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Fiddle at the Griddle

January 17, 2012

Paul Lestre joinedThe Hi Diddle Griddle was once considered Auckland’s “plushest nightclub”. Opened in 1952, it introduced an alternative for cosmopolitan adults: a restaurant with live music. The owner was a man-about-town called Jim Jennings who had an obscure background: some thought he was an American expatriate, a South Pacific beachcomber who had ‘washed ashore’ after the war. Billy Farnell was certain he was from Tauranga. But he knew how to set up a room with class. Situated at 507 (‘food from heaven’) Karangahape Road, hospitality pioneer Otto Groen could be seen cooking in the window; chicken-in-a-basket made a change from colonial goose. On the dimly lit walls inside were black velvet murals of Polynesian maidens and a mythical Pacific, painted by Kristen Zambucka.

The Hi Diddle Griddle had no dance floor and a tiny stage that showcased small combos led by Lew Campbell, Crombie Murdoch and Nancy Harrie. It would open late, and close even later – sometimes 4.00am – and visiting musicians such as Nat King Cole might drop in. Late in the 1950s, Paul Lestre – a reed player and violinist from the East End of London – began a residency that led to the 1959 album A Night at the Hi Diddle Griddle, with pianist Lyall Laurent, bassist Bob Ofsoski and the city’s leading jazz guitarist, Ray Gunter. The Hi Diddle Griddle inspired many other venues offering food garnished with music.

A couple of items from A Night at the Hi Diddle Griddle were featured in today’s episode of the Blue Smoke radio series, which has been running each weekday on Radio NZ National at 10.30am. For a few days more, the episode can be heard at the Radio New Zealand website. One song from the Lestre album, George Shearing’s ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ is on YouTube.

Flying high in birdland, high in the sky up above …
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan Halpin permalink
    March 13, 2012 12:52 pm

    Bob Ofsoski and Lyle Laurent used to play regularly with Jimmy Warren’s band at St. Benedict’s dance hall, upper Symonds St., on Saturdays. How do I know this, and the fact that they were the very best cover ever playing “The Big Noise from Winnettka” ? I just happened to be the MC there for the last year before that Saturday’s dance closed. I just hated to see the boys,Jim,Dale,Murray,Frank,Bob and Lyle lose out on a long-lasting gig like that. We had a blast. I last talked to Jim when I visited the home country in 2004, but the movie of all that great music is still in my head somewhere. Just wish I could download it to you. Then there was Pitt Street before St.Ben’s and I remember the pit downstairs at the Crystal Palace in Balmoral as well with Bobbie and the boys (wasn’t he on trumpet then?)too.
    Back then two shillings and sixpence got you a lot of Saturday-night fun.

  2. Sally Warren permalink
    May 21, 2012 9:56 am

    The owner of the Hi Diddle Griddle was my grandfather Jim Jennings who hosted the Paul Lestre Group among others. He was a naturalized US citizen born in Thames, NZ. Love hearing the personal memories of the vibe back then. Otto Groen was the hard-working cook there. The Griddle actually opened July 31, 1953 and was in existence until 1959. Jim and Otto went on to open The Gourmet restaurant nearby in Auckland. Any other information out there would be greatly appreciated as I am working on a Jennings Family History book.

    • Stan Halpin permalink
      May 21, 2012 4:57 pm

      Yes. I do remember the Paul Lestre Group,but I was still in school then. Also, I wondered if you were at all related to Jim Warren who was working at Beggs Music store back then?
      In my former comment, I failed to mention that Saturday dances were in competition for their audiences and that St. Sephulchure’s was just up the street from St. Ben’s, but the biggest change came when Rock’n Roll took off about 1956. Forget the Dance Hall name in upper Khyber Pass where it all happened, but it drew the large crowds away from the other dance places.

      • Sally Warren permalink
        May 23, 2012 6:06 am

        Thank you for you memories. I have a brother-in-law Jim Warren in Dallas, Texas but its a pretty common name….

  3. Anonymous permalink
    October 15, 2012 5:03 pm

    Well you have to say – Paul Lestre and the Hi Diddle Griddle was uber cool in the late 1950’s. As a 17 year old I managed to outrage my father by frequenting this venue – the candles in the open brickwork – the ‘after races’ clientele on Saturday nights and the live music – such a far cry from the formica-tabled steak and fish cafes that my fathers generation knew. Paul Lestre (real name James Callan) became a life-long friend and his performances were always something to treasure. Many may recall Paul played for years at the White Heron Lodge. He was classically trained and had played under Sir Thomas Beecham in the London Symphony Orchestra before emigrating to NZ. All thanks to the Blue Smoke program for bringing back to life these salad days.

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