What Was It Like To Work At 5th Avenue Nightclub, Portsmouth

5th Avenue never captured the cachet of Nero’s. Long gone were all the infamous managers from the Nero’s Nitespot days including Leo Leeson, Candy Offer, Jimmy Nugent and the ubiquitous Dave Anson.  The DJ’s of Nero’s lore that included Chris Watts, Steve Porter, Pete Mitchell, Franklyn Hughes, Pete Cross, Merrick and Mark Frampton had moved on to other things. Nero’s used to be part of the Southsea Carnival and club staff would dress up in Roman attire for the parade, but those days were truly in the past. Now, in the mid Eighties, the club would be lucky to just have a booth at the “Southsea Show” and they were stuck with the fair-to-middling DJ’s Ross Mitchell and Steve Kingsley. The prior club brought us disco, soul and funk. The latter brought us electronic, acid house, hip-hop and early rap music. It was no contest, but no one was judging.

Getting Hired at 5th Avenue

I did not intend to get a job at 5th Avenue nightclub. It just happened one night, out of necessity comes invention.

The club had been open for a couple of years and I would attend pretty regularly with friends – always attempting (and often failing) to pick up girls and afterwards heading to Albert Road, or even Fratton Road,  to pick up a kebab with same friends who often failed in the same objective. Like most people we would avoid eating at The Intrepid Bun, the cafe on the corner, built into the Savoy block – because the food was so bad, even for drunks. On a nondescript Saturday night in 1985 the door staff (bouncers to you and me) gave me a hard time. “Sorry, not tonight” was a common response from the bouncers to groups of guys, but this one particular night all my friends got in to the club except me. This was especially concerning because I was actually on the “Guest” list – that is,  I knew someone who worked at 5th Avenue, and employees were allowed to add one person on the guest list to get into the club for free each night. So, at the door, the head bouncer, Mike Preston,  told me he did not like my shoes and he could not be talked out of it. Undeterred I caught a taxi home, changed my crappy looking shoes and headed back to the club. When I returned an hour later, Preston initially said no again – I reminded him that I just went all the way home for new shoes, so he relented and let me in. Like an idiot I gave him an arrogant remark that it got me into big trouble. An argument ensued and I was physically ejected out of the club ten seconds after I just got in. At 5′ 9″ and 150lbs wet, it is not like I was going to bowl them over, but they picked me up and physically threw me out of the door. During my ejection, the head bouncer also informed me that I am now “banned for life” which in Portsmouth terms means an eternity, especially for someone with their whole life ahead of them. After several more unsuccessful attempts to get back into the club over the next six months, I decided that I would need a new course of action that would get me into the club without a problem and this would forever change the course of my life. Thinking outside-the-box I decided to get a bar job at 5th Avenue. Getting a job there was easy, because it was such a low rung on the bar circuit that on any given night there would be bar staff shortages, because it was so poorly paid and the working conditions were notoriously terrible. There was puke everywhere, sometimes behind the bar. Some nights drunk customers would just pee up against the bar before they were ejected. The bar work was barely half a rung above the glass collectors, who really had it bad. But the bouncers, they were well paid and had great working conditions, but they ran the risk of getting their faces smashed in every night, no job for a pacifist.

Working the bar at 5th Avenue could be fun at times, but notoriously badly paid. In 1986 the pay for working at the bar  was 3.30 pounds  an hour. This was hard work, long hours and late nights. You suffered the brunt of the drunks at the club,  the abuse at the hands of guys trying to scam drinks from the bar, the violence outside the club after closing when you are trying to leave and the wrath of the management when the cash in the register did not match the register printed tally. All this for a paltry 9.95 pounds a night after tax. It was bad pay, especially when you consider that each bar was clearing at least a few thousand pounds in sales every night. The main club had three bars,  aptly named Bar One, Bar Two and the Balcony Bar. Bar One is where I started and we would clear at least six thousand pounds a night. Bar One was staffed by up to eight bartenders a night and that was often not enough. After a coffee break, you would return to see that six of the bar staff were long into the weeds with five or six customers deep at the bar. That bar was twenty yards long and that was a lot of people. There were always a lot of thirsty people at Bar One and there would be a lot of drunk people by the end of the night, they drank as fast as we could pour the drinks.

It did not take long before I ran into Preston again. A couple of weeks after I started working at the club, I was running late for work, so I had to use the front door to get in. Preston saw me and we spoke. When I told him what had transpired, with him banning me and then me finding a way around it by getting hired, he thought this was the funniest story ever. Two weeks later he was gone after a big fight broke out and he would, reportedly, not get into the fray, the bouncers had a mutiny and he was fired. My door ban was now lifted, but I was not out of the woods yet as I would have to endure an employee six month ban instead, see Mack’s egregious new employee rules below.

