Blackpool is blessed to have so many venues that inspire great affection among the public. For almost 140 years, through many changes of ownership, good times and not so good, the Winter Gardens has been at the heart of the Town’s entertainment and tourism offering. So many people have fond memories of past visits whether it be dancing on a Saturday night, seeing their idols on the stage or taking the terrifying drop off the slide in Professor Peabody’s play area! Today, hundreds of people are playing their part in both looking after the heritage of the venue and helping to secure its long term future by joining the Winter Gardens Trust.
Following its acquisition by Blackpool Council in 2010, the Winter Gardens has seen a programme of refurbishments and a string of high profile shows and events re-establish it as one of the Country’s leading venues. The Winter Gardens Trust was set up to work alongside the Council and the venue’s operators, Blackpool Entertainment Company Ltd, to help raise awareness of the Grade II listed building by staging unique events and targeted fund-raising.
It is sometimes said, a little unfairly, that the Winter Gardens is under-used. However, alongside concerts, shows, dance festivals and more, there are also a healthy number of corporate events, closed to the general public, taking place throughout the year. The Trust’s annual events calendar is designed to showcase some of the lesser known rooms and encourage new visitors. This includes the popular Christmas Tree Festival, themed banquets, family fun for Easter, presentations, tours and more.
The Winter Gardens ‘Open Day’ was conceived by the venue’s management and the Trust to provide an opportunity for visitors to go behind-the-scenes of the complex. It’s a chance to tread the boards of the Opera House stage like so many stars of the past, dance to the music of the Wurlitzer in the Empress Ballroom, enjoy the stunning decoration of the Spanish Hall or just stroll around and take it all in.
The Open Day in 2015 also coincided with the Winter Gardens Film Festival where the Trust worked closely with local group Aunty Social to present a three day programme of black & white movies, talks and social events. Volunteers were on hand throughout the weekend to welcome visitors and answer questions about what to see and do. They donned Victorian costume which added to the atmosphere of a wonderful event. Over 4,000 people attended, some travelling from Scotland, London and the South West especially – leaving with praise for what they saw and many promising to make a return visit very soon.
Working in partnership with other groups is a key aim of the Winter Gardens Trust and the relationship with the Cannock Chase Organ Club is a prime example. Dedicating their expertise and time, the Club’s members have restored not one but two Wurlitzer organs to the venue. Strictly speaking the refurbishment of the organ in the Opera House was pre-Trust, but it established a link between the two organisations, resulting in the invaluable support by the CCOC. The CCOC provide a programme of Wurlitzer concerts, tea dances, musical accompaniment to other events such as the Film Festival, and in particular restored a working Wurlitzer to the Empress Ballroom after a gap of over 40 years in December 2014. On one magical afternoon in the Ballroom none other than Reginald Dixon’s daughter, Mrs Jill Steel, was the guest of honour as the sound of the Wurlitzer was heard again.
As well as events, the Trust’s fund-raising has been put to good use on a number of projects. ‘The Most Magnificent Palace of Amusement in the World’ publication by Professor Vanessa Toulmin celebrates the Winter Gardens through words and beautiful images. First published in December 2009 to coincide with the hosting of the Royal Variety Performance in the Opera House, the Trust funded an updated reprint in February 2015. Last year also saw the return of a small part of Winter Gardens heritage when 50 Chippendale-style chairs were spotted for sale on eBay. The furniture was originally from the Renaissance restaurant at the venue and dated back to the 1920’s. Thanks to the Trust the chairs with their distinctive WG logo on the backrest were purchased and are now very much in use adding some period charm to Winter Gardens events.
At the end of 2015 the Trust was granted charity status which will allow the group to fulfil its long-term aims in support of the Winter Gardens. With more events ahead and discussions taking place on future projects, it promises to be a busy year and the role of the Trust members is vital. Many already offer their time to help with events and fund-raising and also enjoy the benefits of membership too which include ticket offers, discounts at the venue’s Mazzei Café and Empress Grill and a number of members-only events. Although it’s nice to get something back, most members have joined for their own, personal reasons and to help play their part in the upkeep of the Winter Gardens.
With the Winter Gardens Trust working alongside Blackpool Council and the venue’s operators, there’s a bright future for the venue and every reason the next 140 years will be just as memorable.
To find out more about the Winter Gardens Trust, forthcoming events and how you can be involved visit the website at www.wintergardenstrust.org.uk or ask one of the volunteers at any of our events.