LONDON » Madame Jojo’s is dead, but the risque London institution is not passing quietly.
The closure of the venerable burlesque nightclub has ignited a battle between developers, residents and entertainers for the soul of Soho, the city’s late-night hub, red-light district and creative heart.
As soaring London property prices fill once-scruffy areas with glass condos and office buildings, protesters including actor Benedict Cumberbatch are rallying to try to stop Soho going the way of New York’s Times Square, a tourist playground with the rough edges removed.
“I think it’s a robbery. It’s a robbery from the people who visit Madame Jojo’s, and it’s a robbery of the people who perform there,” said musician Tim Arnold, standing in front of the club’s locked doors and unlit sign.
A singer-songwriter who performs as the “Soho Hobo,” Arnold has enlisted friends and fellow performers including Cumberbatch, actor-comedian Stephen Fry and Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who, to try to reverse the closure.
Arnold has Soho blood in his veins. His grandmother was a performer in circuses and variety shows. His mother was a “Windmill Girl” at Soho’s first nude revue club, the Windmill Theatre.
Arnold has seen many music venues close over the years, but losing Madame Jojo’s was the last straw. Everyone from Adam Ant to Adele has performed at a venue famed for its art deco interior and eclectic lineup of DJs, musicians, comedians, burlesque shows, drag acts and cabaret nights.
“All areas of culture cohabit in Soho,” said Arnold, who sees the club as a symbol of the area’s diversity. “That’s the success of it. It’s a microcosm of what really we’d all like the world to be.”
The club was closed in late November after an altercation in which bouncers attacked an unruly customer with a baseball bat. But local officials had already approved the site for demolition and redevelopment as a “high quality” complex of retail outlets, restaurants, offices and apartments.
The plans by property owner Soho Estates also promise to get rid of unlicensed sex shops nearby and “drive out anti-social and criminal uses.”
Some fear that’s code for sanitizing Soho, a longtime home to artists, outsiders and rebels whose residents have included Casanova, Mozart and Karl Marx.
After World War II, Soho’s smoky late-night dives attracted artists including Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. In the 1950s, the first British rock ‘n’ roll acts played in its coffee shops, and in the ’70s, its music clubs throbbed with the sound of punk.
Waves of immigrants — Jewish, Italian, Chinese — established shops and restaurants. Soho also became the home of Britain’s movie business — home to digital effects studios and post-production houses — and a hub of gay nightlife.
Soho has also long been synonymous with sex. Porn publisher Paul Raymond, dubbed the “King of Soho,” opened London’s first strip club here in 1958. Raymond Revuebar was considered a classy venue, but by the 1970s, sleaze was spreading, and Soho had 140 unlicensed sex shops.
There was little investment by landlords, and Soho’s Georgian buildings became run-down — but at least rents were cheap.
“They neglected the place, and in the neglect people were able to do things,” said Leslie Hardcastle, president of conservation group the Soho Society. “It was a run-down area. Now it is a very lucrative piece of real estate.”
These days, Soho’s red-light district is confined to a few streets of peep shows, strip clubs and sex shops. Visitors are more likely to be drawn to the area’s destination restaurants, boutique hotels and upmarket stores. Scuzzy apartments are being replaced by luxury dwellings. One three-bedroom apartment is currently on sale for 6.5 million pounds ($10 million).
Ironically, the property company that wants to tear down Madame Jojo’s is run by members of Raymond’s family. Soho Estates says its redevelopment will include at least two nightclubs, including a reincarnation of the lost nightclub.
“We recognize the rich and creative history of Soho and the importance of venues such as Madame Jojo’s,” the firm said in a statement.
Arnold, Cumberbatch and the club’s other supporters aren’t convinced. They want London Mayor Boris Johnson to step in to save one of a dwindling number of live-music venues in the area. Soho, they argued in a recent open letter, “has always depended on building around and adding to what has gone before, not by demolishing it.”
Despite the changes, Hardcastle and Arnold both say Soho is still a surprisingly close-knit area.
“It’s like a village,” said Hardcastle, who has lived in Soho for 47 years. “When I go out and get a loaf of bread, my wife comes after me and says ‘What’s taking you so long?’ because I’ve had a conversation with 20 people.”
By Jill Lawless, Associated Press