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Memories of the Ocean Hotel Saltdean by Chris George Back

I was musican director of the dear old Ocean from 1979 - 1990. What a lot of memories! So much laughter, and a few tears along the way. The Ocean saw it all, from the birth of a baby in the main ballroom to a few deaths. The saddest thing for me was to watch as a succession of so-called "managers" managed the old lady into extinction. In the Marine Ballroom, there was a fantastic mural painted by Reg SIger. Full of atmosphere and displaying a huge amount of talent, the scene showed a bay at night with an old galleon, backlit by a setting sun and with lights twinlking from the ship, this picture set the atmosphere for the Marine Ballroom. A general manager "improved" this etheric scene by painting the whole wall pink and putting a shabby little bathroom mirror on it. The redcoats were the life blood of the hotel and many of them went beyond what was already a pretty heavy definition of the word "duty". Sadly, the same can not be said for a succession of entertainment managers. We had the misfortune to have four in quick sucession who were totally unfit for purpose. One took the entire redcoat body out for a jolly in Brighton leaving the paying customers with no redcoat support. Another used to wander around the place wearing a cardboard box and (it transpired) nothing else. There were others who saw the post as little more than sex wall to wall. The Marine Ballroom used to host Old Time Dancing. Now, don't get me wrong, I've played for this for several summer seasons and I hated it. BUT, the leaders there, Fred and Ivy Bray-Cotton used to put 200 people in the place each and every week. They had an enormous following and people would come back year on year just to see them. What a pity that a newly appointed entertainments manager said "No one is coming here to see anyone but ME" and promptly sacked them. With Fred & Ivy went 200 covers a week. And so the decline began.

That said, there were some great times too. Visiting cabaret were usually of a high standard, but here again, management made the fatal error of booking people they liked rather than people the paying guests liked. This may sound like a bit of a moan rather than a Butlin memory, but you know, just look at what has happened to the main centres. The Butlin empire no longer exists. I heard that the three remaining centres are more porfitable than the whole group was, including the hotels. But, honestly, fruit machines on the sites? Billy would be turning in his grave. Look how soulless they have become. Maybe the old building were getting on, but the day the bulldozers flattened the Gaiety at Bognor and replaced it with that architectural monstrosity which is little more than a plastic tent, was the day that theatre, real theatre died. Now we have teams of reds who get laughs by embarassing the guests. Few have any talent and most things on the camps cost. So much for a weeks holiday for a weeks pay with everything free.

The Butlin tradition was a good one. It had the capacity to go on. I visited the Ocean Hotel recently as it is undergoing what I like to think of as its embalming. There is no doubt the old girl is dead and although there will be people living there again it will be in only a shell of what it once was. Some of the art deco is still visible and even scraps of Reg Sigers wodnerful murals are still there. They've discovered the original lino flooring of the reception area, but downstairs looks like the wreck of the titanic. The Ocean ballroom is unrecognisable. The floor has rotted out and the plaster hangs in garlands from the ceiling. It doesnt matter, its all coming down anyway. If one is very still and the interminable noise of the jackhammers ceases, one can still hear the laughter and the music. Standing there in the darkness there was a breath of warmth and I am sure I could smell the old scent of the place. The Christmases past are still decernable. (Traces of decorations still exit stapled to the crumbling ceiling. When they built the fun pool and put a roof over it, they decided they would cover the interior hotel walls in the same waterproof plaster used for the pool. As the then GM said "It will cover up all the leaks from the pipes." (Perish the thought that someone would actually think about repairing them.) As the old girl has stood unheated and empty, those rusting pipes have given way and leaks of water, fresh and foul proliferate. In many places the ceiling is missing or little more than a sodden mess on the floor. But as I say, its still there. The atmosphere, some may say the ghosts of the past. The main buidling retains a presence, a feeling. An almost tangible aura of her glorious past.

Now, the builders have found the decaying corpse of the Ocean and are embalming her. Cleaning out the decay, and making good her outward appearance. The Ocean may be destined to become homes, but she is and always will be a grand old lady.

So many of the old guard are gone. Jimmy Noon died not so long ago and is buried in Rottingdean churchyard, My saxophonist Ray Web died too recently. Even the indefatigable Ozzy Bunn is no more.

Perhaps its just as well.

Chris George.

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