Gamble on Viva club comes off for Leye

Leye D Johns and the Viva Girls
Leye D Johns and the Viva Girls
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It is perhaps no surprise Leye D Johns, one of the staples of the Blackpool showbiz scene for the last two decades, ended up doing what he does.

He still recalls sitting in school in Barrow when a careers teacher came in.

“He went around the room asking all us children what we wanted to do when we grew up,” said Johns, whose middle name, in case you’re wondering, is Dudley.

“This was Barrow so almost everyone said ‘shipbuilder’, because we had Vicker’s, a huge shipbuilders yard, at the dock.

“Anyone who didn’t say shipbuilder went for painter and decorator.

“Then he got to me.”

Johns announced in a loud, clear voice he wanted to be a Butlins Redcoat.

“My classteacher, a fella called Mr Stretch, I’ll never forget him, butted in and said ‘typical Johns, you really are a stupid boy’. I haven’t actually been a Redcoat so I suppose technically he’s right, but I’ve done just about everything else that I’ve wanted to in entertainment.”

That much is true.

Johns left Barrow at the age of 18 for London. Within a year he’d moved to Tenerife to work at a pool bar owned by a family member. A year on from that he’d opened his own bar called Bubbles, which did a roaring trade.

Eight years later, he got a call asking him to headline a new entertainment venue in Blackpool and for the next 15 years was the star turn at the Alabama Showboat.

Then, after a couple of tours with Joe Longthorne and a residency at the Layton Institute, he risked his life’s savings to open Viva in the town centre.

Along with two friends, Martin Heywood and Phil Jeffries, he pumped all his cash into the Church Street venue.

Eighteen months on, after many long hours and lots of hard graft, they’re making a profit and have created a success story.

It’s not just good for them, but for Blackpool too.

The building Viva occupies was, for seven years, an empty shell – the old Mecca building.

Now it’s a thriving business attracting locals and tourists into the resort.

“We haven’t got here by luck though – we’ve really had to put the hours in,” sighs Johns.

“You wouldn’t believe the state this building was in when we took it over. It was like a bomb had gone off. There were bingo tickets everywhere, dabbers on the tables, half a lager here and there. They had just walked out and locked the door.

“It was a massive gamble for us. The three of us put everything into it. We sold our cars and remortgaged our houses. If it had gone pear-shaped we would have been in serious financial trouble.

“It took us 15 months to get it operational and no one believed we could do it.

“And now 18 months later we are like a benchmark, they look at us and say ‘well done’.”

Johns must have stuck out like a sore thumb in Barrow, that town of industry and toil.

He was, after all, as he puts it, “a small, fat, gay kid”. “It’s odd but for some reason I didn’t seem to fit in,” he smiles. “I think I was a bit too flamboyant.”

One of five children, his father was a captain in the Army who died when Johns was six. “I sometimes wonder what he’d have made of me,” he says. “I hope he’d be proud. He probably would. I think perceptions of gay people are very different now to what they were back in the 80s.” Being gay forms a central part of Leye’s act. Nowadays that’s not shocking. But when he first started out it was a big deal.

“This was way before Graham Norton or Alan Carr,” he said. “So when I walked on stage in Blackpool 20 years ago and said I’m gay, it was unheard of and people were shocked.

“At the time I think Julian Clary was the only other openly gay comedian. I am sure that had I been based in London I’d have had my own TV show.

“But I’m genuinely not bothered that it didn’t turn out like that.

“I’ve had a ball for the last two decades and I absolutely love Blackpool.”

As soon as he began performing in town, at the Alabama in 1994, Leye was a success.

“I’m really proud of what I did there,” he says. “I was always billed as outrageous, a camp comedian with lots of dressing up and messing around, which made me unique and original.

“I came out on roller skates, still do, did loads of costume numbers ... I’m fat but I’m not afraid to dress up in Lycra and look ridiculous, that’s my bag, and the audiences love it.”

He says he thought his “whole life had ended” when the Alabama said they didn’t want him any more.

But then came the idea of forming a new business, one he part owned himself, and Viva was born.

“Martin (Heywood) was the lights and sound man at the Alabama and was let go at the same time,” said Leye. “But we had such a good thing going there, a massive fan base, that we thought why not try something ourselves.

“It was so tough getting everything sorted.

“We were very hands on with all the work. We designed it, painted, screwed, unscrewed, moved ... we did it all ourselves from day one.

“It was day and night stuff in the weeks before, and then the night before we almost had a disaster.

“Martin was in the building at 3am, doing some rewiring, and the fire alarm went off.

“Talk about panic. We thought that was it, we were going up in smoke and all our efforts would be in vain. Turned out it was just a tramp on the prom who’d been smoking and it had come up through the vent and triggered the alarm.

“If ever there was a moment I was going to have a heart attack, that was it.”

The venue eventually opened in August 2012. This was crunchtime – if punters didn’t come through the door, the whole place could have gone out of business within weeks.

“But it was totally the opposite and by the start of September we knew it would be OK,” said Leye.

“In fact just how successful we were shocked the life out of us, absolutely took our breath away. And that success carried on to the Christmas season and things just got better and better.

“I suppose it was brave to open a new business in Blackpool at a time when, nationally, there was a recession on and people were struggling.

“But I think the fact I’d worked hard as a performer for 20 years and I knew I had this fanbase and a reputation as a good entertainer – that helped give us the confidence that we could make it a success.

“Now it is just a case of building on it.”

And that they are.

What started as one main room – Viva – has now been expanded to three rooms. The Round Room is used for a comedy night soon to go weekly, while there is now also a Festival Suite, which can be hired for weddings and conferences.

There are talks of further expansions and the possibility, somewhere much further down the line, of a hotel.

Leye might not have been born in Blackpool but it’s clear he is fiercely proud of the town and here to stay.

“I am a big advocate for not kicking Blackpool and I think it is very unfair when that happens,” he added.

“People sometimes have this mindset that they live here and it’s the worst place ever but it’s not.

“It is great and we should be proud of it. That’s half the problem – a lack of pride about where we live and I don’t understand why.

“The TV companies don’t help. When they come here they don’t focus on the success stories, they focus on the people lying drunk in the street. But there are way more success stories than people lying in the street.

“We have created 35 jobs here, we are providing live entertainment and bringing people into town.

“There are loads of other great places like Funny Girls and the Winter Gardens with Mamma Mia! The more good things in this town the better for everyone and we’re just pleased to be playing our part.”

*Viva has two nightly shows throughout winter, and six nights from May through till November, followed by Christmas party nights.

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