The first time I visited the el Cubana was in 1965 as a member of the Kylastrons. It was a well known venue in the North East and beyond. It was the dream of every local musician to play there. I was lucky – later that year I joined the Jazzboard and played at both the el Cubana and its sister club, the La Cubana on a regular basis. I have fond memories of the two clubs and the people who went there (including my first serious girlfriend, Julie). The clubs were owned and run by Eric Punshon who now lives in New Zealand. This is Eric’s story: –
“It was a busy and exciting time in the late fifties for me in my late teens. Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets were emerging and big bands were the norm. As well as working at Priestman and Galen buildings in Green Terrace known as ‘Sunderland Technical College’, I somehow found time to organise dances at the Barnes Hotel and bus trips to Blackpool. Popular places at the time in Sunderland were the Seaburn and the Rink in Park Lane. There were occasional dances at Wetheralls on the Green opposite Bishopwearmouth Church, St Bennett’s Church Hall in Roker Avenue, Grange Hotel in Newcastle Road and of course the Barnes Hotel. We also had coffee shops, Notrianis in High street, Fellas in Silksworth Row and Binns Restaurant in Fawcett Street, which were meeting places for my group of friends and where we would sip coffee until we got kicked out for not spending enough.
During one of our many Saturday afternoon meetings at Binns’ restaurant, gazing down Fawcett Street and dreaming up ways to kick the Sunderland scene up a notch, a group of us decided to open our own club. It would be devoted only to a certain selected age group and have dim lights and an intimate atmosphere. We agreed to meet each week at a church hall in North Bridge Street each putting in five shillings a week until we had sufficient funds to open our own magical club.
In 1957 after many weeks of planning we rented a place in North Bridge Street in which to open a club. We named the club the Bridge Street Jazz Club. At the time, running private clubs was fraught with difficulties. They were not legally able to make a profit and the club had to be run by a committee. Any profits had to go back to the members.
The founder members were Cliff Balbach, Brian Farquhar, Alan Rolfe, Alan George and myself. We became the committee. I soon realized that it would not work with a committee, so I resigned just as the club opened and I forfeited my money. (Technically speaking this was the first club in Sunderland). As I thought, the club closed after a brief period. Our attempts to kick Sunderland up a notch failed but my dream remained. Life rolled on and we all got girlfriends, wives etc.
Around 1960, a big change came. The then Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, changed the law, making it possible to run a club as a proprietary club, (although technically they still needed a committee), but in reality the club owners could pay themselves wages. Lonnie Donegan had brought skiffle across the Atlantic from America, which gave rise to the groups we still know to this day. Tommy Steele was playing his guitar in the London coffee shops. These three events helped set the scene. Cliff Balbach and myself decided the time was now right to re-attempt to open a club.
In 1961 with an enormous amount of help from my brother, David Punshon, we set about transforming 13 Toward Road, Sunderland (a five story building) into the el Cubana. We commissioned builders Ellis & Gowland (Billy Ellis & Arthur Gowland) to do the main building conversion work. Cliffs Balbach’s mother had given him £1000, Eddie and Hannah Punshon my parents gave me £500. McCann’s (Low Row) supplied us with the furniture on hire purchase. So for about £2000, plus a bank loan of £200 from Peter Smith, the manager of the District Bank in John Street, we eventually opened the el Cubana Coffee Club in the first and lower basements.
The el Cubana was a teenage club. It was a magic place; the dance floor area was painted black, it sported reflective panels on the walls, hands and feet on the suspended ceiling above the dance floor, and a stage. Below the dance floor, a dimly lit cellar painted deep purple, in it a lounge and a coffee bar, which sold Coca Cola, orange juice, hot dogs, hamburgers and frothy coffee made of all milk. Live music in the form of groups was the norm. The groups all had their own distinctive dress. Real show business stuff. We had the famous ‘Limbo Poll’, which appeared while the group was on their break and every one would have a go. Fred Barnes, the doorman, would do his comedy act on stage. One night whilst Fred was telling his jokes on stage, a lad shouted, ‘Puff’ to him and promptly ran, swiftly followed by Fred. Everyone thought ‘Oh Crikey’! Fred came back, got back up on stage and said, ‘The lad had nothing to worry about – I only wanted to give him a kiss’. There was also the famous ‘Galloway’ oil painting, which graced a wall in the el Cubana (and later the Hot Spot), and which was featured on Tyne Tees Television. I still have this enormous painting hanging on my garage wall.
