THE sad death of the great John Barry naturally brings to mind thoughts of the Rialto, the cinema and ballroom on Fishergate which, under the ownership of Barry’s father, Jack Prendergast, played such a huge part in the development of York’s music scene from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Apart from the John Barry connection itself, what most people remember about the Rialto is that The Beatles played there four times in 1963. By then, however, Mr Prendergast had already sold the Rialto to the Mecca Group, and in many ways its heyday as a live music venue had already been and gone.

Jack Prendergast came to York in the late 1920s, when he bought what was then known as the Casino Cinema. Jack rechristened it the Rialto, and turned the rollerskating rink in the back into a ballroom. Disaster struck in 1935, when a fire burned it to the ground, but it was rebuilt within six months.

During the war, Jack led the York Auxiliary Fire service, and organised Sunday concerts for the forces at both the Rialto and the Clifton cinemas, which he also owned. In 1947, 2,000 children assembled at the Rialto and Clifton for a free Christmas show to take their minds of post-war austerity.

As Britain recovered after the war, Jack’s showbiz contacts and larger-than-life personality helped turn the Rialto into a legendary venue. In the 1950s, he began to advertise a series of concerts featuring “artists of national and international repute”, according to Something In The Air, the second volume of Van Wilson’s wonderful oral history of popular music in York. The first to appear was Dickie Valentine, quickly followed by Sidney Bechet, Stan Kenton’s band, Lionel Hampton and the Billy Cotton band. In 1956, the king of skiffle, Lonnie Donegan, appeared; as did, in 1959, the ‘English Elvis’, Cliff Richard.

Others to have appeared at the Rialto include the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan – not to mention, in March 1957, the debut performance of the John Barry Seven.

Van’s book includes a host of wonderful memories of those glory days. Peter Stanhope, who years later was instrumental in pressing for John Barry to be awarded the Honorary Freedom of York – the city’s highest honour – was, at the end of the 1950s, a young photographer. He recalls, in Van’s book, going along to the Rialto for the first time. “I remember plucking up the courage to go to the stage door of the Rialto with my camera and Jack Prendergast poking his head out of the door with his jaunty little trilby, double-breasted pinstripe suit and his bow tie – it probably had polka dots – and white carnation in his button hole. I said: ‘I’ve come to ask if I can take some pictures of the stars that come to this theatre?’” Jack’s response, he recalls, was something like: ‘Well, lad, you better come in’.”

In another interview in the book June Lloyd-Jones, John Barry’s sister, recalls how exciting the Rialto seemed to her when she was a young girl. “I remember as a tiny child running down the gangways with my father, and there was the anticipation of something going to happen… My father was always excited about what he did…. The live element is what was good in those days…. When you saw these people, they were stars.”

“The Rialto was the spot,” adds Pete Varley in another interview. “Jack got Stan Kenton, the greatest band in the world, and Kenton played a John Barry arrangement that night. And Basie, I sat at the stage when he was on…. he sat and chatted and he was totally wonderful.”

The Rialto is long gone now, of course, replaced on Fishergate by a new, purpose-built bingo hall. But its place in York’s modern history is secure.

• Something In The Air by Van Wilson, published in 2002, is still available at the Barbican Bookshop and at Fossgate books. Prices vary.