Jackie Toaduff, Born to Dance
PUBLISHED: 12:46 04 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:07 20 February 2013
Penny Baddeley meets Jackie Toaduff, who escaped life in the coal mines and danced his way to Hollywood before settling in Dronfield.
Hidden away off a quiet winding street in the north eastern Derbyshire village of Dronfield, is a small Victorian-fronted hotel, whose modest faade belies the extraordinary fact that a countless stream of celebrities have crossed its threshold over the past 40 years.
Vintage movie stars have travelled from their Hollywood mansions to enjoy the comforts of The Chantry Hotel on Church Street. The best of British talent from stage and screen has also, at one time or another, beaten a path to the door to the 14 bed-roomed hostelry.
But despite the evident charms of The Chantry, not least the pleasant conservatory overlooking manicured lawns and an extensive English rose garden, the rich and the famous have not been lured simply by the hotels faded splendour. The stars, past and present, are good friends of hotel owner Jackie Toaduff. But then Jackie is no ordinary hotelier.
His guests have long been pressing him to reveal his life story and Hollywood actress Margaret OBrien, star of Little Women, The Secret Garden, Jane Eyre and Oscar winner for Meet Me in St Louis, finally persuaded Jackie to write his autobiography. She told me I should write my could do it, said Jackie.
The resulting book, Coaldust to Stardust, some six to seven years in the writing, was snapped up by Peak publish this year. It tells the extraordinary tale of a real life Billy Elliott of the 1950s, who danced his way from the back streets of a northern mining village into the arms of the rich, the royal and the famous. It is an uplifting tale of a working class hero who manages to escape a life in the coal mines because of an irrepressible desire to dance.
In the words of Jackies friend Margaret OBrien: It serves as an inspiration to all those who have a dream and are willing to achieve it.
Jackie, who has owned The Chantry Hotel for more than 40 years, was born the son of a coal face worker in the back streets of a small working class town in County Durham. As a small boy all he ever wanted to do was to dance and sing, although his mother, Sarah, poured scorn on this ambition. She was appalled that this son was so unlike her three others and her constant chiding rang out like a refrain through his 1940s childhood: I dont know where he came from but hes not one of us. All he wants to do is sing and dance. Only girls dance.
When a little girl across the street had private dancing lessons at home, Jackie would creep in to watch and one day when the girl could not execute the dance step as shown by her teacher, Jackie offered to demonstrate.
The dance teacher immediately recognised Jackies innate talent and asked to see his parents.
My mother told the dance teacher to get on her bike, said Jackie. No son of hers was going to have dancing lessons. It was a girls game.
Jackie was heartbroken. The dance teacher gave him lessons anyway, free of charge behind his mothers back. It was a small step but one which led to the Royal Albert Hall and around the world and back.
By the age of eight Jackie had moved onto to his second dance teacher, who also taught the young boy without his parents consent.
But whilst his mother was at home playing cards, oblivious to the double life her small son was already leading, Jackie was on stage at The Arcadia in his home town, showing off his newly acquired skills as a tap dancer.
The next day the whole village was talking about the dancing feet of eight-year-old Jackie. My mother gave me the biggest hiding of my life and told me that if I did it again she would kill me, he said.
On a miners day trip to the seaside, Jackie disappeared. He had found a talent show on the beach, took part and won. His mother was becoming worn down and Jackie was beginning to become a local celebrity. Local newspapers were running articles headlined Ten year-old wonder boy and 12- year-old child entertainer. All the same, when he left school Jackie did what all the other boys did went down the pit.
But dancing continued like a rhythm in Jackies life. He won a national clog dancing competition hosted by the English Folksong and Dance Society and was whisked abroad to tour with the team.
At the age of 15 he made his first solo performance at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of a dance festival, but was required to rush back North for his 4am shift at the colliery. It was the first of many performances at the prestigious venue.
Jackie recalls: As a young miner I remember I was terrified of going down the pit cage for the first time, but I was never frightened on stage. It was where I was happiest.
