How the Muppets - and the Thompson Twins - came to Chats Palace
- Credit: Chat's Palace
“The guy who turned down the Thompson Twins”, Alan Rossiter tells Emma Bartholomew about when the Muppets came to Chats Palace and how the arts venue which grew out of Homerton Library “changed people’s lives”
In 1976 the old Homerton Library in Brooksby’s Walk closed down to make way for a newer model a few yards around the corner.
Social worker Joe Noble informed the Free Form Arts group, which had been organising the Hackney Marsh Festival since 1974, that he wanted to get a range of groups to use the redundant building as a community centre.
“We thought it was a great idea because we could run the festival from there and have a programme based on it,” said Alan Rossiter, who got involved with Free Form while working as senior play leader at the Daubeney adventure playground.
Free Form was dedicated to making art and performance accessible to those living in working class estates and deprived communities.
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Activists marched and then occupied the Grade II-listed old library, which was donated to Hackney in 1913 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
They wanted to ensure it remained in community hands and “For the Betterment of East Londoners”, and christened it the Chats Palace Arts Centre – making it sound more appealing than your run-of-the-mill community centre.
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“When we moved in, literally all the book shelves were there without any books,” said Alan, who ran the centre for eight years and remains a patron to this day.
He has contributed a chapter about that time there to the Hackney Society’s 50th anniversary book, Portrait of a Community.
“The first project I did in there was with the children from the adventure playground, and by this time we set up a charity for it called Children of the Marshes. We made a medieval film. The bookcases became a set and the cellar downstairs became a dungeon. I still have that film,” he said.
“It took off from there. We began a programme of events and entertainment through Chats.”
With funding from the Greater London Authority’s Arts Association, Hackney Council and the Inner London Education Authority, Alan built a team of people to run workshops.
It housed the Hackney Marsh Festival – which became a huge success, attracting up to 15,000 people – as well as silk screen printing, a crèche and a professional-amateur arts programme, including the now legendary Chats Palace Christmas performance A Hackney’d Show.
This starred Nicky Edmett as Dr Jelley, a well-known character from Homerton’s pre-war days.
“There’s nothing as jolly as a good old East End knees up, but these days it has reached an art form,” reported the Evening News.
“You’ve got to remember the Empire hadn’t opened then either, so really we were the major venue at that time for Hackney,” remembers Alan. “There were other places we were close friends with like the Albany Empire in Deptford, but the key thing was they were all very much about involving the community.
“It was a community arts centre and the arts were at the forefront. It was about investing in people’s creativity.”
The idea had been pioneered by people like Joan Littlewood, the “mother of modern theatre”.
“It was the spirit of the times,” said Alan. “People were coming out of arts school and wanting to involve people, and tell them what their art was about. Creativity can lead to changing people’s lives, and it did change people’s lives. Absolutely.”
Chats “grew and grew”. They decided to revive music hall: one of their first events was Professor Alexander’s Old Time Music Hall.
The events came to be enjoyed by “white-haired ladies who had lived all their lives around Chats, and knew the words to the old songs, along with middle-class newcomers who did not”.
“One of the chaps involved was also involved in the Muppets, and we had the whole of the Muppets cast come down and they loved Chats,” said Alan. “They did a whole vaudeville with the cast as themselves with Frank Oz and Jim Henson on drums. We had some extraordinary evenings.”
Many bands also held gigs there, from famous punk bands of the day, to blues bands, jazz and new wave pop.
“It was all part of the punk boom,” said Alan.
“I was known as “the guy who turned down the Thompson Twins”. We used to get people sending in demo discs all the time. I handed theirs to one of the local girls, and said: ‘What do you think of that?’ She said: ‘I don’t think much,’ so that was it really.
“I think they ended up playing there sooner or later though.”