Memory Lane: Remembering ‘Europe’s smallest concert hall’

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THE lady violin virtuoso from Germany was tucking into a lunch of Welsh Rarebit – with brown sauce – in a little café near Blackpool North railway station.

Her violin case was propped on the floor between her knees.

The host for her local concert visit, part-time impresario Bob Heelis, asked if he could place it on a chair for her.

“No, don’t touch,” said the violinist, Miriam Kramer. “It’s a Stradivarius.”

Ms Kramer was in town to give a concert for the North Fylde Music Circle’s concert, which celebrates its 40th anniversary today.

The Stradivarius episode is just one of 81-year-old Bob’s remarkable memories of the Music Circle, which he founded in the front room of his Cleveleys home.

Interviewed by local entertainment historian Barry Band, Bob recalls: “It was a large room, 20 ft square, but with much of the space taken by my Steinway grand piano, the small audience were almost within touching distance of the artists.”

Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that Bob brought classical music stars to appear in his front room for seven years in the 1970s.

An early visitor was pianist, critic and broadcaster Antony Hopkins, who described it as “Europe’s smallest concert hall”. It could seat up to 50 people on borrowed chairs.

Bob says: “I carried the chairs from the United Reformed Church, just round the corner, and had to return them at 9am on Sunday morning. The arrangement went on for nearly seven years.”

The artists were accommodated at the big semi in Thornton Gate that Bob and his late wife Pauline owned in the 1970s and 80s.

The Steinway and the home from home hospitality were the reasons why artists would come to Cleveleys for modest fees.

Bob says: “We had quite a drama when the Chilean pianist Roberto Bravo first came to the Music Circle in September 1973, to give concerts on Friday and Saturday nights.

He told us that he was a musical envoy for his president in Chile. But during the weekend, the Marxist leader Allende was killed in a military coup. “Roberto said ‘I can’t go home now. I would be arrested.’

“After the Saturday concert he told the audience: ‘I leave my heart in Cleveleys, and he returned several times in the 70s and 80s,” says Bob.

The story of the Music Circle began when Bob, who had played piano since he was 14 and worked as a manufacturer’s agent, achieved his ambition of owning a Steinway.

He said: “I used to look round showrooms in towns I visited. One day I went into a store in Bolton. There were about 100 pianos on view with a Steinway mounted on a central dias. But there was no price on it. I asked a salesman, merely out of interest, and he said he didn’t know. His boss had just reconditioned the piano and it was his pride and joy. I said: ‘Tell your boss I’ll give him £800 for it’ – and to my amazement the boss accepted. It was an absolute bargain.

“I thought I had better take piano lessons and asked Katrina George, the Blackpool concert pianist and teacher. Katrina loved the piano and asked if she could play a little concert at my home and record it as a demo for Deutsche Grammophon. That was in April, 1972.”

Within weeks, Bob was an amateur impresario, presenting ‘name’ artists in his front room, at first to friends and neighbours before the North Fylde Music Circle was formally set up in January, 1973.

Until 1978, five or six concerts a year were staged at Thornton Gate for members, plus one public concert at Fleetwood’s Marine Hall or the Poulton College of Education. Bob would meet the visiting artists at the railway station and buy them lunch before driving home to Cleveleys, where Pauline would welcome them, show them their accommodation, and plan the weekend.

“It was amazing. Pauline wasn’t a music fan. Her favourite instrument was the bagpipes,” laughs Bob, who is now honorary president of the Circle and lives in Laurel Avenue, Thornton

As the Music Circle grew, a move was made in 1978 to the Grundy Gallery, where Blackpool Council had just acquired a Steinway, and another move was made in 1996, to the Blackpool Sixth Form College when the Music Circle and the college bought a new £54,000 Steinway with funds from the National Lottery.

Tonight, the Circle celebrates 40 years with a concert by Malaysian pianist Dennis Lee – who was one of their first celebrity visitors in 1973 – at Blackpool Sixth Form College at 7.30pm. Email, or ring (01253) 349650 for details of future concerts.