The Fiesta’s star burned bright

Seventies chic: The Fiesta's interior was the height of style in the '70s
Seventies chic: The Fiesta's interior was the height of style in the '70s
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IN the end it was the phone network which put paid to it.

But for problems there, it seems certain that in the autumn of 1972 the almost unthinkable would have happened: Elvis Presley, it was claimed, was to play Sheffield.

Two brothers Jim and Keith Lipthorpe – owners of the city’s Fiesta nightclub – announced they had all but agreed terms with the king, causing headlines across the globe.

It would have been his only ever performance outside North America.

Receptionists at the venue confirmed to The Star they were taking regular calls from manager Colonel Tom Parker, while the club was so confident it put the Memphis legend on the front of its newsletter.

And, then, as the world waited with baited breath, bad news emerged. Negotiations had broken down. The Colonel’s demands had become too much.

His insistence 20 more phone lines be installed – meaning a reconfiguration of the entire building – could not be met.

“I realised it was becoming hopeless,” said Keith Lipthorpe.

And it was.

But when the dust settled, it left the rest of the country with one question: Just what exactly was this backwater South Yorkshire nightclub which had almost pulled off the show business coup of the century?

The answer to that, as a new book about the now legendary 1970s venue reveals, is many and varied.

The Fiesta was a self-declared slice of Las Vegas slapped down in Arundel Gate. It was officially “the biggest nightclub in Europe”. And it was described by Frankie Valli, who knew a thing or two about such matters, as “the finest venue I have ever worked in”.

A £500,000 purpose-built complex – now the Odeon cinema – it housed a 1,300-seat amphitheatre, a cavernous disco, several bars and a high-end restaurant best remembered for introducing the city to a new culinary experience called Chicken In A Basket.

Among the uber-stars who played there were The Beach Boys, The Jackson Five, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, BB King, Tommy Cooper, and Morecambe and Wise. Bobby Knutt did several residencies too.

“Safe to say, in an era when Sheffield nightlife was still dominated by working men’s clubs, it made an impression,” says Neil Anderson, author of No Siesta ’Til Club Fiesta. “It was brash and confident and glitzy.

“Back then northern towns just didn’t do that kind of venue. But when you look at who played there, you suddenly realise why they also wanted Elvis.”

Within two months of opening in the spring of 1970, some 15,000 Sheffielders had signed up to be members at the club. Its sheer size meant 150 staff – including the famously attractive Fiesta Fawn girls – were on the books.

Incredibly, the club even had its own monthly newspaper and a mini travel agent which arranged weekend cruises to nightlife hotspots like Amsterdam.

“It’s hard to fathom today just what an operation it was,” says Neil, who has previously released various books on Sheffield nightlife and late 20th century culture.

“It put us on the map. These stars were doing residencies so they were living in the city for the week.

“You suddenly had tales of people walking up Fargate and seeing the Four Tops doing some shopping.”

Tales of mischief are also legion – from Tommy Cooper drinking at the bar until 7am to Brian Wilson demanding a black cab driver take him on a night tour of the city.

But the venue was also an exercise in monumental excess and folly.

It stayed open just six years, had a workforce which regularly went on strike and ran up such mammoth bills it eventually ruined Jim and Keith Lipthorpe.

“One thing you can say is it didn’t do things by halves,” says Neil, who has spent a year interviewing staff, punters and stars for the tome.

“It was no-holds-barred stuff.”

In fact the Sheffield club wasn’t the first Fiesta.

Middlesbrough businessmen and brothers Jim and Keith had opened their first venue in Stockton-on-Tees in 1965.

Inspired by the mantra that if you build it people will come, the pair had overseen their Las Vegas-like venue rise, despite its unfashionable location, to become one of the most respected nightclubs in the country.

In many ways, the South Yorkshire venture was a bid to recreate that success in a larger metropolitan area.

“Funnily enough, Sheffield was never the preferred option, which was always a few miles north,” explains the late Jim Lipthorpe’s son Chris in the new book. “They were trying to get Leeds for years but couldn’t find anywhere. Then this prime location appeared.”

It was good timing.

The city authorities were keen to encourage new ventures and waved the proposals through.

It took two years to build, finally opening in Spring 1970 with a first night performance from The Shadows.

And, although, the early week saw poor audience numbers – well, it was The Shadows, after all – things soon picked up.

“For many, it was the week The Beach Boys played which really showed the venue’s full potential and got things on track,” says Neil.

And once on track, that’s where it stayed. For a while at least.

The stars queued to play there, while the audience often had just as many famous faces in it – with Brian Clough, Joe Cocker and even Tom Jones all regulars, says Neil.

And at its height the nightclub was so respected it was even used by the city council in several Sheffield promotional films. “The city had its first ever publicity officer around the time,” says Neil. “Peter Wigley loved the place. It was said the Fiesta was his second office.”

But the nightclub business is nothing if not fickle.

What the huge names and huger crowds hid was the crippling costs of running such a venue.

Jim and Keith, who is now 77 and lives back in Teesside, were constantly gambling to keep the club afloat – paying inflated prices for stars and hoping they’d attract a large enough audience to make it pay.

And, as the changing economic realities of the Seventies became apparent, such numbers couldn’t be guaranteed.

To add to the problems, in 1975 staff at the club went on strike for some 80 days, complaining about poor working conditions.

Notably Tony Christie had to cross a picket. Beer delivery men didn’t, however, and the club faced the unthinkable danger of running dry.

Meanwhile the Lipthorpe brothers had disastrously experimented with opening another even bigger venue in Cleveland. It had gone under within six months, sucking finances away from Sheffield’s Fiesta.

The run of bad luck meant on May 17, 1976, they suddenly announced their Norton Entertainments Limited company was being liquidated and the Fiesta nightclub was shutting.

The two men who had almost brought Elvis to Sheffield ruefully told The Star they had lost everything and had signed on the dole.

No Siesta ’Til Club Fiesta by Neil Anderson is released through ACM Retro on October 12 (£12.95). It can be pre-ordered from The Star shop now.

What happened next...

THE Fiesta reopened less than a year later under new management – but, apart from keeping the name and building, it was a very different beast.

The new-look club, launched on January 27 1977, showcased topless girls and karaoke and received short shrift for it.

Later it was taken on by Peter Miller who promised big names, good food and cheap booze once more.

But it was doomed to fail.

With mounting debts, he shut the club in April 1980 and fled the country owing creditors more than £500,000. The Fiesta never reopened as a nightclub.

The Lipthorpe brothers, meanwhile, moved on. Both Jim and Keith returned to the entertainments business in the Teeside area. Jim passed away in 2007. Keith, aged 77, is now retired and living in Teeside.

Thoughts of the Fawns

THE Fiesta was renowned not just for its chicken in a basket but also for the super-attractive waitresses who brought it over.

They were called the Fiesta Fawns. And they remember the stars...

Christine Ward: “When Stevie Wonder came we had to bring in extra doormen to stand around the stage. The only problem was by the end of it even the doormen were dancing on tables.”

Janice Whitaker: “On my first night I remember sitting in the staff room. There were some American blokes I was chatting too. I said: ‘Sorry, I need to on duty now’, And one of them said: ‘So do we’. I found out later it was Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.”

Marie Garnett: “One night after I got off work I was sitting at the bar and Tommy Cooper was drinking there. He was so funny. He made me sit wearing his hat. He got so drunk. It was a good night.”

Yvonne Shaw: “It was the best job in the world. All I will say is I remember Freddie Starr being far naughtier off stage than he was on.”