Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Let them eat cake : the Queens Hotel, Dundee, and Frank Sinatra, 1953

Recently we flew up on a Saturday morning from Exeter to Dundee to go to Dens Park to watch the famous eleven defeat Dumbarton 2-1 and so win the Scottish Professional Football League Championship and gain promotion to the Scottish Premier League. To give ourselves time for any possible post-match  celebration we had arranged to stay overnight at the Queens Hotel, an elegant Victorian establishment which first opened its doors to guests in 1885.

An interesting, but not elegant part of Victorian Dundee

The match score tells you there was a happy ending at Dens Park. Paul Hartley and his team triumphed.  We enjoyed the after-match celebrations at the ground and then took a taxi back to the Nethergate and the Queens Hotel where later in the evening we were to dine with two friends, a couple, who live just outside Dundee.  During what was an excellent meal,  I talked - which I almost incessantly do  -  about my childhood memories of Dundee. I paused briefly to catch my breath, and one of our friends swiftly breached this momentary gap in my lengthy blethering, to inform us that for all the years she had lived in and around Dundee she had never set foot in the Queen's Hotel and yet in the early 1950s her mother had worked as a chambermaid there. Her mother had told her stories about many of the famous show business people who stayed at the Queens in those days. It was a convenient resting place for them because it was situated close to the Palace Theatre and was not so far away from the Caird Hall. Our friend's mother had said that one of the occasions which remained clearly in her memory was the time Frank Sinatra and his then wife Ava Gardner had stayed at the Queens when he was appearing at the Caird Hall. 1953 was  a time when the singer's star was temporarily on the wane. Young fans had fallen in love with newer, younger crooners and the ticket sales for the show were poor. When the show started less than 500 people occupied an auditorium built to accommodate well over 2000 souls. Apparently Sinatra was not best pleased with this and felt  his show had suffered from poor pre-publicity and he vowed never to return to Dundee. He kept his promise.

Ava and Frank bided here in Victorian elegance

As for the poor pre-publicity well certainly I was unaware that Frank Sinatra was in Dundee on July 7th, 1953 but at the time I was 7 going on 8 and was much more interested in following the Ashes test cricket series on the nine inch Bush television which my father had bought us in May so that we and everyone else in the street  could watch the coronation. In fact I didn't get interested in music until we were hit by  Rock n' Roll  in 1956 when allegedly, well, according to my Mummy at least, the Teddy Boys were planning to rip up the seats in the Astoria Picture House in Lochee where "Rock Around the Clock" was about to show. I was already well over 10 years old and certainly I did not understand why I was not allowed to go and see "Rock Around the Clock."

A 1953 App for cricket and coronations

And another thing, now that I come to think of it, my Mummy and Daddy did a very good number on my sister and me over evening television programmes. Everyday the television service closed down at about 6 o'clock after Andy Pandy and Muffin the Mule and all that stuff had been shown. I mind it stayed on until 6.30 pm when the cricket was on which was lucky for me because Daddy did not come home from work until about that time. I think  Mummy let me watch the cricket not only because Daddy hadn't got home yet but also because it kept me quiet.

Well, to get back to that number that was done on us over the TV, when the television service closed down in the late afternoon, our parents successfully conned us into believing that  television broadcasts were off the air until the following afternoon's children's programmes started again.  After a few months I became suspicious about this not only because I had not experienced any other aspect of life which was so loaded in favour of us children but also because I thought I could hear talking and singing in the living room and it wasn't Mummy and Daddy and it didn't sound like the radio.  So one night at about 8 o'clock I decided to do something about it and went downstairs into the living room intending to say I had a headache. I caught them at it. Yes, there they were in the dark watching the TV.

 I said "I thought there was no TV at night."

"Well it just started the night,"  my Mummy replied.

"And it's on too late for you to watch. It doesn't start until half past seven," my Daddy said as a reinforcement. Actually I thought that was fair enough but why had they kept it a secret ?  At that time I sometimes wondered about parents. I continue to do so.

Anyway at about the beginning of 1955 things got better. I was in bed one February night and heard crowd noises and the voice of a commentator coming from the living room. The crowd sounded just like those I heard at Dens Park. So I quickly developed a sore throat and went downstairs for comfort. When I entered the living room which my parents always kept dark when the TV was on at night so it was just like the pictures,  I saw there was a football match on the TV.  I asked if I could watch it. My Daddy was about to say, "No !" when my Mummy intervened and said "Och, Chic, let him watch it you know he's football mad." He relented and I watched the match sitting on the floor. It was from Brockville Park which was the only stadium  in Scotland with floodlights. Falkirk was playing the Army, whose side had a lot of professional football players who were doing their national service. Once the match was over and I was told to go to bed, I did so immediately for I hoped it was the start of a good thing.

And it was. I was still not allowed to watch TV on ordinary nights but if there was football on I could stay up and watch. This was a favour not afforded to my younger sister. I don't how she felt about that. I guess I just thought it was fair enough because I was older than her by a year and I didn't think she was interested in football.

 I watched some great matches including a series of floodlit friendlies between Wolverhampton Wanderers (who were the English league champions at the time) and Moscow Dynamo and  Moscow Spartak as well as the Hungarian team, Honved, that had Ferencz Puskas in it. He was one of the Mighty Magyars (not to be confused with the Maryhill Magyars) of the Hungarian national team. These matches were big news, coming, as they did, before European club competitions had really got underway. International travel was still a minority experience, and though my Daddy had been abroad on business a number of times, I had not, so teams from as far away as Moscow and Budapest seemed excitingly exotic.

These peregrinations have taken me away from the story told by our friend's mother who had also related to her daughter that while most of the show business guests would, at the end of their stay, leave a significant monetary consideration to be shared among the Queen's Hotel staff,  Frank Sinatra left them a small, round, and undoubtably delicious, Dundee Cake to share because he "was sure they would really like it."  Well I've been brought up to believe that as far as gifts are concerned, "It's the thought that counts."

I did it my way

I don't know if the hotel staff saw it this way. Was a gift of a Dundee  confectionery icon an exercise of unmitigated altruism ? or an expression of downright meanness ? or even an act of ignorant naivety on a Marie Antoinette scale? We may never know, but we can be sure "ol' blues eyes" did it his way.

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