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old pro

The Thekla (Old Profanity Showboat)

The Old Profanity Showboat was a late 1982 middle-of-the-night brainchild of Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, the wife of Vivian Stanshall. The showboat was based on the idea of creating, owning, and running a theatre on a sea-going ship and using it to showcase music of every sort (limited only by the size of the hold), including cabaret, comedy, plays, musicals, and poetry events. The ship also contained an art gallery. The living quarters were home for Vivian, Ki, their daughter, Silky Longfellow-Stanshall, and Ki's daughter, Sydney Longfellow, as well as a few key personnel.

Working life

Before its continuing incarnation as a showboat, the Thekla (built in Germany in 1959 and powered by a U-boat engine left over from the Second World War), was used for more than twenty years to transport timber to and from various ports of the Baltic Sea.

Finding and converting a ship into a showboat

Once conceived, the project was rapidly set into motion. Funds came from The Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme, whereby a bank lends the money, and the UK government guarantees the loan. Rusting away for seven years after running aground at Gravesend in Kent, a German built "Coaster" named Thekla was discovered in the half-abandoned docks of Sunderland on the eastern coast of England. The SS Thekla was perfect. The last of the riveted ships, she was 650 tons unladen, measured one hundred and eighty feet long from stem to stern, and thirty feet wide, with an eight foot draft. The Thekla was capable of circumnavigating the globe. Because she'd carried a cargo of primarily timber, her hold was vast, open, clean, and lined with one of the hardest woods in the world, red jarrah from Australia. Everything had to be refurbished from the U-boat engine (left over from the Second World War, as mentioned above), to the leaky hydraulics to the donkey winch for raising and lowering the anchors. In the summer of 1983, she set sail for Bristol on the opposite side of Britain, a city chosen because Vivian had once played there as frontman for The Bonzo Dog Band, and because Ki liked the sound of the place.

Fresh out of dry dock with her bottom scraped, and covered in a new coat of black paint and white paint over her original colors of pale blue and white, plus a rather nice red for the stack, and with all the ironwork and welding accomplished, the SS Thekla sailed to Bristol in six days and six nights.

Sailing into Tumult

From the open sea, the Thekla entered the Severn on August 4, 1983 and navigated its waters until it arrived in the Floating Harbour of the city of Bristol, and moored where it can be found to this very day. There are now signs created by the City Council of Bristol for the orientation of tourists that sport a small symbol indicating Thekla's position in the docks.

She had sailed without ballast, without registration, without insurance, and without mishap, save for the half day the crew spent mending the engine. Her conversion, sailing, docking, finishing touches, and opening night on May 1, 1984 was filmed as an Omnibus BBC 1 documentary by writer and film maker Tony Staveacre of the British Broadcasting Corporation. He called it The Bristol Showboat Saga and it was broadcast for the first time on September 30 of that year.

Old Profanity Days

For the next two and a half years, The Old Profanity Showboat put on over 240 theatrical productions, staging the varied efforts of theatrical troops from all over Britain, plus the work of the students of the nearby Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. To support its theatre and cabaret (which seldom paid for itself), the Old Pro also provided a stage for every kind of band then playing. Being the heyday of punk rock, some of her band nights were not only well-attended, they were terrifying.

Within a year, the Old Pro was the West Country's premier small theatre, jazz venue, folk club and cabaret. Across her stage came hopefuls who became "names," and often unannounced "names" who wanted to once again experience the intimacy of their first foray into show business. In no small part due to Vivian, most of Britain's best and brightest comedians either played there, or stayed there. But in virtually no time, the ship's own reputation attracted the best.

Stinkfoot

Many of the Old Pro's employees worked the bar or the box office or ship's maintenance in order to find themselves one day treading her stage. After two years of hopeful waiting, Ki felt they could wait no longer. No matter how much it cost to stage an original show, the time had come to reward their hard work and dedication.

