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No single building in Brighton evokes more nostalgia than the Regent Ballroom near the Clock Tower.
Many couples met for the first time there, dancing the night away on the beautifully sprung floor.
For many years the resident band was run by Syd Dean, who was a well-known figure in the town. He used to say: “There’s Rottingdean, Saltdean – and Syd Dean.”
The ballroom was built in 1923 on a site in North Street next to the Regent Cinema, then the biggest in Brighton.
Designed in jazz-age style, it could house 1,500 dancers – and often did. Top names such as Billy Cotton and Jack Hylton took their bands to Brighton, making guest appearances.
It was managed for more than 30 years by Lionel Stewart. His daughter, Sarah Jane Roome, has fond memories of him.
Now living in Oregon, on the west coast of the United States, she keeps in touch with Brighton and has compiled a short memoir of her father.
Lionel Stewart was born in 1893 in Poland and moved to England with his family as a young child. He spent his formative years in London and became a competitive ballroom dancer with his sister Anne.
During the 1920s and 1930s, they were frequently seen gliding across the floors of the Hammersmith Palais in London, before it was bombed during the war.
He moved to Brighton and was manager of the ballroom for 32 years, before he retired in 1955. His trademarks were a cigar and his ever-present contagious smile.
Roome says, “He was known for his generosity and kindness, and played Cupid to many dancers.”
Because he was 60 when she was born, her experience of the Regent was limited but it was always an event when he took her there. He died in 1970.
Syd Dean was resident there during the 1940s and 1950s and was extremely popular. Dean, who lived in Hove, imposed strict discipline on band members and coaxed sweet sounds from them.
Sadly, the ballroom closed in the early 1970s along with the cinema, and although there was an advertised replacement in the Top Rank Centre a few hundred yards down the road in West Street, somehow it was never the same.
Rock ’n’ roll had also dulled the public appetite for dance music and although Dean tried many revivals, his best days were by then over.
Dapper and personable, Dean was also a national figure, who frequently broadcast on the BBC.
Even better known was Harry Leader, who began his professional career at the Regent and returned there as resident bandleader between 1959 and 1963.
Leader wrote more than 350 songs, many of them with his wife Rona, and sold millions of records. His career spanned three generations of jazz and swing, extending from the dance band days to The Beatles.
His signature tune was Music Maestro Please, but the best known song he recorded was Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day, in 1934.
Leader and his band often appeared on BBC radio, particularly with Music While You Work. He discovered Matt Monro, the bus driver who became an internationally famous singing star. Leader completed his life story on cassette just before his death in Brighton aged 80 in 1987. By that time, the Regent Ballroom was just a memory.
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