Lulu, Helen Shapiro and Adam Faith... the Embassy had it all!
Sean McLaughlin takes a look back at the carefree dance hall days of the 1960s and the international stars who came to Derry
The Embassy Ballroom on Derry’s Strand Road was, once upon a time, one of Ireland’s premier dance halls and played host to some of the biggest names in showbiz.
Whether it was 1960s stars such as Lulu or Helen Shapiro or Irish rockers, Thin Lizzy, in the 1970s, the Derry venue was at the forefront of a musical revolution.
Back in the day, the North West boasted a string of great dance halls such as the Corinthian, Memorial Hall, Criterion, Cameo/Stardust, Borderland, Plaza and Fiesta.
However, when it came to attracting the big names, the Embassy always seemed to pull out all the stops.
Local author Willie Deery, who has penned an acclaimed book on Derry’s dance halls, says that, in the 1950s and 1960s, the city was a remarkable place to live.
“Families were only just coming out of post-war poverty,” he recalls. “For the first time, in God knows how long, people had a few shillings in their pockets. Some were to experience the comfort of a new suit, shirt or dress on their back for the very first time.”
According to Willie, after a hard week working in the factories, building sites, shops or offices, the dance halls became the focal point for young people’s expectations.
“On a Friday, the ‘Derry Journal’ entertainments pages were scoured from corner to corner to see what bands were playing that Friday, Saturday or Sunday night,” he says. “In Derry, back then, the dance halls - along with the picture houses - provided the main entertainment for the young people.”
Willie says the Embassy Ballroom was probably the most luxurious of Derry’s dance halls.
“It had plush carpets throughout and the dance floor itself was always highly polished. The balcony had modern chairs and tables and the toilets were always spotless.
“Patrons could sit and have a mineral and watch the dancers below or just listen to the band in great comfort.”
Willie says Embassy owner, Tony Kearney, was “far more progressive” that many other ballroom owners.
“His contribution to the entertainment of the dancers in Derry was immense,” he says. “Tony provided a safe, friendly and comfortable atmosphere where everyone could enjoy a great night of dancing.”
The day-to-day running of the Embassy was led by local businessman, Robert (Bobby) Ferris, who, says Willie Deery, had “his finger on the pulse. His team was very clued in to what made young people tick.”
“They always provided top class entertainment and audiences were able to enjoy international star performers several times a year.”
But for Kearney and Ferris, says Willie, the dancers of Derry would never have been entertained by such global talent.
As one Embassy patron remarked: “As far as the entertainment of the youth of this city was concerned, Bobby Ferris was a man before his time. As a teenager, I saw big stars I would never have seen thanks to him.”