1980

So what went wrong?



Dunstable was a small town compared to its neighbour Luton. Whilst Luton had no major entertainment venues, Dunstable had two - the California Ballroom and the Civic Hall, later renamed the Queensway Hall. Whilst the Cali was in the private ownership of the Green and Ilka families, the Civic was in the hands of the Local Authority. The Civic competed with the Cali for the major acts putting on such names as Ian Gillan, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, T-Rex and Blue Oyster Cult.

In an interview with the Dunstable Gazette in 1977, Mick Ilka, the entertainment manager said:

"The decision to close the Cali became a moral issue in the end. The overheads are staggering. Six years ago we were paying 2000 a year in rates, now we're paying 15,000. It's just not on, no-one can justify those sort of rates. We were not here to subsidise the Queensway Hall, which lost money on just about every rock group put on."

page from Mick Ilkas diary

 

The California was sold to to a businessman who reopened Didoz nite club and the Pool Bar just before Christmas 1977. He built a skateboard park in the old pool area and intended to use the ballroom for functions and private hires. Paul Gray remembers it housing pool tables at one point. Mick Rutter, the General Manager at the time says it was used for many things to ensure that it was constantly generating income. It housed roller discos, bands, pool, you name it, they tried.

Some local residents had been complaining about the Ballroom for years so Mick even started up a Residents' Night to allow their views to be heard and to see if something could be done. Attendance was almost non-existent. It should be remembered at this point that the houses opposite had been built after the California, replacing chalets of the Meadway Hostel, and residents had therefore been fully aware of the building when they moved in. Let's face it, it was big enough!

The final nail in the coffin depends on who you talk to and which newspapers you read. Certainly, the rates were still rising which was a huge financial burden but Mick Rutter asserted at the time that the Leisure Complex was doing well and numbers were increasing, with 200,000 visitors predicted for 1979. 

This does not sit well with the comments being made by local resident and Planning Committee Chairman, Councillor Diana Wickson,  who told the Dunstable Gazette: "The site has been a problem for a great many years. The place is not a going concern anymore - it is a nuisance. Youngsters do not go there in large numbers any more. They have found other places to go. The California is not a particularly pleasant place to look at. Houses on the site would be most welcome to all concerned."

A Luton company, Dallas Developments, applied for planning permission in March 1979 to build houses on the site. I am given to understand that, prior to the Town & County Planning Act of 1990, it was possible for anyone to apply for such permission, whether they owned the property or not.

Mick Rutter was hoping to propose a compromise; of building on the land to the south,  where the car park and skate park were situated, enabling the Ballroom to continue. He had accordingly notified the committee of his intention to speak. Arriving at the meeting  following a dental appointment, he discovered that  the application had already been granted.

According to the Gazette, Councillor Jim McAllister, in a letter, objected to the application on the grounds that any development would bring more disruption to the residents than the California had but, the paper states, Miss Wickson replied that any small inconvenience that future residents might suffer would be minimal compared to the extreme nuisance from the California at present. Cllr McAllister further stated that the new houses would be overlooked from people on the Downs and vulnerable to break-ins. Miss Wickson replied that residents already suffered from break-ins.

24 hours after the application was given the go-ahead the Council froze the plan for 12 months the car park sign while it decided what to do with the land. A spokesman said that it had not notified the Planning Committee of this because it could have altered their decision on allowing Dallas Developments to demolish the complex.

Thus the California Ballroom was no more. The last night party took place to a packed and tearful house on 31 December 1979. The bulldozers moved in within days.

animated Seymour click on Seymour for press cuttings

The buildings were demolished in January 1980 and the Council eventually agreed to the construction of a 'luxury housing estate' which it named Royce Close. There was no marker or any evidence that the California ever existed until April 2004, when the Council finally agreed to change the Royce Close road sign, 25 years after it closed. It is said that it is possible to pick out the house that now stands where the Cali was but given the size of the old place and the number of houses packed into the space, this is unlikely. But if anyone would like to give it a go..........

In a final bitter twist of fate, the Queensway Hall has also gone. It has made way for a supermarket leaving Dunstable with no purpose built entertainment venues.

Author Richard Walden is writing a book about the Queensway and would be very grateful for any information or photos, particularly of bands playing there. If you have anything at all, please either mail us, and we will pass it on, or click on his link on the Links page.