When in 1894 Blackpool Tower opened its Pavilion for dancing, it was not the lavish ballroom of today, but a rather plain affair. Yet it boasted an orchestra made up of players from the Halle Orchestra. Its main rival, the Winter Gardens, which had opened in 1878, then felt it needed to go one better, so its manager William Holland promoted the idea of putting a ballroom on the site of the skating rink. The Empress Ballroom, with the adjoining Indian Lounge and Empress Buildings, went up in 1896 and, although incomplete, opened briefly during the season that year, advertising that its orchestra of 50 performers under conductor Clarence Collinwood Corri had been specially selected from Covent Garden and other Theatres.
The Ballroom was designed by architects Mangnall and Littlewood with a barrel shaped ceiling and plaster work by J.M. Boekbinder. It was advertised as having 20,000 coiled springs under the parquet dance floor and was lit by three enormous chandeliers. Doulton tiles adorned the walls, with Art Nouveau designs by the artist W.J. Neatby, a theme continued in the Ballroom’s Church Street entrance through the Empress Buildings. Ample notice to the public for its formal opening at Whitsuntide (June) 1897 was given and its summer season ran from July until October. By 1898 Mr Ralph Harwood had become the conductor of the orchestra, which now numbered only 25. The first mention of a Master of Ceremonies in the Ballroom came in 1899, around which time a notice in programmes informed patrons that “Gentlemen could only dance with a Lady”.
Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens Blackpool c1905
Ralph Harwood was the conductor there until the end of September 1900. His successor J.H. Greenhalgh was not only a conductor but also composed music for the dances that the Empress M.C.s would invent and teach patrons. Dancing usually took place afternoons and evenings, and occasionally just in the evening. Intervals were often filled with an act given by one of the performers engaged elsewhere in the Gardens. Greenhalgh, who went on to conduct the orchestra of the Opera House in 1917, was succeeded in the Empress by Harry Wood from the Isle of Man.
The decade had seen the introduction of new dances like the one step, the two step and the tango and Harry Wood took the ballroom into the Jazz-age. However, in 1918 the Empress Ballroom was commandeered by the Admiralty for making gas envelopes for the R33 airship and the three large chandeliers were taken down. In the meantime dancing took place in the adjoining Indian Lounge. Following the war, the Company received compensation from the Admiralty to refurbish the Ballroom, and the 12 chandeliers that we see today were put in place.
Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens Blackpool c1936
In 1920 Harry Wood was one of the parties involved in the launch of an annual dance festival, the forerunner of the now internationally known Blackpool Dance Festival. In 1927, Wood, by then Musical Director of the Winter Gardens, left Blackpool for his native Isle of Man and most of the orchestra members went with him. Their place was taken by Herman Darewski and his Orchestra. Darewski said that he was not a lover of American jazz in the Ballroom, so out would be going the wailing saxophone and screeching trombones, and melody would be returning to the ballroom.
1928 saw big changes at the Winter Gardens after the Tower Company had got a majority share in the Company. Parts of the Winter Gardens were given a makeover and in 1934 the Empress Ballroom had a new floor laid, with modifications to the stage and a Wurlitzer organ the following year. This wasn’t the first time an organ had been installed in the Ballroom. The late David Clegg had built one that filled the whole of the east balcony on which he had given Sunday Concerts up to his death in 1923. The Tower Company would change over the Empress and Tower bands during winter seasons. Larry Brennan had been brought in to lead the new Empress Band in 1931.
During WW2 the Empress was often bursting at the seams with dancing couples. Blackpool being the RAF’s main station for basic training, and later with a large American air base nearby, the local girls would not be short of a dance partner or two. Parts of the Winter Gardens were used by the military during the day, including P.T. in the Ballroom, but it was business as usual in the evenings. During the war Charles Farrell took over the Empress Band and continued afterwards.
Stardust Room Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens Blackpool 1970s
Things were to change in the years following the war; the 1950s and ‘60s saw well-known guest bands performing and sometimes staying on the bill for two weeks or more. The ballroom had been used for Party conferences during the autumn and for the occasional concert. Television, the decline in the popularity of ballroom dancing and holidays abroad, inspired the Company to transform the Empress into a cabaret showplace called The Stardust Garden in 1970. The Wurlitzer was sold on and white trellis and cat walks came in, with entertainment while drinks and meals in baskets were served. Joe Loss and his Orchestra, along with cabaret artists, were engaged for the season. It never really worked and after 4 years it was decided to call it a day.
The Ballroom is used today as a pop concert venue, for trade conferences, awards ceremonies, televised sports competitions, and lifestyle festivals.
In August this year one event celebrates 20 years since coming to the Winter Gardens for the first time. This is the Rebellion Festival, which has been going 40 years. Happy birthday to them and, to our magnificent Empress Ballroom, happy 120th.
Ann & Ted Lightbown – August 2016
Images courtesy of Blackpool Council Historic Collections and not to be reproduced or copied without permission.