had the idea to do a New Year’s Eve night but in the middle of summer, so you could really appreciate it. So in August we did a countdown to midnight with a video of the clock going and sang Auld Lang Syne.’ 

Jayne: ‘It was a really funky, cabaret-esque style with show girls and dancing competitions. Because I was little, I’d hand the winner their bouquet.’

A man doing gymnastics
Photograph: Club Montepulciano

Nick: ‘There was an 11-piece house band that would come on in matching suits. There was the ‘chopping ceremony’ where we would have a guest piece of fruit which Helico would chop with a big sword to start the night. We also found a big thick book listing all these Northern working men’s club’s acts and would bring them down to London. There were big cats, performing parrots, and knife throwers. They were used to playing small clubs and they’d come to London to find a thousand very smartly dressed Londoners in this ballroom going completely mental. 

‘We also had the pick of the cabaret circuit at the time. Mackenzie Crook used to do a Bob Monkhouse-style game show host act called Charlie Cheese. We had Matt Lucas and David Walliams. I auditioned the League of Gentlemen in my one-bedroom flat in Southwark. It was really awkward. I sat on the sofa and they performed this routine that involved mime and a tightrope and we put them on. We tried to make each of the nights really special and unique.’ 

Andrew: ‘It was really special. It didn’t matter whether you were straight, gay, bisexual or trans, nobody judged you. Some of the women would dress as men, some of the men would dress up as women.’

Flyers of the club
Image: Club Montepulciano

Nick: ‘People really dressed up so we started photographing the guests and we would pick someone to put on the next month’s flyer. That stoked the fire of people getting even more dressed up. Someone once made a bodice out of playing cards for a Las Vegas night. People would just look incredible.’ 

Jayne: There’d be feathers everywhere the next day. We used to have to put carpet down on the floors, because it was so busy we didn't want them getting ruined.’ 

Nick: ‘It was a real mishmash of people because it was so friendly and funny. People would feel comfortable bringing their mum or their dad, so you would get a mix up of generations. It was very unthreatening, very inclusive and we totally welcomed any sexual orientation whatsoever.’ 

We used to get through 100 bottles of champagne on their nights – the atmosphere was so electrifying

Andrew: ‘We used to get through 100 bottles of champagne on their nights. The atmosphere was so electrifying.’

Nick: ‘It felt countercultural and underground at the beginning. When we started no one knew what burlesque was. We would literally find strippers to perform and have to explain it’s not about getting the clothes off, but how you do it and please could you do it with this music. Over the years cabaret culture became bigger and we had a part to play in that. We took Club M to Glastonbury one year and it was a bit of a struggle. A friend of mine was inspired to create Lost Vagueness after visiting our night, which they also took to Glastonbury and did it better than us. Lost Vagueness became Shangri-La which is still going now. So all the little connections seed through.’

“The best club I’ve been to in my life” 

Club M may be no more, but the Rivoli’s never stopped putting on parties. From high-kicking Northern Soul nights, jive nights with huge live bands, raucous pop-up cinemas and old-school disco dancing, people still come from across London and beyond to spend their weekends at the ballroom.

Jayne: ‘I run a lot of the events. I love film and always wanted to do a pop-up cinema as a homage to what the ballroom had been in the past. Someone locally said they wanted Northern Soul, and that’s really taken off, and we do some boogie nights and our Rouges Disco nights.’ 

Andrew: ‘We’ve even done the occasional wake. There was a woman who was dying of cancer. She had been coming here for years and wanted to see her friends enjoying themselves and not being sad. They brought her in on a hospital bed and it was so emotional.’

Northern Soul night
Image: Jayne WilliamsNorthern Soul night

Alex: ‘I love the disco nights. Everyone dresses up and really makes an effort. There are a group of guys who always turn up in seventies platform boots.’  

Martin (Rogues Disco regular): ‘I grew up in a children’s home. It wasn’t brilliant because I was the only Black person and later on they had to close it down because people had been molested there. Then I moved to London in the seventies and my whole life changed. I got into dancing and I used to go clubbing all over London, so I know the London circuit and I know a good club. The Rivoli is the best club I’ve ever been to in my life. I first came to Rivoli six years ago after I found it online. From day one it was amazing and I’ve been coming back every month since then.’ 

Alex: ‘We love Martin. He comes all the way from Camden for the disco night and we always reserve the same table for him.’ 

Martin: ‘As soon as you walk into the Rivoli, the energy and the atmosphere just hits you. It’s stunning. It makes you happy. You just want to dance. The place has a power over you, it’s mesmerising. I’m 65 and sometimes I have to walk with a stick, but when I’m at the Rivoli, I cast it aside. If I go there feeling down, I have a dance and wham – I get my mojo back. I usually wear my cream suit, cream hat, cream shirt and a cream tie. It makes me look younger and I’ll do anything to look younger.’ 

Rivoli Ballroom bar
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Jayne: ‘It’s so non-judgmental there. Our disco nights have generations of people. Mums come with their mums and their daughters. It’s lovely to see groups in their mid twenties and people in their mid fifties dancing together.’ 

