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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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