Plenty of breasts, but no bums on seats

It is the birthplace of a porn and property empire, but now the world-famous Raymond Revuebar faces closure. The reason? A lack of punters, and huge rent rises demanded by Paul Raymond himself. Malcolm Macalister Hall reports from the VIP bar
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The Independent Online

It's a biting cold night in Soho's neon-lit alleyways, and the prospect isn't much rosier inside the Raymond Revuebar, the self-styled "World Centre of Erotic Entertainment". One of the girls has called in sick, and Gerard Simi - owner, manager, set designer, choreographer, costume designer, and harassed - is hastily reworking things a few minutes before the curtain is due to go up for the first show at 8pm. Tonight, not many will see the result.

It's a biting cold night in Soho's neon-lit alleyways, and the prospect isn't much rosier inside the Raymond Revuebar, the self-styled "World Centre of Erotic Entertainment". One of the girls has called in sick, and Gerard Simi - owner, manager, set designer, choreographer, costume designer, and harassed - is hastily reworking things a few minutes before the curtain is due to go up for the first show at 8pm. Tonight, not many will see the result.

"We hoped it would be a good turnout for you," says the doorman apologetically, showing me to my red velour banquette just beneath the glitterball. "But there are only two other customers tonight." My fellow connoisseurs of the exotic art of striptease are two men - middle-aged, Middle Eastern - impassively sipping gin and tonics as we wait for "Personal Appearances of the World's Greatest Names in Striptease". But just as the curtain starts to rise, three lads in sweatshirts shamble in and get stuck into the beers. Two are already close to legless.

It all seems a long way from the Revuebar's heyday in the 1960s, when "Mr Soho" - Paul Raymond - would pull up outside the club in a Rolls-Royce and fur coat, and the surrounding streets were clogged with Jags belonging to the Revuebar's customers, a spivvy mix of London's demi-monde, flashy money-men and characters from the faded pages of long-dead gossip columns. When the place opened in April 1958, in a London just emerging from the gloomy days of post-war rationing, it caused a sensation as the first legal nude cabaret in town (Raymond had sidestepped the law by designating it a club, not a theatre). It was champagne and sharp suits all round.

For Raymond, it was to bring fame and the foundation of a secretive girlie-mag-and-property empire now worth anything from £600m to more than £1bn, depending on whose estimate you believe. The Revuebar was the first building Raymond ever bought. But now, rent demands from his own organisation seem likely to sink the internationally famous club he founded, which has become as much a London institution as The Mousetrap, and is the only visible monument to Raymond himself.

But would anyone deliberately want to destroy their most famous creation? Now in his late seventies, Raymond lives in his penthouse flat off Piccadilly, behind the Ritz, and he - apparently - isn't saying. "No, he wouldn't," says Carl Snitcher, the Paul Raymond Organisation's chief executive, before I've even finished asking whether Raymond might want to talk about it. Snitcher himself fails to understand my enquiry as to why a profitable organisation - it made nearly £26m pre-tax in 2002 - would wish to torpedo its historic flagship for the sake of a few pounds more in rent.

But Gerard Simi, Raymond's erstwhile friend and right-hand man, is mystified - and hurt. Born in France, brought up in Corsica and once a child star of the Marseille Opera, Simi looks - with his beard and woolly jumper - more like a Corsican fisherman than a strip-club owner. But he joined the Revuebar as a dancer in 1975, and was soon to become director and choreographer of every show. The two worked together for 22 years until Raymond sold him the lease and the Revuebar name in 1997.

Last year came the five-yearly rent review from the Paul Raymond Organisation's property wing, Soho Estates. The review itself was no surprise to Simi, but the amount was. "I was expecting the rent [rise] was going to be about 40 per cent, but they were asking for 120 per cent! When I saw that I said, 'I'm crucified.'"

