SHOWZAM! Central, with its sideshows theme, has brought back colourful memories for reader Jeff Moss.
The Olympia Hall of the Winter Gardens is this week transformed into a scene from decades past, as part of the Showzam! Festival, home to the likes of The Insect Circus and The Headless Lady.
Back in the late 1940s, Jeff, as a wide-eyed 15-year-old, left his Rochdale home in search of seasonal work on Blackpool’s Golden Mile – a far different stretch of seafront than today’s indoor arcades.
He says: “It was more like a shanty town with lots of stalls, sideshows and undercover attractions, absolutely packed with people waiting to be parted from their spending money.”
A few months ago, Memory Lane asked readers if they remembered the days when the Golden Mile had lion cubs roaming around. You could even impress friends and relatives by having your photographs taken with them.
Yet all was not quite what it seemed because the cubs were actually behind a glass shield, and there was a safari mural on the wall behind the public, together giving the impression of a very close – and brave – encounter.
The sideshow was just one of the many offerings from King of the Golden Mile Lawrence Chard, known to many as Lou.
And while Jeff Moss worked for the Blackpool Tower Company in its Funlandia arcade on the Golden Mile, he still found time to check out the various sideshows operated by others – including, in the early 1950s, those cubs.
“The public stood behind glass, but I persuaded them to let me go inside the cabinet and handle the cubs – and I still have the picture to prove it.”
He adds: “I had heard so much about Blackpool as a child, but we were a poor family and never had a holiday. When I was old enough, I came over to see if I could get a job, and returned for several seasons until I went into the army. I was always hanging around the other attractions and, to be honest, the showmen got away with almost anything. There would be an outcry today if they tried to bill somebody as ‘half fish half woman’.
“This was actually a disabled woman who had no arms, and she used to play cards with her feet. There was also a legless man in another curiosity show who moved about on his bottom.
“Could you imagine anything like that today? I suppose these people were happy to be earning some money, because there were no benefits like today.
“Another sideshow housed a woman who would guess your weight for sixpence (2.5p), and if she got it wrong she would give you a decorative pin, something that cost far, far less than the admission price, but visitors went away happy, because they had beaten her,” says Jeff.
One of Jeff’s favourite haunts of the day was the theatre which showed nude models.
He says: “I used to help out behind the scenes. The models had to remain perfectly still for the few seconds that the curtains opened. They were in various poses, such as a scene featuring Cleopatra and her serving ladies, and I helped with things like putting the serving jugs on their shoulders.”
Jeff says he was never worried about walking to his digs in the early hours, because muggings just did not happen in those days.
In the early 1970s, Jeff, wife Maureen and their two sons Christopher and Craig, moved over from Rochdale and ran a Central Drive guesthouse.
“Full board was £2.50 a day, and there was just one toilet for 20 people. We moved to St Chads Road and had two toilets! Then in General Street we had a bar for our guests. But at each of those properties we offered visitors, many of them regulars, clean, comfortable and warm accommodation.
“You could make good money in Blackpool’s holiday industry, but you worked hard for it,” says Jeff, now 79, and living in Lennox Court, South Shore.