WHEN the former Ikon nightclub on the corner of Higher Bridge Street and St George’s Road opens as a world buffet restaurant in October it will mark the next chapter in the fascinating history of a landmark building that has touched thousands of local lives.

For this is the original home of the Astoria Palais de Danse — better known to generations of Boltonians as The Palais — and the place that spawned thousands of romances.

It was opened in 1928 when American singer Al Jolson was king and danceband music was all the rage.

The non-licensed dance hall was created by local builder Thomas Bolton, a staunch teetotaller and member of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel who apparently wanted somewhere parents could safely let their daughters attend.

The ethos was plainly translated to the running of the Palais as the manager was required to watch from the balcony throughout the evening to ensure girls were not being harassed.

Woe betide any young man who tried as, according to memories of that time, “two strong-arm men” would take them outside and send them on their way — after giving them their money back, of course.

The Palais remained open during the Second World War — attracting young servicemen from a wide area including Americans from the Burtonwood base who arrived by truck.

One lovely account of regular American visitors here recalled how they came so often to the town, they could speak with a Bolton accent as a party piece.

At this time, people didn’t just attend to dance — they could go for a coffee on the balcony. This was quite a treat as for sixpence you not only got a cup of coffee but sugar, then strictly rationed.

In the 1940s, the Bolton Palais de Danse company bought Greenhalgh’s Bakery shop, owned by Mr James Greenhalgh, to supply the dance hall with bakery products.

Most of the local mills had their dances at The Palais in the Winter, with well-known names like Tootals Barlow and Jones and Musgrave’s spinning mills organising these special invitation-only occasions.

These were eventually stopped in 1968, however, because the functions upset The Palais regulars.

The Bolton News:

The 1950s saw a boom in ballroom dancing and young people would have lessons so they could do the waltz and foxtrot properly each week to impress potential partners. Phil Foster’s band and Johnny Healey’s band were regular entertainers there.

As seasoned drummer and Palais fan Fred Shawcross recalls: “Derek was rated one of the top trumpeters in the UK. When he eventually left Bolton he played with some of the top bands and became Shirley Bassey’s regular trumpet player."

Like many young men over the decades, Fred met his wife-to-be, Judith Anne, at The Palais 58 years ago. “That was where young people met each other,” he adds. “It was the epicentre of local social life.”

Fred himself played in bands there and recalls musicians like drummer Kenny Bowers and saxophonist Geoff Gettins among many.

He remembers how, in the early ‘50s, the bop and jive fans danced “down the deep end” at the Palais; this included enthusiastic local exponents like Bill Bohannon and Alan Mort.

Mecca Dancing Ltd took over The Palais in 1956, when the Phil Moss band became the featured entertainers.

In October, 1958, the BBC’s popular “Come Dancing” programme was broadcast from there. Local dancers featured included Eunice Regent of View Street and her partner William Dagnall of Randal Street.

They reached the semi-final of the Inter-town Novice Quickstep Contest — sadly, they were ultimately eclipsed by a couple from Sheffield.

The Bolton News:

Society was changing, though, and in 1963, 500 teenagers signed a petition objecting to the new Palais management’s plan to change their jiving session from Tuesday to Monday night and replace it with bingo.

Hardly any of the teenagers could go on Mondays because of night school.

In 1965, after four previous attempts, Bolton magistrates finally gave Mecca dancing a licence to “sell intoxicants” on Wednesday and Saturday “older age” nights.

For years, the practice had been to issue passes to those wanting an alcoholic drink who nipped out to local hostelries in the interval.

Slowly but surely, discotheques took over and dancing changed.

The Bolton News:

The Palais became another iconic dance spot when Cinderellas Rockerfellas opened in 1979, and closed in 1987.

It’s also been Ritzy’s and later Ikon and was not only a dancing and socialising centre but a venue for Thai boxing contests and cage fighting before closing in January last year because of plummeting trade.

Now, it’s set to be family restaurant Cheers and serve Chinese, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Italian and Spanish food under one roof.

There’s no doubt the building will once more have an important place in Bolton’s nightlife. And you suspect that the American soldiers might just have loved it too.