Simi says it took nine months to negotiate the new rent down to something he felt he could pay. He won't reveal figures, but others confirm that the previous rent had been £150,000 a year. The negotiated new rent is £275,000. But, Simi claims, the killer blow came last autumn. Along with the bill for the next quarter came a demand for a further sum to bring the previously paid rent up to the new rate, backdated for the nine months the negotiations had taken.

"It was an astronomical sum," he says. "But still I managed to find it. I was only two or three days late. But they sent the bailiffs round one night, saying, 'We are coming to close your place.' That was the thanks I got for keeping the Raymond Revuebar alive. I was very, very disappointed."

Simi says he was still in hock from this when his next quarterly payment came due in December. "From that point I was going to need some help," he adds. About a month ago he called in the administrators. It now looks very likely that the lease, which has 15 years still to run, will be sold to another operator and the Revuebar and its "Fabulous International Striptease Spectacular" will close after 46 years.

Carl Snitcher points out that the rent rise at the Revuebar was agreed - not imposed - after negotiation between the two sides' advisers. "So we agree it between us and then that's the rent, and so it does go up. But that's the real world. And the real world says that the rent goes up indeed quite considerably. And then what do you say, as a landlord, in circumstances in which everyone has agreed a rent? That, for sentimental [reasons], you won't enforce it? That doesn't make any sense. We are after all in the business of running a property company."

As a landlord, Soho Estates is well known around Soho for being - how shall we say this? - "enthusiastic" in reviewing and raising rents. Estimates as to its holdings seesaw wildly. "We don't say what we own," Snitcher says. "But it's a lot."

Believed to be run by his son-in-law John James, Soho Estates is now reported to be moving into Notting Hill and Chelsea. In Soho itself, Raymond is believed to own much of the north side of Old Compton Street, properties in Romilly and Greek streets, part of Archer Street, the Windmill (and Whitehall) theatres, freeholds of the restaurants Kettners and Sugar Reef, Ronnie Scott's jazz club, and the celeb hangout Soho House. His property empire brought in pre-tax profits of nearly £13m in 2002. Meanwhile, his porn website and eight top-shelf magazines - including Men Only, Mayfair and Razzle - bring in another £13m.

The Revuebar was the foundation of this huge edifice. Born Geoffrey Quinn in Liverpool in 1925, Raymond came from a middle-class family; his father was a haulage contractor. Leaving school at 15, he worked as an office boy for the Manchester Ship Canal, and went down the mines (he lasted a week). Drafted into the wartime RAF, he served in Derbyshire - as a bandsman - and sold nylons and petrol coupons on the side. ("I was," he said years later, "a total spiv.")

After the war he played drums in a dance band and hit on the stage name Paul Raymond. He bought a mind-reading act for £25 (the price included the code book of lines his assistant should prompt him with). When this palled, he got a lift in a lorry to London, arriving, he once said, with 1s 6d (7.5p in today's money) in his pocket. He pulled pints and washed dishes - and cajoled some artistes into forming a touring revue. It lost money until he hit on the idea of paying two of the girls an extra 10s to take their tops off. Suddenly, he was in profit. Raymond had found his niche. He raised enough to lease the old Doric Ballroom in Soho and called it the Raymond Revuebar. From now on, it was Rolls-Royces and champagne all the way.

Bryan Burrough, the president of the Soho Society, says: "In the 1950s Soho was a bright, colourful part of a very grey post-war London. Paul Raymond was very innovative, and what he did was done with artistry and skill. The Revuebar is part of Soho's history and I'll be sorry if it goes, because on current trends what will replace it will either be boring - which you're not supposed to be in Soho - or worse."

He's not the only one. "I got very, very sad about the whole thing - not to say disgusted," says Gerard Simi, sitting in the red velour cocoon of the club's VIP bar. Since he took over, he says, he's spent "a fortune" revamping the theatre (more red velour), installing new bars, and - to compete with other brasher venues around town, such as Spearmint Rhino - he's brought in late-night table dancing. Though this offends his artistic sensibilities - "table dancing is anything but cabaret" - it now pulls in the main slice of revenue. The night's second show, at 10pm, does better: there are 20 patrons. Then it's table dancing until 4am.

