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Tilleys Bar all set to take centre stage.

Byline: By Alastair Gillmour

A Newcastle pub which owes its name to a music hall male impersonator has assumed a slightly different role.

Tilleys Bar, on Westgate Road ( and adjoining The Journal Tyne Theatre ( has been taken over by The Head of Steam company which already operates five pubs across the country, including two in Newcastle.

This is a new notation on the script for managing director, Tony Brookes, who prides himself on the free trade nature of the company he started 20 years ago this month ( Tilleys is "tied" to Jennings Brothers of Cockermouth in Cumbria.

"It's going to be a bit of a challenge turning round a pub with an old-style beer tie," says Tony, "but I'm confident we'll be up to it. A lot of work needs to be done to bring it back to its early attractiveness and we plan a refurbishment for the new year. We think it's got loads of potential ( it always used to be a great pub and it's great to have it in the Head of Steam family."

Tony's two other city pubs are The Head of Steam on Neville Street and The Cluny at Ouseburn, both renowned for their wide choice of beers and continental lagers, their relaxed attitude and all-embracing nature.

"Jennings have been quite flexible," says Tony. "They realise that pubs in a city centre need a good range of products to succeed in a very competitive environment, so they're making a special allowance for Tilleys Bar to have the range that the other The Head Of Steam outlets have on draught ( such as Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell and Erdinger Weissbier. We'll also offer a range of four Jennings real ales and two guest beers, including local micro-breweries, plus a rotating range of bottled Belgian beers."

Tilleys Bar traces its origins to Vesta Tilly, a former child star who first appeared on stage in 1868, age four, singing Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-Wow. She developed into a male impersonator with the likes of "Burlington Bertie" in her dinner-suited repertoire.

The pub started life as The Crown in 1860 and was rechristened The Crown Buffet after an 1896 rebuild. When Liverpool-based impressario, Oswald Stoll, took over the adjacent Tyne Theatre and renamed it The Stoll Picture House in 1919, it was known as the Stoll Theatre Buffet. A later change introduced The Brandy Vaults before it took a long journey to The Garden City Chinese Restaurant. The Tyne Theatre Buffet followed this helping of prawn crackers, then it was the Pit Bar and another brief flirtation with The Brandy Vaults name. Tilleys opened in 1991.

Oswald Stoll was obsessed with Vesta Tilly, calling her "his sweetheart" and wrote songs in her praise, but she married his rival, Walter de Frece, who went on to found the Hippodrome empire. Stoll was broken-hearted, but managed to develop picture houses in Cardiff, Manchester and London.

Tony Brookes has a history of either starting businesses with new marketing slants, or taking over and turning round failed businesses. His first foray into the pub business was in the 1980s, in the guise of Legendary Yorkshire Heroes, a company that eventually ran 18 real ale pubs, ranging from the Station Hotel in Gateshead to the Railway Hotel in Rothbury.

He says: "It was our philosophy ( and it's a concept that we still believe in ( to make places into good community pubs. Only one, or possibly two, previously sold real ale. It was brilliant.

"Funnily enough, I started Legendary Yorkshire Heroes 20 years ago this month ( I thought the name up a million years ago ( if I'd become a coalman I'd still have called the business Legendary Yorkshire Heroes.

"We were invited to take over The Cluny in 2002 ( November, again ( because we fitted the social and political view that the previous owners had."

Behind a Head of Steam-style bar are several collection boxes where customers can choose which good cause their spare change should go to. The People's Kitchen in Newcastle, Medecins sans Frontieres, Water Aid and Oxfam all benefit as every penny collected is doubled by the management.

"I'm particularly keen on water projects," says Tony. "We have been involved in a project in Nepal where we funded a whole town's water scheme."

Tony believes that too many people in the pub business forget what they're selling. "Retailing means giving the customer a good time," he says. "It's about great beer, great food, great surroundings and great atmosphere. I call it the `wow' factor."

Bet it's not the same "wow" as Oswald Stoll felt when he realised Vesta Tilly wasn't a man, after all.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 13, 2004
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