Mack’s New Bar Policies Causes Rift With Bar Staff At 5th Avenue Nightclub

That’s exactly how the news story should have read “Mack’s New Bar Policies Causes Rift With Bar Staff At 5th Avenue Nightclub“,  but The Portsmouth Evening News never ran the story.

Mack was the new club manager when I joined in 1985 and he was changing the way things worked at 5th Avenue as Pleasurama was not happy about the clubs profits being down. My first experience with Mack was to see him make some questionable decisions to get control of costs. Mack instituted a number of new policies that annoyed the existing bar staff. I was new and  it was my first ever bar job so I did not know any better, but the other bar staff were not so happy. Mack’s first policy was to stop all employees from drinking anything other than the water or coffee out of the staff room. This meant we could no longer drink soda or orange juice from behind the bar, so it made working the bar very thirsty work. Forget drinking a beer or cocktail at the end of the night, that was now off limits too. Another rule to stop the flow of free drinks was that staff could not come into the club on their night off and they were banned for six months if they left employment. Lacking any legal merit or agreement, countless ex-employees would attempt to challenge this ruling at the door, but the bouncers were steadfast in their resolve and would often make the ban against them longer at Mack’s behest. Mack acted as though there was a conspiracy, but I never saw it. Mack also fired half of the glass collectors and the bar staff were often forced to serve drinks in dirty glasses during busy nights. Many times, as we were pouring drinks we would be wiping off lipstick or some other matter from the edge of the glass with our thumbs. These changes seemed somewhat unreasonable, but it was one particular rule change that was astounding, that was the zero-waste policy.

Zero Waste Policy For Bar Staff

Foul Tasting BeerMack decided to institute a new policy he called “Zero waste” This obnoxious bar policy stated that no poured unsold alcohol could be ever wasted down the drain. All drinks that were incorrectly poured or other mistakes were to be kept on the side and re-served to another patron. Furthermore, all drip trays of beer, had to be emptied back into glasses and then re-served to unknowing patrons. When we cleaned the beer lines with the line cleaner once a week, all the “mixed” liquid had to be captured and served to patrons either on that night, or even the following night. The beer lines from the beer cellar to bar one were so far that there would often be a bucket and a half of mixed line cleaner and beer. There was a lot of line cleaner served on a Saturday night. We had just introduced draft Budweiser as a new beer choice and a lot of of line cleaner was added to that because the local tap chiller made that beer vend ten degrees colder than regular beer, which masked the bitter cleaner taste. Mack made it clear that the “zero waste” policy dictated that no waste was allowed in any circumstances and anyone that did waste any product would be fired. He also banned certain mixes of drinks that would get customers drunk faster. Gone were Snakebites (half lager, half cider), no mixing of spirits and liquors in the same glass and an increase in prices on half orders of beers and ciders to discourage students from making their own alcoholic concoctions as well as snakebites. In addition, no empty glasses would be provided to customers either. Obviously some of the changes were OK, but the “Zero Waste” policy was positively dangerous. Looking back, any of the customers could have picked up listeria, salmonella or even botulism from those filthy drip trays. They probably did get sick and now, reading this, they may realize why it happened. Some of the more motivated bar staff contacted the local newspaper The Portsmouth Evening News to try to get the story into the paper because of the risk of people being poisoned was high, but The News declined to run the story. I assume it was because Pleasurama (the operating company) was still a good client of the newspaper at the time and it paid for lots of ad-space, probably a relationship that the paper wasn’t willing to risk on such a wild story. It also didn’t help that some management-friendly ex Nero’s employees were now working at The News. But the story was true, I was there, on the front line. I am ashamed to admit that I too, served up the putrid drip trays, right back into the pint glasses and I also diluted the beer sludge with fresh beer to make it passable. If someone complained about the awful taste, we were ordered to put it to the side and then water it down with some more beer for the next poor, unsuspecting patron.

Various Staff Characters At The Club

While Mack was the manager at 5th Avenue, there were many more characters working there during my tenure. Bob, the manager on Bar One, was an affable chap who was a meat cutter by day and the top bar manager by night. Another man also named Bob was heading up Bar Two, but he liked to spend more time working the disco light panel inside the DJ booth than actually working on the bar, so-much-so that he lost his role as bar manager to a new guy named Vince, who lasted exactly two weeks before the club chewed him up and spat him out. Luke was on the balcony bar, where he always seemed to be having a ball and Logan was the assistant manager in the club. Logan wasn’t his real name though, I recollect it was Trevor, but he was such a fan of Logan’s Run  that he officially changed his name to the new moniker. Lord only knows if he still goes by it today. Tina worked on bar 1 and she was a nasty bitch to everyone. She was one of the first to ever have a medical breast reduction procedure that I can recall, but that didn’t change her mean personality. Even though she weighed less, she was just as bitter – in fact as there was far less of her and the bitterness was the same, you could say that her meanness potency increased significantly.

