The earliest theatre in the Winter Gardens complex is the Pavilion Theatre of 1878, which was designed by Thomas Mitchell of the Winter Gardens Company as part of the ‘Superior Gardens and Pleasure Grounds with a magnificent Pavilion, and other accessories of the kind now so popular’. The Pavilion was the first envisaged for use as a concert room, for recitals and lectures, and generally as an assembly room. The original design involved a concert hall embraced by a promenade or ambulatory, onto which it opened by means of sliding partitions. Audiences could not only be accommodated within the Pavilion auditorium, but could also spill out into the ambulatory, which is generally known as the Horseshoe.
Although it was originally intended to provide fine music and high quality entertainment, in order to attract more of the day trippers, circus and aerial shows became a feature in the first few years. Zazel the human cannonball act appeared in 1879, followed the next year by the world’s only educated and performing elephant. King Ohmy was booked so regularly by the Winter Gardens manager William Morgan that he performed in Morgan’s befit at the end of each Summer season. Indeed it was at such an occasion in 1884 that Ohmy had his miraculous escape after crashing from the ceiling during his slack rope act.
Thomas Mitchell was called back to incorporate a new proscenium, private boxes and dressing rooms in 1885, and to convert the Pavilion for use as a theatre in 1889. More radical changes by architects, Messrs Wylson & Long of Manchester, heralded a major rebuild in 1897, which resulted in a splendidly opulent, aspida-ended music hall. The floor was lowered and tilted towards the stage, the stage floor was flattened and the capacity of the auditorium became 1,771. The 18 dressing rooms could accommodate 100 artistes, ith an orchestra pit for 16 musicians. The beautiful interior plasterwork, which thankfully survived the modern alterations in 1986 – 87, was designed by JM Boekbinder and completed in 1904. Boekbinder is more noticeably associated with the Empress Ballroom, but the Pavilion also contains marvellous examples of this Internationally-recognised artist’s work. Before the completion of the second Opera House, the staging and facilities in the Pavilion in the early 1900s were possibly more luxurious than the original Opera House, and it flourished as a theatre in the mid-Edwardian period.
By the time of the second Opera House in 1911, and prior to the building of the 1939 masterpiece, the Pavilion appears to have become a lesser venue for the management of the Gardens. It became utilised as a picture palace from the 1920s onwards and showed talkies from July 1929. By the 1950s, the pavilion was used for Summer shows and comedians such as Morecambe & Wise, Hylda Baker and Tommy Cooper were featured, with Lancashire’s own Norman Evans, a particular favourite in ‘Over the Garden Wall’. The seating capacity ranged from 600 to 1,000 and could adapt to either an afternoon concert party audience or a late night cabaret showcase. The shows throughout the 1970s were mainly spin-offs of TV sitcoms. Perhaps the most aggressive changes to the Pavilion occurred in 1986-87 when the proscenium was bricked up, the rear staging cut off to be sued for a restaurant and bistro, the rake of the stalls was removed and the venue converted for multiple uses, including conferences.
* The text above was taken from ‘Winter Gardens Blackpool – The Most Magnificent Palace of Amusement in the World’ by Prof Vanessa Toulmin, Director of the National Fairground Archive at University of Sheffield and a leading authority on Victorian entertainment and early film. Copies of the book are available to purchase through the Winter Gardens Trust – please contact us.
For a full listing of events at the Winter Gardens Blackpool or to enquire about hiring facilities please visit the venue’s website www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk