Images: (a) Johnny Chester and the Thunderbirds as pictured on the cover of the ‘Quite A Party’ album. (b) and (c) Advertisements from Go Set magazine courtesy of Philip Frazer.
Featured track: Johnny Chester (& The Thunderbirds)- Shakin’ All Over www.johnnychester.com
Narrator: You’ve arrived at 911 High St, Thornbury, the former home of the Arcadia Ballroom. In 1911 a no frills, open air cinema known as the Thornbury Picture Palace first opened here. The opening of the Thornbury Regent down the road put it out of business in 1926, at which point it became a full time dance hall known as the Thornbury Palais. Refitted to become a two storey building with an upstairs venue, by the 1950s it was known as the Arcadia Ballroom and became one of the first venues in Melbourne to regularly host rock n roll dances.
One of the earliest musicians from the Darebin area to release records and make the charts was Johnny Chester. His first singles were released in 1961 and, having headlined major shows and supported a number of overseas acts, by 1964 he was popular enough to support the Beatles on their national tour. In the same year he became the host of two TV shows, including Teen Scene, and later served as associate producer on the Kommotion TV program. From 1966 he served as the midnight to dawn radio announcer on 3UZ. The music veteran recalls his childhood in the Darebin area and his introduction to rock n roll via shows at the Arcadia.
Johnny Chester: I was born in North Fitzroy in 1941 and started my first year at school at North Fitzroy Primary School. At the end of 1947we moved to Yarra Avenue, Reservoir and I attended Tyler Street Primary School. And then near the end of 1949 my family and I moved to Stephen Street, West Preston where I started at Bell Primary School in third grade in 1950. There were lots of kids my age living in Stephen Street at that time and it was a pretty carefree existence with playing football and cricket in the street, the Preston baths and the Merri Creek not too far away, and a bunch of good kids at the school, several of whom I still keep in touch with and are close friends. I also played Aussie rules football, very badly, for the Police Boy’s footy club.
It was at Bell school that my interest in music really began as I had a burning desire at the time to be a drummer after seeing a Highland band at the Melbourne Zoo one Sunday afternoon. Bell school had a drumming group for us kids to march into class to after morning assembly and as soon as I could I joined to play kettle drum and I kept that when I went to Preston Tech in 1954.
I saw my first live jazz band, The Graham Bell All Stars, at the Plaza Theatre Northcote when I was going to Preston Tech and they featured a drum battle on stage between their regular drummer and, I think, the trumpet player. I had only ever heard that sort of drumming on the radio. Because I was a big fan of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich I was absolutely hooked.
By 1956 I was working in my dad’s garage in town and started going to local dances. One of the first dance halls I ever went to was the Arcadia Ballroom in High Street, Thornbury. The first band I saw there was Max Clausen’s Big Band with Shirlene Clancy, who was a very popular singer on Channel 7 in Melbourne at the time, and of course was led by Max Clausen on drums. I’d go there several times a week just to listen to the band.
It wasn’t until 1957 that I realised that rock and roll music was where my heart was. I was staying at the family shack in Rosebud and went to the local theatre to see the movie Blackboard Jungle, which of course featured the song ‘Rock Around The Clock’. Ron Moore, who ran the Arcadia, moved with the times though and pretty soon he had Melbourne rock n roll band The Autocrats with Tony Lee on lead guitar and Malcolm Arthur and his Knights playing. It was rock and roll and I would once again go just to listen to the bands. It was terrific.
By today’s standards the Arcadia was a pretty basic setup. It wasn’t licenced of course, they only sold soft drinks, but they had a bandstand, very basic lighting and a PA system. But it was the music that mattered, that’s all that mattered, and it would be packed several times a week. With the increasing crowds though came people from other areas and fights became more and more regular as the locals defended their territory, I suppose, and so a lot of kids weren’t allowed to go there, especially the younger teens. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was to help me when I started my own dance at the St Cecilia’s Hall in Kendall Street West Preston in 1959.
Narrator: The shows that Johnny and then band The Jaywoods played at St Cecelias rapidly grew in popularity with the result that the singer began putting on dances in the much larger Preston Townhall in 1960. With the support of DJ Stan Rofe, who regularly appeared as a compere, these shows were consistently packed out over the next few years with up to 1000 teens enjoying sets from the likes of Chester, Judy Cannon, Margie Mills, The Cherokees and Northcote boy Normie Rowe. In 1961 a live album, Quite A Party, was recorded at the venue featuring regular house band The Thunderbirds on instrumentals as well as backing vocalists Chester, Jillian Buckley and Noel Watson.
The popularity of the Preston Town Hall saw a number of Darebin venues open during the 1960s and competition between them was fierce. Some only lasted a few months whilst, With tastes and styles changing, others underwent makeovers and reappeared under new names. In the late 1960s the teen dances at the Preston Town Hall and rival Preston Circle were relabelled discotheques and sported fresh names such as The Marquis, Prince Alfred’s and Mindbender.
Through the mid to late 1960s Johnny Chester’s bookings were handled by Jimmy Chaplin’s Delfi Promotions. They were based at 96 High St, Northcote above a store where Gary Millington built and hired out Eminar P.A. systems as well as guitar and bass amplifiers. In 1966 as part of the Johnny Chester 4, in which he featured as both drummer and singer, Chester played a string of shows at the Discotheque Augogo, a dance held at the Olympic Twin Drive-In Theatre on Murray Rd, across from Northland Shopping Centre. Towards the end of the decade Chester made the progression to country rock, a style that would see him regularly play the Croxton Park Hotel and earn+ him more hits in the early 1970s with the band Jigsaw.
In 1911, began as an ‘open air’ on the present site, known as the “Thornbury Picture Palace”, then gradually roofed. Sold at auction as a ‘going concern’ in Jan 13. In March 1915, extensions to the theatre were completed with new facade & dress circle. Balcony built by raising the walls and ceiling, as well as a new bio-box – though the ‘open air’ section continued to be used during the alterations. By 1916, though a multi-purpose venue with a flat floor, it screened tri-weekly ‘silent’ films. In the early 1920s, it had a five piece orchestra for its screenings. Not used as a cinema from c.1926, when the new large Thornbury “Regent” opened in Aug. 1926. The venue then became a dance hall known as the “Thornbury Palais”. At some time later the balcony level was completely floored to become a two storey building, and in 2000s was a dance studio upstairs, having previously been a reception centre (possibly during 1980 and certainly in the 1990s) – this requires more research.
Competition between different venues was fierce and with tastes and styles changing various venues faded out or underwent makeovers, with the same venues often reappearing under new names. In the late 1960s the dances at the Preston Circle and Preston Town Hall were relabelled discotheques and sported fresh names such as The Marquis, Prince Alfred’s and Mindbender. New contenders in the form of the Attic, Maynards and Davy Jones Locker opened in Reservoir and a section of the Northcote Theatre, aka Italia Hall, became Big Julies on Sunday nights. Alongside acts such as the Ram Jam Big Band, Russell Morris, Doug Parkinson, The Loved Ones, The Groop and The Masters Apprentices Johnny Chester kept performing in the area, including a series of shows at the Discotheque Au-Go Go at the Olympic Twin Drive-In on Murray Rd in 1966 and 1967.
15 – Arcadia Ballroom (909 High St. Thornbury)