Posted on: Wednesday 23rd March 2022
Have You Visited The Winter Gardens And Opera House?
If you mention Blackpool, people will instantly think of all the things that have made the Lancashire seaside town famous all around the world. Whether that’s the iconic Blackpool Tower, its three piers, the Pleasure Beach, or childhood memories of visiting the famous Blackpool Illuminations, once you’ve visited Blackpool, you’ll have memories to last a lifetime!
One of the most popular venues in Blackpool must be the Winter Gardens and Opera House, whether it’s for afternoon tea, or to see a musical such as The Osmonds or Footloose, or even the upcoming Rebellion Punk Festival, which is quite a contrast to hosting the Conservative Party Conference!
The Winter Gardens is a Grade II-listed art deco jewel of Blackpool and was officially opened in July 1878 as an entertainment space that was ‘especially desirous during inclement days’ - a place to escape to when the heavens opened, proving that the British climate, especially in the northwest, has never been reliable!
It occupies an incredible 4.9 acres right in the centre of Blackpool and is home to 12 different venues, which includes the 3,000 seat Blackpool Opera House and the gorgeous Empress Ballroom. With the opening of the new £30 million conference centre, it is now even bigger than ever!
The Opera House, which opened in 1939 and is still one of the country’s largest theatres, has seen many famous acts and artists over its nearly 150-year history, including The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Bob Hope, and more recently Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Ronan Keating, and Peter Kay, who have all performed to sell-out audiences.
American rock duo, The White Stripes performed at The Empress Ballroom in January 2004, which can be seen on their first official live DVD, Under Blackpool Lights.
The Winter Gardens were officially opened in 1878 by the Lord Mayor of London, and the venue boasted a glorious glass-roofed Floral Hall, the Pavilion Hall for special events, and both outdoor and indoor skating rinks.
At that time, it was the biggest project in Blackpool and is still one of the most magnificent buildings in the town, if not the country of Lancashire!
Ten years after the Winter Gardens opened, plans were drawn up for the first Opera House, designed by famous theatre architect Frank Matcham. The 2,500 seat ‘Her Majesty’s Opera House’ cost £9,098 - equivalent to well over £1.2 million today - and opened on 10 June 1889 with a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s latest opera Yeomen of the Guard.
In 1896, a huge, 220-foot Ferris wheel was built on the bowling green and garden area in front of the Pavilion Horseshoe, which had 30 carriages that were each capable of carrying 30 people high into the Blackpool sky, 100 years before The London Eye, and only a couple of years after Blackpool’s famous tower was officially opened.
Also in 1896, the Empress Ballroom and Indian Lounge opened, designed by architects Mangnall & Littlewood, and featured intricate Victorian plasterwork. The floor area of 12,500 square feet made it one of the largest ballrooms in the world!
The Opera House was closed down in 1910, and a new, larger theatre was built, also designed by Mangnall & Littlewood. It reopened in 1911, and the Church Street façade of the Winter Gardens was also rebuilt, clad in a Renaissance style white faience.
When World War I began in 1918, the Admiralty requisitioned the Empress Ballroom, where gas envelopes for the R.33 Airship were assembled, but they were not completed until after the end of the war. The ballroom was then handed back, and restoration work was completed.
Blackpool’s love affair with ballroom dancing was taken to the next level in 1920, as the first Blackpool Dance Festival was held over the Easter holidays in the Empress Ballroom, where it is still held to this day.
The Winter Gardens were bought by the Blackpool Tower Company in 1928, who first demolished the Big Wheel, and then began construction of the Olympia Exhibition Hall, which opened in June 1930. The exhibition hall was filled with stalls and attractions, themed by French-born British art director Andrew Mazzei in the style of a Moorish village.
By 1939, war had broken out in Europe again, and the Winter Gardens were once again repurposed by the government, this time to train RAF personnel during the day while maintaining entertainment in the evenings.
The second iteration of the Opera House was demolished in 1938, to make way for the third and current theatre, designed in a classic art deco style. The 3,000 seat theatre boasted the biggest stage in the UK, and it was originally planned to double as a super cinema. The new Opera House was opened in July 1939, with a new revue, Turned Out Nice Again With George Formby.
The 74th Conservative party conference was held for the first time at the Winter Gardens in 1954, which closed to a rousing speech by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In 1955, the first Royal Variety Performance outside of London was given for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, and a period-style Royal box was constructed just for the show, which remained in place for many years, contrasting against the modernist lines of the design of the theatre.
Rock’n’roll history was made in 1964, as a performance by The Rolling Stones ended in a riot, which led to the ‘Stones being banned from playing in Blackpool - which was only overturned in 2008!
Sadly, the entertainment complex fell into disrepair over the years, and in 2010, the Winter Gardens and Blackpool tower were purchased by Blackpool Council, placing them in public ownership. An ambitious restoration project was undertaken to restore the glorious building to its former glory.
As well as the new conference centre, the Winter Gardens has also seen a recent £1.25 million refurbishment to the Church Street entrance, the Rotunda and the Floral Hall, as well as a striking new interior for a new cafe facility, that had been covered up since the 1960s.
During the refurbishment, plasterwork designed by Andrew Mazzei was uncovered in the former Floral Hall Bar, which was almost all completely intact, and has now been fully restored and repainted, forming a new cafe area that serves the Floral Hall and the main complex, which is now called Mazzei’s, in honour of the renowned film set designer.
The building and Mazzei’s Cafe are open daily from 10.30 am until 4 pm, while opening hours for the Winter Gardens and dining venues are extended to coincide with the many shows and events.
Have you got plans to go to The Winter Gardens and Opera House when you visit Blackpool? Why not take a look at what’s on in 2022 at The Winter Gardens website.
Whether you’re seeing dance performances, musicals, live music, or reliving your rock’n’roll punk years at the Rebellion festival, why not take a moment to remember the rich and vibrant history of the venue and admire the stunning architecture and design of this historic and magnificent building.