Since at least the 1970s the main striptease audience have been foreign tourists, particularly men from the Far East. "They book sometimes direct from Japan or Korea. They want 'Raymond Bar! Raymond Bar!'" Simi says with a smile, affecting a Japanese accent. But fears of terrorism and the Sars outbreak have kept these and other tourists at home. "Even from the time of Paul Raymond, we always had a kind of safety net, which is the Oriental customers. So we are suffering now because that safety net is not here."

But Simi and his naked girls in high heels are not quite sunk yet. "The business is washing its face in terms of profitability," says Jason Godefroy, a partner with the Revuebar's administrators, Menzies Corporate Restructuring. "So at the moment it's business as usual, while we speak to interested parties about a potential sale. But it's still very much early days. A lot of it is going to come down to the landlords, really, and how they approach things."

Simi says his fate is now out of his hands. "I love this place to death. It's 30 years of my life," he says. "I took the Revuebar over because I loved Paul Raymond and I admired him so much. I know business is business, but still I thought we had a special relationship. And when he wanted to give up six or seven years ago, I said, 'Let me try to carry on holding the flag', to keep its reputation, and his name in lights."

He says that no one from the Paul Raymond Organisation has ever called at the club (apart from the bailiffs) since he took over in 1997, even though the offices are just round the corner. And he hasn't seen or heard from Paul Raymond for six years.

None the less, Simi says he's more hurt than angry at the predicament he finds himself in. "I have very good memories of Paul Raymond, and I owe him a lot. The Revuebar was like a family. I really thought that if I was in trouble I would get some support and understanding."

Snitcher says that Raymond himself is "not really involved" in the business nowadays, but that he does know the situation. He adds that Simi's claim that he hasn't received any support or understanding is "not entirely true". "I really don't want to get into that," Snitcher says, "but Gerard's done a jolly good job, and we're not in any conflict with him. He's gone through quite a tough time, that's true. But things do change. There's an argument that says that this kind of entertainment probably has seen its day. That's not a reflection on anyone; it's just the changing mores of society."

Snitcher may have a point here. When the curtain rises on the 8pm showing of "Exotica 2000", it's a bit like a cross between the Eighties dance troupe Hot Gossip and the Folies Bergère - a lot of leather, high heels, feather boas, gold lamé and writhing around. There's a stripping bride sequence, a stripping policewoman sequence, and a strip in a bank vault piled with gold bars. Though Simi's sets and routines are creative, there's only so much that five naked women and two men in leather jockstraps can do on stage without breaking the law. After the show, one of the drunk lads gives it a succinct review: "It were shite."

Simi is unrepentant about upholding what he sees as the great artistic tradition of the "nude cabaret" against the newer and cruder fashions for pole dancing and table dancing. "Nude cabaret means something where there is some thinking and creativity behind it, not just a girl on a podium with a pole. That's not cabaret," he says dismissively. "The table-dancing bars don't have the charm, nor the cachet, nor the atmosphere of the Raymond Revuebar. There's nothing like the Revuebar, and nothing can be out of fashion if it's unique."

Paul Raymond's own thoughts on the survival - or otherwise - of his famous club remain, as usual, unknown. Shy and a man of few words (he has a slight stammer), he is none the less said to be affable and entertaining in company, but also a shrewd operator with no real interests outside his business. Prey to illness in recent years, he is said to have become even more reclusive since the death in 1992 of his adored daughter Debbie, 36, after she had taken a cocktail of alcohol and drugs. Holding a senior position in his magazine business, she was being groomed as his heir. Relationships with other members of his family - including, in the past, his son Howard - have been characterised by rifts and unsentimental detachment. Gerard Simi and the girls at the Revuebar can only keep their fingers crossed that, perhaps this once, things might be different.