Co-written by Vivian Stanshall and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, Stinkfoot was a three-hour long musical comedy (Vivian called it a "comic opera"), produced by Ki, directed by Vivian (working with both actors and orchestra at the same time), and performed on the Old Pro over a two-week run up to Christmas in December of 1985. Stinkfoot's cast and orchestra consisted of the employees, as well as regulars who'd graced Thekla's stage. Its set made use of Thekla's curious layout. Its conception was based on a series of tales Ki wrote about a New York City alleycat and on Vivian's life as a Bonzo frontman. In its final form, it was a surreal and dazzling cross-cultural mix of music hall, Broadway, and Thirties screwball comedies. But mostly, it was "just being itself," as Vivian would say. It played to sell-out audiences every single night of its run, attracted people from Scotland to the USA, and it garnered wonderful, if slightly puzzled, reviews from not only the Bristol press, but The Guardian and The Times.

Staged a second time in late 1988 at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, it lacked the cockeyed appeal of Thekla's unusual setting, and the hand-picked Bristol cast and orchestra (for which much of the material was specifically crafted). It terminally lacked Vivian's unique hand on the tiller.

All Hands Abandon Ship

By early 1986, even though the ship had survived the expense of staging Stinkfoot, and even though there was a plan to sail the Thekla at least to the port of New York City to try her artistic mettle there, Ki had become exhausted by the day to day running of such a huge venture. Vivian, buoyed by the experience of Stinkfoot, was eager to renew his recording career, Ki to continue her career as a novelist. (See External links.) Ki was also experiencing ill-health due to the constant stress of managing something so complex and time-consuming as The Old Profanity Showboat. Announcing closure of the ship, there came a deluge of protest by artists and customers whose home it had become. Accordingly, the Old Pro continued to showcase theater and bands until August 1986 but it was decided no one could go on any longer without risk to their sanity.

Ki, Vivian, and Silky retreated to the Bristol home of an Old Profanity regular, the actor David Rappaport (who appeared in the film Time Bandits).

1990's to Present Day

Throughout the 1990’s and into the early 2000's, the Thekla was taken over and run as an underground nightclub. It quickly became one of the cornerstones of Bristol’s drum & bass music scene. Over these years some of Bristol’s best known artists (including Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size) began by playing in the Thekla's hull.

The artist Banksy was also a regular. His work can be seen stencilled over the bulkheads inside the club as well as his much larger work on the outside of the hull at the waterline. This original piece was painted over by the harbour master, much to the annoyance of the club's owners, who threatened the council and harbour master with legal action. Banksy returned to paint it again.

A major refurbishment of the ship was completed in October 2006 after being purchased by Daybrook House Promotions, owners of Rock City, Rescue Rooms, Stealth and The Social in Nottingham. At the same date, the club's name was changed to 'Thekla Social', and also the name on the boat was changed to reflect this, causing much alienation from a lot of the old fans of the venue. She remains at the moorings in central Bristol where she was first positioned in 1983 and continues to function as a music venue and nightclub. The ship was repainted (in 2006?) from black to cream and dark green. At some point between 2006 and 2008, the name of the boat was repainted to become the 'Thekla' once more.

Footnotes

  1. The Thekla is still moored in Bristol's Floating Harbour exactly where she was docked in 1983. Today she is used as a venue for various bands and club nights.
  2. No advertisements were ever placed anywhere. No one was ever actually interviewed and formally "hired." Thekla's people either came from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, or as customers...and kept coming back and coming back until a place was found for them.
  3. The Bristol production of Stinkfoot was celebrated in print by Sea Urchin Press (see external links) with full script, song lyrics, cast, artwork by Vivian, and an introduction by Ki.
  4. It was not, he insisted, about Christmas, or for Christmas, and it certainly was not a pantomime, a very British style of entertainment traditionally put on in theatres over the Christmas period.
  5. Vivian called it his "awkestra"

External links

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