Martin: ‘There’s a real positivity at the Rivoli, everybody is on their feet no matter how old they are. I go to some clubs and I feel a bit out of place but at Rivoli I feel at home, I can dress how I want and be accepted.’

Donkey nappies and sex dungeon torture rooms

You may recognise the Rivoli from your favourite Netflix show. Given its unique and unusual interior, it’s been the set for hundreds of films, TV shows, commercials, music videos and photoshoots for decades – most notably for 2015’s ‘Legend’ starring Tom Hardy.

Pat Karam (location manager, ‘Legend’):  ‘If a location manager doesn’t know the Rivoli they must be moronic. It’s one of the most distinctive filming locations in London without a doubt. It’s an extraordinary place, which is why it’s so popular – especially for period films like ‘Legend’ set in the sixties. In the script, The Rivoli was a location called Esmeralda’s Barn that was a club the Kray twins owned, which was actually in Knightsbridge. We set up the week before filming started and built a free standing bar in the middle of the dance floor. There’s a very famous fight sequence between the two Kray twins there which was quite problematic to shoot because the two characters are both played by Tom Hardy.’ 

If a location manager doesn’t know the Rivoli, they must be moronic

Jayne: ‘We didn’t believe them when they said they were going to bring a donkey in a tuxedo on set. It was in the yard eating its food, which was quite bizarre.’

Pat: ‘There was a donkey in one of the scenes. I remember Bill being a bit grumpy about the donkey, so there would have been a specialist film animal handler and there were lots of very detailed discussions about things like donkey nappies so it wouldn’t ruin the floor.’

Jayne: ‘My grandfather did bring in a lot of filming here as it was at a time when a lot of places in London were being developed, which limited the authentic buildings that could be used for filming. ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’ was pretty epic, they were here for two weeks filming. They literally hired all of Brockley for the shoot and there were cookie and cake vans down the road. We’ve also done lots of music videos. S Club 7’s ‘Don’t Stop Moving’ was here. They had a massive crane to do the down shots and it hit one of the chandeliers and it fell down, just missing S Club 7. Once the ballroom was even turned into a torture dungeon sex room for a shoot.’ 

Northern Soul night
Image: S Club 7 / Universal Music Group

Pat: ‘I’ve also filmed an ITV drama there called ‘Colditz’ set in the 1940s and I did the camera test for ‘Cats’ there. It’s a pretty remarkable place and Bill is a pretty remarkable guy. It’s one of London’s best interiors. It’s harder and harder to do period things in London, because like all cities, it changes a lot and buildings will change use. So as time goes on it’s difficult to find places like the Rivoli which, the first time you see it, it’s mind-blowing.’ 

Arguing with Brad Pitt

The Rivoli’s illustrious interiors have attracted some equally illustrious guests, with everyone from Hollywood film stars to ex Spice Girls stepping foot into this glitzy little corner of south east London. Whether or not they’ll be recognised is a different matter. 

Andrew: ‘I have an autograph book of all the people who have been to the Rivoli that I meet. When Justin Lee Collins filmed ‘Good Times Live’ from the Rivoli he had lots of different guests on. I met Jason Donovan, Emma Bunton and Jason Mansford. Rihanna was there once so I asked if I could have an autograph: it was a big scribble like a spider had crawled across the page. And James Nesbitt had his 40th birthday party here.’

Jayne: ‘My grandfather actually had a go at Brad Pitt without realising. It was in 2000 when they were filming ‘Spy Game’. They closed one of the bars for Brad Pitt and no one else was allowed to go in. So when my grandfather went down and saw a man in there, he said: ‘‘What are you doing in here? You’re not meant to be in here’’. He didn’t realise who it was for a while and then they ended up having a fun conversation.’ 

The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Image: DisneyThe Avengers: Age of Ultron

Andrew: ‘Lots of the celebrities are really down to earth. Paloma Faith was wonderful. She was in her dressing room and I asked if I could get her a drink. She said, ‘‘just a very small glass of wine or I’ll get tipsy’’. She had one mouthful and got very giggly. She signed my autograph book ‘to the world’s best barman’. I’ve met Kylie Minogue here a couple of times. The second time I told her she looked tired while she was walking around and she said, “I am”. It was only two or three weeks later that the news about her breast cancer came out.’

A big, beautiful machine 

While its immaculate interior may have stayed exactly the same for decades, the Rivoli is beginning to enter a new era

Andrew: ‘I feel very proud to work here. Things have changed since the days of Doris and May and the tea dances, but it’s never lost its atmosphere.’ 

Jayne: ‘Things are shifting and it’s my generation that are creating history for the place now.’ 

Alex: ‘The place gets under your skin. If I need to, in 20 years time I’ll still be sticking crystals on the wall.’

It’s a massive, beautiful machine that we’ve got to keep feeding

Andrew: ‘I hope it continues forever. As long as I've got my health I will keep working here. I’ll be the oldest barman in England.’

Jayne: ‘You need to keep the place running as a functional business. It’s a massive, beautiful machine that we’ve got to keep feeding. I do worry about the upkeep of the place, which is expensive and time consuming. I worry about my grandparents not being around in the future. But we can only focus on the here and now and if we do that hopefully the Rivoli will be here for a long time with loads more memories.’

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