THE CANDLELIGHT CLUB
The Candlelight Club is a pop-up 1920s-style speakeasy in London (www.thecandlelightclub.com). It has no permanent premises but hires empty spaces for each time it appears, which is typically once or twice a month. Tickets are sold in advance only and, in keeping with our Prohibition credentials, the exact location is kept a secret, revealed to ticket holders a couple of days before the event. At the parties there are live performances from jazz bands, cabaret and cocktails, and usually a pop-up vintage jewellery shop too. Most strikingly, all guests come in period costume, which really adds to the sense of having stepped back in time.
American readers may be curious about the theme—given that Britain never experienced Prohibition. But the Jazz Age was a global phenomenon, not least because ex-pat US bartenders, unable to work at home, went overseas looking for employment, bringing the cocktail tradition with them. In London and Paris the idea of the “American bar” (serving cocktails) suddenly became popular. Jazz musicians toured the world as far as Shanghai and Bombay.
What is the appeal of the Jazz Age? Is it the gorgeous, hedonistic fashions? The illicit thrill of sipping a drink in a fly-by-night illegal drinking den? The glamour of the bootlegging gangsters who run the town? The toe-tapping rasp of hotly syncopated jazz music? Whatever it is, it was a decade when it seemed the party would never end.
The Candlelight Club’s own story begins in the summer of 2010. After almost 20 years in the magazine business I had been made redundant and was considering what to do next. For some time I’d been running the New Sheridan Club, a non-profit social club for vintage enthusiasts and retro-dandies, and at that club’s summer party I was approached by an American man with a background in hospitality. He had just come back from New York where he had noticed how bars were playing up their Prohibition history, and he wondered if there would be interest in events based on this era. He wasn’t particularly a fan of the period himself, so he wanted to find a partner who was. He was literally walking past the venue of my event, noticed all the people spilling out in period clothes, and knew he had to speak to the person running this party.
I confess I was sceptical at first, as I doubted there were enough vintage scenesters in London to create a big enough market. What I didn’t predict was that in fact most of the people who went on to come to our events were not actually vintage lifestyle enthusiasts, just ordinary people who wanted something a bit different to do on a Saturday night. Our parties are particularly popular with groups of friends celebrating a birthday or a hen night.
For me, on the other hand, it would be an opportunity to combine a number of my abiding interests in the era. I suggested an emphasis on cocktails, changing the menu each time. In keeping with the speakeasy credentials the parties were held at a secret location, which added to the sense of theatre (and meant we weren’t troubled by gate-crashers). The main venue we used happens to have a lot of candlesticks which gave us the idea of lighting the place entirely by candlelight—as a makeshift warehouse speakeasy might have no electric lighting. The first time we lit the candles and turned off the lights we had no idea if we’d even be able to see in there, but the effect is amazingly atmospheric.
My partner and I did almost everything ourselves—running the bar, designing the cocktail menu, mixing live sound for the musicians, taking photos. Was this an attempt to cut costs, an exhibition of control-freakery or just an opportunity to indulge in different creative areas that we enjoyed? A combination of all three, I suspect. (I also take photos on a semi-pro basis and have a keen interest in audio production: I post live recordings from our events on our Soundcloud page.) We wanted it to feel less like a club than a private party. For that first Christmas we cured our own ham and gave each guest a CD of vintage tunes compiled by our original DJ, MC Fruity.
After four events things really took off, mainly through word of mouth and the support of channels like the magazine Time Out, and we moved into a bigger space within the same building. For three months in 2011 we opened our doors almost every Saturday. (Until a friendly visitor from the local council pointed out that the room in which our speakeasy was located was not actually licensed for the sale of alcohol. He saw the irony.)
We later experimented with other venues—a floor of the traditional restaurant Kettner’s in Soho, a civic hall in Bayswater, and a multi-space ballroom in east London. Some parties are given individual themes of their own, whether it be seasonal (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s) or looking at places in the Jazz Age world—Paris, Havana, New Orleans, even Tokyo and Bombay—all of which influenced or were influenced by Prohibition in the US and contributed to the rich, stylish culture of the era. You can see albums of photos from these events online at https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheridanclub/collections/72157628744538069.
In summer 2015 the Candlelight Club was picked by the BBC to host an episode of their show Hair, in which amateur hairdressers competed to master a series of challenges. Hosted by comedian Katherine Ryan, the episode saw contestants styling the hair of Candlelight guests as well as a troupe of our Gatsby Girls dancers—to test whether their creations could survive the rigours of a Charleston work-out!
Now approaching its 13th birthday, the Candlelight Club continues to offer the chance to step back into the glamour of the Gatsby world for one night. My original partner and I parted company in 2016 and I now have award-winning mixologist David Hamilton Boyd in charge of food and drink. The experience continues to evolve: in the last few years the electric energy of our jazz and swing bands has been joined a growing element of cabaret, featuring London’s wonderful network of passionately creative singers, dancers, burlesque artists, acrobats, jugglers, magicians and more.
Of course the biggest challenge we’ve had to face was Covid-19. Lockdown in the UK meant we were not allowed to put on events for a year and a half, and to be honest the business still hasn’t recovered—there is a lingering fear of Covid among some, and I honestly think that other people have simply got out of the habit of going out (I hear this from other events and hospitality businesses too). And now that we are plunged into a cost-of-living crisis too, with inflation far outstripping wages, will people have money to spend on fripperies like a night at the Candlelight Club? Of course there is a school of thought that in times of economic crisis people tend to put off big expenditures like a new house, kitchen or car, and instead allow themselves little treats, so perhaps we’ll benefit from that.
Through most of our history our “marketing” was just word of mouth, entirely organic. Nowadays social media marketing is more evolved, offering great opportunities for those who know how to harness it, but the marketplace is more crowded. Much of our business comes through Google.
From a business perspective I have learned the importance of controlling costs. The profit margin for our events is slender, and if sales are down 15% there may be no profit at all. So I’ve realised that it is important to work out which costs make a difference to customers and which do not. Sometimes the things you do that really enhance the experience for guests actually cost little or nothing, other than some of your time and imagination: the Candlelight Club is all about creating a fantasy for one night, and a lot of the “atmosphere” of our events actually comes from the spirit and attitude of the people in attendance—not from anything that we ourselves are doing to them. If you can help evoke that spirit and attitude in advance by the way to present the experience, then guests will arrive ready to party, meet new people and dance the night away to the music of the Jazz Age.