During the building process, I twice worked four days and four nights without sleep and my feet were ‘rotting’ (but that’s another story). We announced the opening of the el Cubana with advertisements in the Sunderland Echo. On the opening night of the el Cubana we were hastily beating a retreat out of the back doors with rubbish as the first customers were coming in the front doors. I went home got bathed and donned my evening suit and returned to find the club full. Dress standard was very strict for the members. People tend to act the way they dress. Swearing was a no-no and attracted two weeks suspension of membership. The club always opened exactly on time. The formula worked and I continued these standards in the following thirty years in the Hot Spot and Rascals, which were the natural successors of the Cubana clubs.
The big groups performed a 30-minute spot (for free), just so they could say they had played at the el Cubana in Sunderland and the Cavern in Liverpool. We were famous in the entertainment world. Apparently the acoustics in the ‘Banna were ideal for groups.
The best group ever was called the ‘Jay Birds’, a bunch of session musicians from London who had joined up briefly and did a country wide tour just for the hell of it. They also wanted to play the Cavern and the el Cubana. Again this was one of those early morning gigs, free to us. They arrived and carried in a small amount of equipment, compared to the average band, we were wondering if we had made a mistake saying ‘yes’ to this unknown group. It proved that quality does not require quantity in terms of equipment in the hands of real professional musicians. They stopped the show by the sheer quality of their playing. Sadly for the world, it’s a tough job travelling, and they reverted back to session playing. Many of the big groups of the time had recordings enhanced by these guys in the recording studios – I wonder where they are now? The most popular regular local group to play at the ‘Banna was the Junco Partners, who are still performing to this day. I haggled many a time with John Wood their leader over the fee. They were the most popular and highest paid local group.
A Club is only as good as the people it attracts and the success of the ‘Banna was the members. There are many notable members’ stories and events, which I could write about. The following members and staff spring to mind. I would be interested to know how their lives have panned out and what they are doing now. Fred Quinn, Joe McGough, Derek Robinson now owns Geordie Jeans with his brother, Judith Robinson his cousin. I bumped into Judith in a New Zealand vineyard Christmas 2003! Malcolm Laverick, Carole Smith (Ancona Street) married Keith Checkly, one of the members of the Kylastrons group who played at the ‘Banna, Diane Cooke who worked at Blacketts, Pauline & Pat Cohill, Linda Hall, Yvonne Weightman who was the legs in the famous advert for a petrol Company, Marjorie Hyam who wore a black cat suit and won the fancy dress, Linda Kempster, Norma Moore, Una & Pauline Lake, Nora Allen (I think she married a Sunderland footballer and went to Australia), Dorothy Clifford, Alice Hudson, Janice Parmley from Chester le Street, Moira Porter, Margaret Douglas known as ‘Spot’, Jeanie Nichol, Pauline Timiney, Ian Smith, Sandra Thompson, Iris Rumney, Anne Fearon, Gerry French, Ellis Holliday, Mike Elliott (appears on television as a comedian and later played the boxing coach in the hit movie Billy Elliott), Keith Miller, John Duckworth, Sam Barnett, Jenny Hodgson and not least many others. I keep in touch with Liz Yeo, and Leslie Scott a Sunderland Council leader and Mayor.
Now the biggest surprise of all! There is an active ”el Cubana” society, held together by the afore mentioned Leslie Scott and his friends Dave Kennedy, Peter Newrick, Trevor Smith and Brian Snowdon. Along with the Junco Partners, they regularly run re-union Gigs (usually charity fund raising events).
Since 2003 I have lived in New Zealand and am still in business.
I hope many people have a lot of pleasure reading this brief article, as I have had writing it.
Old friends of Eric and the Cubana clubs are welcome to mail him.
Cubana Club adverts from the Sunderland Echo: –