“That’s the place I wanna go” chirped the television advertising campaign in August 1990 for the grand opening of the Institute night club in Digbeth following a complete refurb of the Digbeth Institute building.
Originally built as an educational annexe to the nearby Carr’s Lane Congregational Church in 1908 the building had long-since passed its sell-by date as a religious institution by the time plans were mooted for its conversion into a night club. During the 1970s and 80s the Institute had seen use hosting wrestling matches and various other gatherings under the then-ownership of Birmingham City Council who saw it as a community resource and Civic Centre but under-investment had seen the building largely falling into disuse during the late 1980s.
My involvement with the club started around March 1990 following my departure from Edwards No8 night club when I spotted an ad looking for door staff at a new club opening later in the year. I attended an interview and had a tour of the work in progress refitting the interior of the vast building and was quite impressed – fortunately, so was the interviewer as they contacted me shortly afterwards to offer me a job!.
My memory serves me rather poorly regarding the opening of the club however I recall that prior to opening Richard Branson was touted as one of the business partners involved in the venture but as the opening night approached he’d dropped out and the club was to be operated under Chris Deith and a music publisher whose name escapes me. Chris Deith, the head doorman (another Chris), the manager Peter Marks and four door staff all arrived en masse from a club in which they worked in Wakefield with a firm idea of how to operate a club in Birmingham . . . an idea that was soon somewhat challenged.
The club itself was quite an achievement following a multi-million pound refit. It primarily consisted of two ‘clubs': the Dance Factory at the ground floor, largely accessed from an entrance on Milk Street, and the main ‘venue’ on the first floor. The Dance Factory was fitted-out in an industrial style following the approach taken by the Hacienda in Manchester with metal catwalks surrounding the room and everything painted in grey with black and yellow hazard sriped painted everywhere. There was a small semi-circular bar at one end of the room and a restaurant at the other that originally had a Russian theme for some reason. The main venue room upstairs was a Mecca ballroom type of affair dominated by a dance floor with a stage at one end, A balcony around three sides of the room with two bars on the lower level and two bars on the upper level. The lighting rig in particular was outstanding and cost a fortune and featured lasers among its armoury and could be moved up and down and angled in many configurations from the lighting control desk that was positioned on the balcony. Such was the complexity of the rig that the club had its own lighting director, Kay Bottomley, who operated the huge system!
On the first floor too was a jazz bar called Take Five that featured live jazz from Andy Hamilton and also hosted karaoke nights. On the upper level of the club was also a private function room called the Celebration Suite and at the very top of the club was a small glass-fronted bar overlooking the main venue that functioned as a VIP bar. I’m not particularly easily impressed but having a tour of the club prior to opening was quite an exciting experience as it was vast and very expensively equipped.
Unfortunately, the club really failed to live up to expectations in a big way. The opening night was busy and various notaries of the Birmingham club scene, including my ‘old friends’ from Ansell’s Leisure, descended on the club along with a throng of punters to check out the new venue. However, my abiding memory was more of a gang of chaps trying to get into the club after being refused and forcing the front doors so hard that they caved in and we ended up with a line of Police on the door! This rather took the Wakefield contingent by surprise and they said they’d never seen anything like it. For those of us on the door from Brum, we knew they were in for many such occasions in Birmingham and this was certainly borne-out.
For a number of reasons, the club rather failed to hit the spot with Birmingham club goers – possibly its geographic locations away from the burgeoning night club and bar scene around John Bright Street and that emerging on Broad Street – and it really struggled to gain customers. In my opinion the management desperately tried to address the lack of customers by running lots of different ‘theme’ nights that drew-in totally the wrong kind of customers and in the process dragging the club down from its original concept as a ‘high class’ club to a rather violent gang-oriented club in a matter of months. During this process one night a huge gang fight broke out in the main venue room and such was the level of violence (and it was bad) the Wakefield contingent of the door staff refused to work there again!
This is not to say that we didn’t have some fun there and that there weren’t good nights. Many top acts played there (and always drew in a good crowd) and a good student night was run along with various other ‘indie’ nights organised by Brum promoter (and, a rarity in clubland, a top bloke) Dave Travis. Primal Scream, Paul Weller, Ride, the Soup Dragons etc all played there and big name bands playing at the NEC had their after show parties there too. I worked the door of the private function room for an INXS party and I recall some shenanigans during a Happy Mondays visit at the time too.
Sadly, with rapidly dwindling customers (and staff numbers) the club went into administration some 8-10 months after opening and new owners were being sought. By that time, I had refused to work all but the week day gig and indie nights and was working elsewhere on a weekend and felt my time to move-on had come. Shortly after I departed Andy Taylor of Duran Duran fame purchased the club and a new team of door staff came in along with new management and the club moved more into an all-night rave venue and, judging from some of the tales I heard from the door staff, I was lucky to escape when I did.
Since then the club has rather garnered a niche dance audience and gone through various ownerships and names (God’s Kitchen etc). In my opinion the lesson to be learnt from the period with which I was associated with the club is never assume that if you own a small, successful club in another town that you can come to Birmingham and repeat the process: it’s a whole different kettle of fish.