Twelve months ago this week, The Spa Pavilion re-opened to the sound of The Stars from The Commitments. This week the band are back to help The Spa celebrate their first birthday under new management. Back then we spoke to Ken McClusky of The Commitments so this time we had a chat with Ray Anderson, the man who leads the team behind the Spa’s revival.
What drew you to revive the Spa?
A couple of things really, I wasn’t really doing much at the time. I’d finished with one business and looking for something else to do, whether I did the right thing or not I don’t know because I was working on a couple of movie projects and a TV sitcom. I sometimes think I was wrong to shelve those projects and come and do the Spa.
I have always worked in media, in broadcasting, radio, television and film anyway – in a way this is just an extension of entertainment to me. I had been to the Spa many times in the past, I had often walked along Felixstowe seafront and admired the building, even come in for lunch on a couple of occasions. To see the building just boarded up seemed crazy to me. So I had a word with my business partner, Gary Wright and we spent about eighteen months talking to the local council. We had a lot of time to work through a cash flow forecast and a business plan, nothing was rushed, we had plenty of time to do due diligence and all of that. We weren’t quite happy with the terms and I remember saying to Gary on one occasion that if we couldn’t get it on our terms we would let it go. Luckily the council did agree, and the rest is history as they say.
But taking on a seaside theatre is a challenge, especially in a weather dependent country like ours.
You are absolutely right, when you look around the country you see theatres in places like Margate struggling, Clacton struggling, you can see that they are having a difficult time. What we had to partly do was to re-write the way theatres are run. At the moment we’ve got three people doing what would have been done by five in the old theatre – we’ve all had to double up with what we are doing. The good thing about Gary & I as a team is that we have had a lot of experience in marketing and advertising, we have a good understanding about how it all works. Between us we were able to come up with some funding. I know we only paid a pound for the theatre but what people don’t realise is that on the same day as I buying it for a pound I wrote out a cheque for £10,000 for the insurance and public liability costs.
After we acquired the Spa we had a lot of people come and talk to us that used to work here and we managed to employ the original stage manager here, Roger Miller who has been here for over forty years. To be honest with you, someone who knows the building and the industry and the business has been a great asset to keep on. We’ve had some of the original front of house staff who wanted to return and we’ve made that possible for them. A year down the line we give fairly regular employment to about thirty people across the week.
I think that has done good for the local economy. But when we look at our database of customers we have people coming from Ipswich, Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds and Colchester. What I love to hear are stories of people coming down here, staying overnight in a hotel, having a meal – not necessarily in our restaurant, but maybe others in the town, and them coming to see a show. That’s bringing people to into the town, spending their money, although we are getting our little slice of the cake, I’m hoping other people in the town are benefiting as well.
Before you re-opened, this end of the sea front was pretty well dead, it is literally a dead end.
Yes it was, absolutely. And if we look at what we’ve got scheduled for December this year with the shows and the bookings we should bring about 15,000 people into this theatre in the month of December alone.
And of course you have the good old Christmas stalwart, the Panto: Jack and The Beanstalk put on by the Dennis Lowe Company.
Indeed, Susie has kept the flag flying, I think the Dennis Lowe Company’s relationship with the Spa goes back something like forty years. The Panto is very professional and very well attended. And of course the people who bring children to the panto are the ones who were brought by their parents or grandparents, it is very much a family tradition to go to the Felixstowe Panto.
At the other end of the scale from youngsters and Panto you have this revival of music hall variety with the Good Old Music Hall Days.
Yes, we find that with those shows we get busses that bring ten, twelve even twenty from a care home. The come and have lunch, see a fantastic show. And what is nice is that the show has memories for them, these are the shows and the songs that they grew up with in the forties and fifties. That is good for the mind, people who might perhaps be suffering from dementia to have something that jogs their memory of times gone by with their parents or their children is a fantastic thing.
I love that nostalgia. I have some 8mm film taken in Felixstowe fifty years ago of my grandparents, up at the amusements where the waterfall is there, and that hasn’t changed in fifty years.
As well as all of that you also have 10cc here.
Yes, 10cc is sold out. I knew that one would be a sell out, it has cost us a lot of money to get them here but we knew that we would do well. The other show that has done very well is The Osmonds on which is really an Andy Williams tribute but it stars the Osmonds, that one is on 16th December, and not yet sold out but I expect it will be.
If money were no object, who would you like to see grace the stage of the Spa?
(Laughs) Living or dead?
Well, dead might present some logistical challenges!
Yes, but unfortunately most of my heroes are dead! I remember being in Vega once, Frank Sinatra was on the bill and I wanted to see him but it was announced that he couldn’t appear that night because he had a sore throat or something. I would have loved to have seen him. The other people I would love to have been able to see here were people like Tommy Cooper and Frankie Howard. I was a great fan of all of those traditional comedians.
You have this wonderful view of the north sea from where we sit, whats the best thing apart from the view of coming to work here?
The view changes, the sea can be rough, the sea can be smooth, the sun can be shining, it can be foggy, misty, raining whatever. What I do like about coming here, sitting here, although you can’t really see it now, there is not many occasions when you don’t see one of these large container ships coming in. I think we have one of the most amazing horizons in the East of England, the port handles some of the biggest ships in the world, there are cruise ships coming in or a warship that occasionally comes in – it is wonderful, I could sit here for hours.
How have the people of Felixstowe reacted to the revival of the Spa?
Mainly, I’d say 99% very, very positive. I think there were some people who maybe wanted to get the Spa and have an opportunity, but it didn’t come to fruition and I think they’ve been vocal and caused some bad feelings. But what I remember from opening the box office on the first day, I was the only person here so I had to be in the box office. I though maybe a couple of people might come in but we had a steady stream of people on our first day and everybody was just saying how wonderful it was to know that this lovely building was going to be re-opened again and they could book shows and bring their family. We even had some people, it was very sweet, saying we don’t like this show but we want to come and support you.
There is nothing to beat being in the room for a performance, every one is different. You are seeing a unique performance every time – there is nothing to beat live entertainment.
I couldn’t agree with you more. Live entertainment is what Grapevine is all about. To celebrate your first birthday you have The Stars From The Commitments on Saturday 12th November who are finishing their current UK tour that night – that should be a good night.
Absolutely, they are an amazing band anyway, they do some amazing music and they have some great history and heritage.
What are the plans for the future?
Well, we can’t run before we walk, it has been a very steady climb. When we opened we had virtually no contacts with agents and other that can bring us shows but now we are in contact with some of the best agents who can bring us shows. Behind the scenes there is a lot of politics, some shows are exclusive to some theatre groups that own the production. But what has helped us is that when I’ve negotiated with some of the agents or artists I have tried to get just a little bit extra for the theatre, maybe only an extra 5 or 10%. Now that there is no subsidy on the building, there was a council subsidy of about £240,000 which has just disapeard and made our job so much more difficult. The previous operators had it and said they couldn’t operate without it but we have proved that we can run without it, but it is very tight. So people like Jimmy Carr and Joe Pasquale when they discovered that we were an independent theatre with no subsidy they actually gave us a little extra of their percentage.
Was there any one thing that surprised you, that you just did not expect to find in running a seaside theatre?
Yes, when you get it right, when you have a full house, a happy audience who are loving what they are seeing and hearing and as they leave and are saying how wonderful the show was – that is the best feeling in the world. There is nothing to beat pleasing the customer.
There are published events up until April next year, but I suspect you have more events lined up?
I have got bookings through to the end of 2017, they are not released yet. Some are just pencilled in and may move yet but once they go on our website and people start booking tickets that’s it set in stone.
The Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe, click to see what’s on.