Jackies face was flashed round the world on the front of every national newspaper in the late 1950s, after an extraordinary encounter with the beautiful and wayward Royal Highness the Princess Margaret. As patron of the English Folksong and Dance Society, the Princess attended a function at their headquarters, where Jackie was performing in the evenings cabaret. After Jackie had danced, the Princess called him over and asked: Do you have batteries in your shoes?
When the royal equerry came to Jackies dressing room later that evening and announced that the Princess wished to dance with him, Jackie was dumbfounded. I thought he was pulling my leg, but the Princess was there waiting for me in the ballroom, ready to take my hand. Here I was, this coal miner, dancing with Princess Margaret. I was front page news in the nationals and the story went round the world.
A photograph of the beautiful Princess and the dashing young miner-dancer is proudly on display in the foyer of The Chantry Hotel. Remarkably, Kensington Palace recently confirmed that the late Princess Margaret had kept the same photograph on display in her private suite of rooms within the palace. When Jackie wrote to the palace for personal affirmation of the fact he was promptly invited down for tea.
I went down as their guest and they showed me round her quarters which are now dismantled, said Jackie. It was an extraordinary thought that she had that picture on display all these years.
The treasured black and white photograph holds deep layers of significance for Jackie. After its initial publication in 1958 Jackie travelled back home to the North, clutching copies to show his pitman father, who was dying in hospital. His parents still believed that dancing was not an appropriate occupation for a man.
Jackie said: For the first time in his life my father said he was proud and told me to get out of the pit. Those were his last words to me.
But it was not until Jackie was 25 years old that he escaped completely from the mines onto the stage, abandoning the pit lamp for the limelight.
Now aged 77 Jackie admits that revisiting the past through writing the autobiography has been an emotional journey. He was reduced to tears recalling his first meeting with Roland Roy, now known as Roy Toaduff. Jackie and Roy forged an enduring entertainment double act and a friendship which has lasted a lifetime. The pair met, together with Roys pianist and manager Colin Edwardes, at a guest house in Blackpool, prior to a Cream of Clubland performance in the Winter Gardens. Roy was a former Sheffield tailor who had won a television talent contest and become a full time entertainer. He was a singer who danced a bit and I was a dancer who sang a bit, said Jackie.
Colin Edwardes became manager to them both and the trio bought the Chantry Hotel together some 40 years ago. Colin died before Jackie finished writing his book. But Jackie still relied heavily on Colins scrap books to help jog his memory of their extraordinary show business journey together.
After my meeting with Colin and Roy I never looked back, said Jackie. It was like going from black and white to Technicolor.
Jackie and Roy Toaduff toured the theatre and nightclub circuits at home and abroad. They headlined shows for troops on active service in theatres of conflict all over the world.
Their commanding officer was Derek Agutter. He had a charming little daughter who followed us round, named Jenny, said Jackie. Actress Jenny Agutter, who shot to fame after her performance in The Railway Children, is now one of the many celebrity guests who pop in from time to time at The Chantry.
During one six week stretch performing in Australia in the Jane Russell Show, Jackie helped the Hollywood pin-up slip into her stage costume on a nightly basis. As a young boy Jackie had idolised the voluptuous film star. She was every mans dream, said Jackie. So sexy and sultry. We had adjoining dressing rooms and she frequently came into ours and asked me to zip her up. It is a task I remember well! he said.
Later in their career the Toaduff Brothers conquered the high seas by headlining entertainment on the worlds top ocean liners, where the sound of applause would ring in their ears from one port to the next. Reviews in magazines from the Stage to The Bermuda Sun recorded seemingly endless standing ovations.
It was while on a world cruise that Jackie struck up a friendship with the actress who was a favourite Hollywood idol when he was a boy living in a depressed northern town. He had only met Ginger Rodgers once at a stage door on Drury Lane, but she remembered Jackie when he bumped into her on the cruise She greeted me like a long lost brother.
