The Cat's Whisker

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1 Kingly St just after the new paving was laid in the summer of 2010

The Cat's Whisker was a coffee bar situated at 1 Kingly Street, Soho, London, during the mid-late 1950s. It offered London youngsters Spanish dancing, live rock 'n roll, and skiffle.[1]

It saw the invention of a new style of 'dancing' known as hand-jive, dancing using hand gestures only as there was no space to maneuver in the crowded basement.[2] The hand-jive (updated with feet movements) featured in the 1978 film Grease.[3]

History[edit]

The Cat's Whisker coffee bar was started by entrepreneur Peter Evans, and was one of the first to have a juke box. It was centrally placed in the middle of Soho at the corner of Kingly Street and Beak Street, between Carnaby Street and Regent Street, around the corner from the toy store Hamleys. It attracted large crowds, including ice skating champions, international rugby players, journalists and students, for an espresso at a shilling a cup and music.[4] The place was situated in the heart of theatreland and catered for diners before or after the theatre.

In 1956, Evans hired Hank Huffner[5] to refurbish the bar's cellar as an exclusive 'live' venue. The L-shaped cellar had primitive paintings of cats chasing mice on the walls and six stone cats as light-sources round the walls. The basement was exclusive, there being no indication of its existence on the ground floor.

At first, the cellar had the feel of "Hernando's Hideaway," with regular performances from guitarist Jose Feller and dancer Carmen Ballisteras, formerly with the Ballet Espagnol de Pilar Lopez.

Together with The 2i's Coffee Bar, The Cat's Whisker[6] later spearheaded the nascent pop scene, with appearances by 'before-they-were-famous' musicians like Cliff Richard, Lonnie Donegan, Terry Dene, Tommy Steele, guitarist Barry Warren, the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group[1] and other artists who dropped by to unwind after working the nearby nightspots Churchill's, the Bag O'Nails, Coconut Grove, Cabaret and Eve. Like Feller and Ballisteras, the musicians were generally "paid with coffee and Cokes."[7] The place was reputed to be the largest seller of Coca-Cola in Britain at the time.[citation needed]

Freelance photographer Ken Russell[8] in his pre-film director days, captured the 'energy and excitement' of this night life in Soho for Picture Post and these atmospheric images resurfaced in the Soho Nights exhibition by The Photographers' Gallery, London, December 2008 – February 2009. Russell recalls: "I remember the atmosphere was very jolly. So I made a number of visits to the Cat's Whisker. Cliff Richard used to appear there. I used to join in the hand-jiving."[9]

When the police closed down The Cat's Whisker because of over-crowding in 1958, Evans opened the first of the Angus Steak Houses at this venue, before later starting the London-based David Hicks – decorated restaurant chain that bore his own name, Peter Evans Eating Houses,[10] and the upmarket Raffles night club in King's Road, Chelsea.[11]

As of 2009, The Cat's Whisker has been replaced by the Korean restaurant Myung Ga.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b chasmcdevitt.com">www.chasmcdevitt.com.
  2. ^ Daily Mirror 1 April 1957.
  3. ^ www.dailymotion.com.
  4. ^ What's on in London 9 March 1956.
  5. ^ The Cheshire Cat, Vol 1, No 2, 1956.
  6. ^ [1] from Biography (Extract from 'Skiffle the Definitive Inside Story')
  7. ^ "Music: Git-Gat Skiffle". Time. 15 April 1957. Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  8. ^ www.photonet.org.
  9. ^ Benedictus, Leo (8 January 2009). "Ken Russell's best shot". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  10. ^ The Observer 3 March 1975
  11. ^ "London Events - Venue Finder - Celebrity Contacts - The Handbook -". thehandbook.co.uk. Retrieved 12 May 2015. 

Coordinates: 51°30′43.5″N 0°8′19″W / 51.512083°N 0.13861°W / 51.512083; -0.13861