FOR almost 80 years until 2008, the Palais Royale was a Newcastle cultural landmark.
Best remembered now as a big barn of a place with impressive corkscrew-shaped pillars, the original long timber building in Hunter Street West began life as the Elite Skating Rink in 1888. Then it was turned into an arcade market, before becoming known as the Empire Music Hall.
But from 1929, after a major transformation and a new rounded art deco facade, it became known as the Empire Palais Royale dance hall. Later, it was simply called the Palais Royale. And for years it was famous as a ballroom, a dance hall and by the early 1990s, a nightclub.
The arrival of television and the growth of RSL and sporting clubs, however, had meant a gradual decline in patronage, starting in the 1960s.
The heyday of the Palais was probably between 1939 (when it was again renovated) and 1957 when regular dances were held on Tuesday and Saturday nights.
With a 10-piece band in residence, the rejuvenated site became the mecca of old-time ballroom dancing.
It was true mass entertainment, with the huge dance floor of the cavernous Palais creaking to the rhythmic steps of up to 1800 people. To the strains of the Pride of Erin, a slow foxtrot or a jazz waltz, hundreds of snappily dressed dancers would glide on to the dance floor under the ornate, vaulted plaster ceiling.
Later, there was even non-stop dancing, with marathon dance parties. It was true mass entertainment with weary dance couples later staggering out into the dawn. Then in the 1950s, when rock'n'roll swept the world, the Palais Royale kept in step with Top 40 tunes.
The Palais was Newcastle's premier entertainment venue. Later, happily married couples would even boast, "Where did I first meet hubby? We met at a Palais dance."
And bandleader Gordon Favell ran Palais dances for almost three decades, before he and a six-piece band transferred to the newly constructed Maitland Leagues Club.
That was in 1967. Interviewed by the Herald, he recalled that it hadn't been unusual for a Palais dance to run from 8pm until 4am.
On those occasions, Favell said he used to take along a change of underwear ("it's hot work pounding a piano") and a cut lunch to eat at midnight.
The Palais, of course, had been the first dance hall in Newcastle to introduce dawn dances. His 10-piece big band, all sweating profusely, played continuously for hours, taking only three-minute breaks between musical numbers.
But from 1957, with pressure from TV and clubs, the magic of the Palais Royale was waning. Favell had formed his own band, called Gordon Favell's Windsor Dance Band, back in 1936, playing at local shows before arriving at the Palais.
His daughter, Robyn Hepple, of New Lambton, said this week she was a very young girl when she first went to the Palais with her father to hear his big band.
"He worked there for 28 years," Hepple said proudly. "It was such a busy place. By comparison, I sometimes wonder what the young people of today do for entertainment.
"A lot of older Newcastle people have very fond memories of the old Palais dances. I have a neighbour who's turning a 100 years old, he remembers going to early dances there.
"Early in his Palais career, Dad married Mum [Bae Fortington]. She was the daughter of Les Fortington, the owner of the Palais before and after World War II.
"Mum's twin brother Billy also played drums in the Palais band for a while."
Favell once said that at the peak of his dance band's popularity at the Palais, he played 42 balls in six months.
But strangely, his hectic life didn't guarantee financial success as it was always a part-time occupation. Favell said no band musician or band leader could ever make a steady living from it.
As a result, he worked a variety of daytime jobs, including being assistant manager of an egg board for 17 years, running his own Mayfield coffee shop and then working at BHP's Shortland Research Laboratory.
And public tastes change. Formal balls, which had been the mainstay of his band's employment for decades, had nose-dived by 1967. Favell then moved to more regular work at Maitland Leagues Club for his final 10 years in the entertainment industry.
As he told the Herald that year: "The ball season is slackening noticeably. I think the price of tickets is against them. A supper ball now costs as much as $12 a double ticket. The average family man can't afford this kind of money."
Favell had originally come up from Sydney to Newcastle at the age of 22 to take up the position as a football coach with Eastern Suburbs Club, which included Stockton. A few years later he retired from football to became a regular at the Palais. Earlier, when he couldn't find work during The Depression, Favell had practised on a piano eight hours a day to become a professional musician, despite his early poor pay.
But by 1977, even bandleader Favell decided to call it quits after 41 years in the music business, including his musical stint at Maitland.
Then 65 years old, he conceded he was pushing himself to get up and play. But he still fondly remembered the old competition dances at the Palais, with dancers parading around with numbers pinned to their backs.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the Palais had slumped until businessman Fred Pears rescued the site to reopen it in March 1979 as the Palais Royale Nite Club. By 1999, however, it had closed again, but soon become a youth centre.
The once-proud building was sliding into decay though with its exterior tagged with graffiti, despite apparently being listed on a Hunter heritage register.
The site had approval for an eight-storey, 92-apartment building with the condition the iconic facade was retained.
After storm damage, however, the Palais Royale facade was declared structurally unsound and demolition began in March 2008. The West End site is instead now part of the KFC's largest fast-food outlet in Australia.
The final word now should go to Favell's daughter, Robyn Hepple.
"I was certainly sad when the Palais finally went. A lot of people, like me, thought it should have stayed. There were once so many balls held there, it was unbelievable. I then went and took a brick from the Palais as a memento before it was pulled down. So many memories now gone."