They were both performing in separate shows on the cruise. Naturally Jackie went to see Gingers show and she reciprocated, sitting on the front row when Jackie was on stage. Twenty years apart in age they became close pals, and during a later cruise, on which Jackie was working and Ginger came along as a holidaymaker, they danced together in public. The boy from the backstreets could scarcely believe he was virtually taking the role of Gingers screen partner Fred Astaire. I said, Ginger, everybody in this room is watching me and she replied They might just be watching me, honey.
Afterwards Jackie became a regular visitor to Gingers home in Palm Springs and it was during a visit there that she proposed marriage. He refused. She really did want to marry me, said Jackie. But we were worlds apart. I had my career moving from cruise ship to cruise ship. I had Colin and Roy my partners and I couldnt do it.
I was in awe of her. She was this film legend and I was still a coal miner inside, a Geordie lad from the backstreets. Jackie last saw Ginger at a dinner party at The Hilton in London six months before she died. He still treasures her old letters, telling me I have so many memories of Ginger. Lots of photos and letters; love letters in fact. He pulls out a sheaf of snapshots of himself and Ginger, one of which is dedicated To my own Jackie.
Jackies circle of friends has been enormous and eclectic every one from the first man on the moon Neil Armstrong to heart transplant pioneer Christian Barnard and from ballerina Margot Fonteyn to actor Kirk Douglas.
Regular visitors to The Chantry included the late Hollywood legend Ruby Keeler, who was once married to Al Jolson. Jackie said: Ruby adored it here and stayed with me on six occasions. She loved Derbyshire and in particular Castleton, Bakewell and the Derwent reservoir. I remember she was once interviewed by Look North who asked her why a Hollywood legend would want to stay in Dronfield. Well, she waxed lyrical about the place and said shed like to put a ribbon round it and take it back to Palm Springs. Jackie added: The Chantry was definitely once the place to be seen!
Locals also love to drop in at The Chantry to attend its popular Thursday coffee mornings, held to coincide with Dronfield market day. Shoppers sip hot tea and eat freshly baked scones in the presence of a host of stars captured on celluloid and pinned up for perusal on the walls of the hotel.
In between toast and teacakes Jackie can serve up a personal anecdote on just about every celebrity one can think of from Michael Caine (whose first wife was Dronfield-girl Patricia Haines) to Fred Astaire (whose daughter Ava, on a visit to The Chantry to celebrate her birthday, was nearly killed by a rearing horse just outside the grounds of Jackies hotel.)
Its always packed on a Thursday, says Jackie. Everyone enjoys the ambience.
The autobiography, as effervescent as Jackies personality, bubbles with anecdotes throughout. The tone is gleeful as Jackie relates stories of the colourful characters, not all famous, who have helped people his rich tapestry of life.
Before I leave he tells me about the Scottish landlady, Nancy, who was caretaking the Chantry while Jackie and Roy were headlining on the QE2. Bob Monkhouse called at the Chantry while we were away and had brought along Roger Whittaker, the singer. He knocked at the hotel door and the landlady refused to open it, explaining that it was closed on Mondays.
Some weeks later the comic visited again and introduced himself to the steadfast landlady. He reminded her that she had turned him away at the hotel door. Oh, it was you, was it? I didnt recognise you, replied the phlegmatic Nancy.
Today the Chantry Hotel remains only partially open for bed and breakfast. But there is always someone popping in. Principal dancers of the Royal Ballet have been visiting Jackie to learn clog dancing steps to pass on to their young dancers based in Londons White Lodge in Richmond Park. Jackie is also currently in the process of recording a BBC television programme about clog dancing and is beginning to give talks about his book. He has travelled the world several times over and has wined and dined as guest at places as varied as royal palaces in Malaysia to mansions in Hollywood. But there is no place like home.
Sometimes, said Jackie, I sit out here on a summer night with a glass of wine. The garden lights are glowing in the borders and the trees and I think to myself, where on earth is there better than this.
The memoirs of Jackie Toaduff, Coaldust to Stardust, 14.99, published by Peakpublish. ISBN 978-1-907219-14-6.