Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

WHEN NIGHT WAS A CABARET

Updated Mar 21, 2019 02:43pm
Evoking a time of night time adventures when newspapers could publish daring ads without fear of reprisal.

It was the best of times. With nightlife to rival Beirut, Karachi was alive and well and living it up in the years after independence – all the way up to the mid-seventies. As the capital of a new, vibrant country, the city was primed to help one enjoy a good night out (week after week at that). How many are out there who remember that era?

Advertisements for cabaret shows held at the Beach Luxury Hotel, Hotel Metropole and Palace Hotel were regularly published in Dawn in the fifties and sixties. Other hotels well-known for their cabaret shows included the InterContinental Hotel and The Excelsior. The performances went from classy sophistication to downright sleaze. Many of the performers came from Turkey, Lebanon and Russia. They toured various countries with their ensembles, giving nightly performances at pre-booked venues. Panna, featured in the above ad, was a Pakistani film star and dancer. She was the star attraction at Le Gourmet, which was possibly Karachi’s first nightclub and was located on the ground floor of the Palace Hotel.
Advertisements for cabaret shows held at the Beach Luxury Hotel, Hotel Metropole and Palace Hotel were regularly published in Dawn in the fifties and sixties. Other hotels well-known for their cabaret shows included the InterContinental Hotel and The Excelsior. The performances went from classy sophistication to downright sleaze. Many of the performers came from Turkey, Lebanon and Russia. They toured various countries with their ensembles, giving nightly performances at pre-booked venues. Panna, featured in the above ad, was a Pakistani film star and dancer. She was the star attraction at Le Gourmet, which was possibly Karachi’s first nightclub and was located on the ground floor of the Palace Hotel.

The names evoke images from elegance to sleaze, just like the actual clientele catered to. Hotel Metropole and Palace Hotel, The Beach Luxury Hotel and later, the Inter Continental Hotel were the crown jewels, while the Excelsior, Imperial, Taj and Central hotels offered a more risqué set of entertainment. And the artists were flown in from around the region; there were Turks, Lebanese, Australians, Egyptians and other nationalities regularly performing on the circuit.

The evening’s entertainment was billed as ‘Dinner, Dance, Cabaret’, and the belly dancers almost always called themselves ‘Princess’. Further adjectives used to describe the female artistes included ‘hot’, ‘scintillating’ and other alluring names, designed to conjure up images of magical evenings.

Newspapers carried ads with pictures of the performers that one could hardly imagine in this day and age. Besides the afore, alluded to belly dancing, other acts included comedy/singing duos, limbo dancers and even a frequent striptease artist or two. Speaking of the ads, readers who have no inkling of what that era held would probably be scandalised by the images and promise: red-blooded entertainment for a discerning audience. Since we had not yet become a ‘Nanny State’, newspapers could publish them without fear of punitive action.

With the city full of embassies and served by a host of foreign airlines, the mix of international and local patrons enjoyed themselves into the early hours of the morning. The hotels had fully-stocked bars, including local brews, and catered to a wide selection of tastes. The glamour quotient was suitably maintained at the upper end of the spectrum by elegantly-dressed ladies and smartly-turned out gentlemen. Dancers and dance floors were smoothly polished and the latest gyrations were always on show.

The locations of these nightclubs was within a small radius and included some of the old city areas: The Roma Shabana was somewhere near Napier Road; the Lido (Imperial Hotel) near the PIDC Bridge; the Taj across from CM House; and the Penthouse was housed in the Excelsior Hotel, right in the heart of Saddar. Slightly further up the road, the Beach Luxury Hotel also had some dynamic acts in its two venues. As part of the milieu of the time, low-end bars and off-licence liquor stores dotted the city, not even earning a second glance.

Karachi’s once-vibrant nightlife has given way to restaurants and fast-food outlets. Malls and cinemas now make up for whatever entertainment we have with the occasional theatre thrown in for good measure. We now speak of a time long, long ago in a country far, far away. 

Leon Menezes is a former member of the band The In-Crowd and currently professor of practice.

First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.