In October, a violent incident involving iconic Soho venue Madame Jojo’s, a celebrated performance space for several decades and home to productions including House of Burlesque, The Folly Mixtures Revue and Cabaret Roulette, led to action by Westminster Council which has been condemned as “draconian” – the complete and brutally swift suspension of its licence and complete closure. Madame Jojo’s cooperated and made key staff changes approved by the council, but this was not enough to keep the venue open.
Why such fast, firm and final action against this venue when other venues with similar, often worse and more regular incidents of this nature have been allowed to stay open? Well, it might have something to do with Soho Estates’ (‘King of Soho’ Paul Raymond’s company which owns sixty acres of land in and around Soho, now owned and run by his grandaughters) plans for significant redevelopment of Walker’s Court, which were approved six months ago. With demolition already approved, it seems Madame Jojo’s fate was sealed to make way for the realisation of this depressing monstrosity. Westminster Council continues to insist it was acting purely in the interests of public safety, but many people (see links below), including myself, smell a big, greedy, gentrifying rat.
On Saturday, a horde of London cabaret community members and long-time supporters and residents of Soho came together to give legendary venue Madame Jojo’s a special send-off. Together we marched from Soho Square down Greek Street, pausing at the Soho Estates offices, before continuing on to Brewer Street, where wreaths and flowers were laid at the doors of Madame Jojo’s. A number of photographers and other members of the press accompanied us to capture the procession, and among the marchers were industry journalists – myself on behalf of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, Franco Milazzo from This Is Cabaret, and Ben Walters from Not Television.
At this point I’m handing over to the organiser of the vigil and procession, performer Abigail O’Neill, who has shared her thoughts and experience with me. Her words are accompanied by photos, and a moving video by Gaz Twist…
“From vision to vigil, the whole process of organising the procession happened quite quickly. I had the idea on the Tuesday and by Thursday myself and Alexander Parsonage, who organised the #SaveMadameJojo’s petition, were being contacted for TV and radio interviews.
The closure of Madame Jojo’s kept playing on my mind. Primarily I was gutted that I would never be able to perform there again, that I would never be able sit in the dressing room giggling with fellow performers, and that I would never again walk down those stairs into drag queens, break dancers and burly girls all gravitating in the same space. It’s a special place and it dawned on me I probably wasn’t the only person feeling like that.
“I had never organised anything like this before. I think my passion and the passion of others is really what carried this through. There was little in the way of organisation; the main thing for me was to try and get as many corners of the Jojo’s and Soho community involved because I felt what happened to Jojo’s is a mirror of what’s going on throughout London, especially Soho. Then, of course, to find a coffin!
“Talking to the press was extremely nerve-wracking. I don’t see myself as a public speaker so I was quite concerned about not getting my points across clearly, or voicing the concerns of others properly. With the help of some cue cards I said all I wanted to say and to be honest I think I only looked at them once! I guess when it’s something you are passionate about you can talk about it for ages, and that’s the one thing that I have taken from this – the passion, the passion people have towards their community. That’s what this procession was built on.
“Overall I am so pleased with how the procession went. I wish there were more members of the Jojo’s community past and present in attendance but the number of people out in their funeral finest was just amazing. I’d say we did Madame Jojo’s proud.
“At the beginning of the meet-up it all felt quite fun and light hearted, but as we set off down Greek Street and past Soho Estates it really felt like we had a job to do, an issue to highlight and respects to pay. There was definitely an overwhelming feeling of emotion when we got to the main entrance of Madame Jojo’s, and even though I knew it was just a prop made from Poundland flowers that morning, I felt very humbled to lay the wreath. The wreaths and the coffin acted as symbols – the death of a dear friend, the end of an era – but it was certainly real for those there.
“Since the event I have been thinking about Soho a lot – its community, its residents, the businesses – and how they must feel being told that their home is dying, that it’s in slow decline. I think being in the thick of it and seeing all the changes going on around you is one thing, but to be told in the papers and on the streets – in processions – must be quite heartbreaking and all I can hope is that with this comes reaction! That the people will stand up and fight! That they will turn the new Soho into something equally as creative, diverse and inspiring. But with the streets as they know them being sanitised, stripped of their substance and replaced with something new and unfriendly, who knows? As The Correspondents once said: ‘Oh no, what’s happened to Soho? Where will all the reprobates go?'”
Burlesque Hall of Fame / Miss Exotic World Judge, 2011 Holli Mae Johnson is the founder and editor of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, a pioneering publication created twelve years ago to unite, document and celebrate the global burlesque community. Holli is actively involved in the burlesque community on a day to day basis and is privately consulted by performers and producers at every level for promotion, critique, recommendations and encouragement. As a documenter and critic, she has seen countless burlesque and variety performances from across the world and provides an intimate perspective and insight into the lives and careers of burlesque’s greatest pioneers, performers and personalities.