Retro: Did El Mambo deserve its bad reputation?

Cambridge Arcade (from Pinstone to Norfolk Street)
10th June 1961
Cambridge Arcade (from Pinstone to Norfolk Street) 10th June 1961
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‘‘Shall we go for a coffee?” must be one of today’s most common refrains, and it seems that everywhere we look there is a branch of Costa, Starbucks or Caffè Nero. All very elegant and respectable.

However in the early 1950s coffee bars were looked upon as ‘dens of in iniquity’ by our parents when some appeared in the centre of Sheffield, although by the 1960s they were just considered part of the ‘swinging 60s’

The first coffee bar in London’s Soho called Moka, was opened in 1953 by the film star Gina Lollobrigida, and from then on as they snowballed, young people had somewhere to hang out and socialise.

With London becoming the world’s hippest city within a decade, they attracted young people from music, fashion, film, photography and the criminal underworld, even though they were completely unlicensed. Avant garde London had arrived and it was drinking coffee. And it was a great way to get out of the grey air of post war depression that was still around.

In Britain then, tea was very much still the most popular drink, with tea urns standing side by side with the newly innovative Gaggia expresso coffee makers, but not for long when it became ‘cool’ to drink coffee and only coffee.

After all, it was something different as the only coffee that our parents ever drank was the strangely tasting Camp Coffee which was packaged in a bottle showing a Gordon Highlander soldier being served a cup of coffee on a tray by a Sikh soldier and with the slogan ‘Ready, aye, ready!’

The label was changed in the early 2000s, with the tray removed to erase the imperialist connotations of the Raj and the Sikh as servant, and to show him as an equal.

The new coffee bars were stylish and colourful with glass counters, red vinyl stools, new Pyrex see-through cups and saucers and large shiny jukeboxes emitting exciting sounds like Elvis Presley and That’s All Right, Mama, Bill Haley with Rock Around the Clock and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers with Why do fools fall in love?

In fact it was around the time of the first coffee bars that the term ‘teenagers’ was first coined.

One of the most popular and famous coffee bars in London for those to see and be seen was the 2i’s in Compton Street, Soho. A failing coffee bar at first until skiffle hit Britain, it soon became the place where talent spotters like Larry Parnes and Jack Good first approached would-be stars like Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and Billy Fury, with different names in those days of course.

In fact ‘Svengali’ Larry Parnes had so many young stars on his books that his company was known as the Larry Parnes Stable.

Sheffield may have been a bit slow to catch on to the coffee bar scene but when it did we embraced it with open arms.

One of my early memories from the 1950s is sitting in Marsden’s Teenage Tavern on Pinstone Street.

The coffee bar was downstairs. It was a place of great innocence but for me one of great embarrassment when I looked up and saw my parents descending the stairs coming to look what I was up to. Which actually wasn’t much except drink coffee.

Had it been the El Mambo on Norfolk Street I might have been able to understand it.

My father told me that he knew what happened to girls who frequented the place, and to be quite honest I’m still waiting to find out.

The El Mambo probably didn’t deserve its bad reputation, although possibly frequented by the cities more colourful inhabitants.

It was really just a place for teenagers to meet up.

It was situated just at the back of the beautiful Cambridge Arcade where many young men looked in the window of Barney Goodman’s tailors and wished they could afford one of his stylish suits, but had to settle for Colvin’s or Winston’s, and which piece of architecture, like the Empire Theatre and Palace Cinema, Union Street, fell victim to early demolition plans.

The El Mambo had both an early expresso machine, and what was reputed to be the first jukebox in the UK which had been imported from America.

The coffee bar was situated in two cellars, decorated in a Heaven or Hell theme. It cost 9d to go downstairs and you could redeem the money against a coffee or soft drink.

Many of the male clientele wore drainpipe trousers, drape coats, beetle crusher shoes and sported DA hairstyles, with the ladies ‘dressed to kill’ in smart ‘frocks’, or pencil skirts, stockings, high-heeled shoes and beehive hairdos.

Besides the teddy boys there were reputed to be ladies of the night, criminals and immigrants. I’m not sure who was supposed to be most disreputable.

Having said that it was the haunt of young and very respectable Arab men who had been recruited from Aden to work in the Sheffield steelworks and who found it a safe and unprejudiced place to meet.

However, many 1950s Sheffielders were most disapproving of the concept of white women mixing with foreigners, especially those with dark skins, but two of my friends met their Arab partners there with one relationship lasting more than 50 years.

After an article about the El Mambo and its owner appeared in the News of the World the place was put out of bounds for the boys of Sheffield Central Technical College.

However, on one occasion, singer Jim Dale who was appearing at the Empire Theatre which was very near to the El Mambo and who popped in from time to time, gave an impromptu concert.

That was at a time when it cost 9d a seat in the ‘gods’ at the Empire.

It seems that the front of the El Mambo was blown off sometime during the early 1960s and it never reopened and a little bit of Sheffield history disappeared.