Images Was Always An Alternative Choice

5th Avenue had a smaller sister club next door, Images (which later became Zoom) which would sometimes be open when the main club was busy. It was down some inside steps in the back of 5th Avenue. This club was a smaller laid back affair, with more a Luther Vandross theme than Wham, which you could still hear pounding in the main club. You could always score some weed or cocaine in Images, just by asking the person next to you who was openly selling. The main bar was so poorly laid out that they introduced a can bar, where customers could purchase just cans of beer. 5th Avenue was no stranger to fights and every night you would see someone throwing punches and getting kicked out. Staff members would run a betting racket on how many fights there were on a given night. Images would become the location of the infamous 1986 5th Avenue riot, where over a fifty police and bouncers were injured and the two Images bars were destroyed when out-of-town football supporters found their way into Images through 5th Avenue and caused mayhem.

So What’s Next?

I want to stop writing here and ask you if you want more. I happen to be writing this during a long plane flight and I am landing soon, so I don’t feel obliged to finish it unless people find it funny, valuable or interesting. I have included my raw writers additional notes below, so if you want me to write some more I would be happy to do so. Also drop me a line to tell me about your experiences at the club. I would love to get some 5th Avenue photos, ideally not the Time and Envy period, which there seem to be many. Here are some of my other experiences/writers notes that I intended to elaborate further on:

  • Steve Kingsley was offered big money to ditch his permanent South Parade Pier gig and move to 5th Avenue as resident DJ
  • Ross Mitchell was always getting the girls into the DJ booth during the night and getting in trouble
  • The night the ceiling lasers malfunctioned and temporarily blinded two patrons
  • Luke caught having sex in the fire escape of a closed Images by the bouncers
  • The many versions of the awful 5th Avenue uniforms
  • Everyone was smoking cigarettes and weed and there were a few incidents of furniture setting alight inside the club
  • Balcony bar shenanigans: race to get girls panties and mixing drinks to get the cheap girls wasted
  • No tips working the bar, terrible pay and everyone stealing from the register to be able to afford a cab home
  • Multiple brawls and arrests at Bar One. Police rarely came in, bouncers would drag the fighters out and either the Police or the Navy Provost would cart them away
  • Thunderbird’s – This was a full-on bouncer emergency mode where all the doors were locked to the Pleasurama venues and the bouncers would all storm one club on the block during a security emergency. This included Fanshawes, 5th Avenue, Club Tiberius, Honky Tonk Bar, Peggy Sues or Joanna’s (depending on the time period)
  • Joanna’s switches to plastic glasses after a spate of facial glass injuries during drunken fights
  • Joanna’s and its Crystal Rooms history was lost on drunk patrons just looking for the Royal Navy School of Dancing
  • Panic alarms in the back of every bar
  • Brian peeing in the huge ice machine and serving it up to customers. Also trying to puke in there too, but not able to gag
  • Terrible layout of Pleasurama offices and facilities. Rabbit warren where it was easy to get lost and impossible to get out during a fire
  • Secret record was played in case of an emergency, All bar staff were asked to open the register take all the money out and leave the building immediately. The record during my tenure was Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon
  • Night of the riot in 5th Avenue and Images. Contents of the registers stolen and the can bar fridge emptied, Police galore and blood everywhere.
  • Peggy Sues had 50 pence pints on Monday night, water would come out of the taps when beer ran out.
  • 5th Avenue American themed club gets out of control when actual Americans come in
  • Hayley with her drunk friend Rachel always parked in the back parking lot asleep, waiting to pick me up
  • December 1998 Time and Envy Opens
  • Joanna’s. It was the place for skate-bait to find Naval personnel and locals knew to avoid it like the plague.
  • Joanna’s closes in 2004, the last holdout
  • Southsea Sea Front rezoned and nightclubs given notice to quit 2003
  • Time and sister club Envy closes 2007
  • Whole block sold to Harry Redknapp in 2010
  • Block burned down in 2011, linked to recent riots in the UK
  • The 5th Avenue site replaced by luxury retirement flats built McCarthy & Stone to be named Savoy Court. A Co-Op Supermarket, on the ground floor, is also part of the plan.
  • Each luxury one bedroom unit in Savoy Court is expected to cost one million pounds, cutting out regular Portsmouth townspeople
  • The new Savoy Court will be assisted living, so tenants not expected to leave the building due to their medical conditions
  • In 1923, the original Savoy Ballroom with the Palm Court Orchestra, promoted ballroom dancing every day. The new Savoy House is expected to promote dying every day.
  • Portsmouth seafront turning into a poor version of the mass retirement living in Eastbourne, Sussex, with every poor Portsmouth planning decision made
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Michael Rogers

Having never been a member of the 657 crew and still a frequent guest at the Jolly Sailor, Mike likes to travel back to his old stomping grounds once in a while. Rogers has been writing for twenty years about things that really don't matter for such publications as Good Housekeeping and The Radio Times. Married with two dogs and a cat, he will often be found at his desk looking for writing inspiration in the most random places, often in the waste paper basket for something he wrote last week.