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A winter wonderland

The Winter Gardens is arguably one of the most iconic buildings in Blackpool and alongside the tower, it has acted as a catalyst for putting the seaside town on the international entertainment map.

Opened in July 1878 and designed by renowned architect Thomas Mitchell, The Winter Gardens’ vision was to be an entertainment mecca that would always provide the best in entertainment. Its cast of thousands who have trodden its boards over the past century reading as a roll call in performance history, can certainly confirm that ambition has been achieved.

The Opera House, (the main theatre inside the Winter Gardens) is the largest stage in Europe and the Empress Ballroom was the largest ballroom in the world when it was first built. In addition to being a major force in entertainment, it has, during its 112 year history, also played a part in the war effort.

During the Great War, the whole of the Winter Gardens premises was used by the forces stationed nearby. Early in 1918, the Admiralty requisitioned the Empress Ballroom to assemble gas envelopes for the R.33 airship. The Winter Gardens during the Second World War was used for RAF training purposes by day and for entertainment in the evenings. Morse code was taught in the Olympia and troops marching by had to break step to avoid disrupting the lessons.

After the War, things continued very much as before and on April 13, 1955 a Royal Variety Performance, the first outside London, was given for HRH Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. The Opera House continued to attract large audiences throughout the 1950s with the appearance of many of the biggest names in show business.

The floor of the Empress Ballroom would still be crowded with dancing couples, some undeterred by notices stating “no be-bop or jive.” As society changed so did the acts, with the Winter Gardens playing host to the biggest names in music which ranged from Cilla Black to the Stone Roses.

Changing economic and social trends continued to affect the Winter Gardens throughout the latter decades of the 20th Century and into the new Millennium but it still continued to be a key leisure facility in the resort. An undoubted highlight for the venue in recent years was the second hosting of The Royal Variety Performance in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in December 2009 with a cast including Katherine Jenkins, Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Buble and Peter Kay.

“The Winter Gardens remains a revered venue to artists, performers and our patrons. It has continued to buck trends and remain celebrated in today’s society despite many similar buildings built in the same era being in decline. Over one million people visited this year, 20 per cent up on previous years and combined with our plans for 2015 will continue to rise further,” commented Michael Williams, the Winter Gardens’ managing director.

“The Winter Gardens has a rich future ahead of it and we are planning a fantastic 2015 which will see international names such as Bryan Ferry and Simple Minds, another host of west end shows and events come to Blackpool, as well as continued investment in a new eaterie and aesthetic improvements to the building.”