Celebrating 125 years of our beloved Opera House

Photo Neil Cross'The newly-decorated Blackpool Opera House, which now has all the Mamma Mia livery
Photo Neil Cross'The newly-decorated Blackpool Opera House, which now has all the Mamma Mia livery
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Has the Blackpool Opera House frontage ever looked so inviting?

Even the illuminated words Royal Variety Performance couldn’t compare with this West End-style razzamattaz for the opening on Friday, June 20, of the 12-week season of the musical Mamma Mia.

But just as important is a date that this week proudly stamps the history of Blackpool’s flagship theatre: June 10, 1889.

Yes, it’s 125 years since the first Opera House was opened as a playhouse and opera venue by the Winter Gardens Company.

And it was another landmark musical show that filled the theatre then – the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeoman of the Guard, which had been premiered at the Savoy Theatre only nine months earlier.

This is an opportune moment to recall what an important position the Opera House holds in the Blackpool story – the fact that three theatres were built on the same site in 50 years, as success demanded more and more seats.

Hundreds of famous performers have appeared there, many of them occupying the board of honour in the foyer of the Winter Gardens.

Sadly many great names are now not even a memory for our oldest theatregoers.

And so the first name recognised by visitors who peruse the board is Charles Chaplin, who was a 15-year-old actor in a Sherlock Holmes play in May, 1904.

Ten years later he was the most famous person on the planet as his little tramp character in dozens of silent comedies was seen wherever a movie screen could be erected.

The second, larger Opera House opened in June, 1911, as the Winter Gardens Company competed with the Grand Theatre, owned by the Blackpool Tower Company.

The rivalry continued until 1928, when two disgruntled Gardens shareholders sold out to The Tower, triggering an acrimonious takeover of the Opera House and Winter Gardens, politely recorded in local history as a merger!

It was the making of the Gardens. The Tower’s wealth developed the complex and it led in 1939 to a big new Opera House.

And what an achievement that was. The old Edwardian theatre was demolished and Britain’s largest theatre was built, all in the space of 12 months!

The 2,920-seat venue opened on July 14, 1939, with George Formby starring in the season show Turned Out Nice Again. George had also done the 1936 and 1937 seasons.

A glittering period opened in the Opera House story as the town filled with London civil servants, running Government ministries in the big 
hotels.

And that’s how John Gielgud came to do an Easter week in Macbeth at the Opera 
House in 1941!

Another little nugget that may bring a smile is the thought of Laurence Olivier and Frank Randle on the same Opera House bill. But not as a double act!

It was in a charity concert on a Sunday night in October, 1941. Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh did scenes from Shakespeare; Randle did his Old Hiker sketch.

The war years were a goldmine for the resort’s theatres. At the Opera House big summer shows starred the likes of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, Arthur Askey, Sid Field and Tessie O’Shea, while the winter months had a parade of touring musicals.

After the war, as the nation breathed again and went on holiday, the world’s biggest concert stars came to the Opera House in London promoter Harold Fielding’s summer Sunday concerts; Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Frankie Laine and Nat “King” Cole to name a few.

Producers George and Alfred Black made the theatre’s summer seasons the “must see” shows from 1948 to 1968 with stars like Vera Lynn, Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey and - with four brilliant 1960s seasons – comedian Ken Dodd.

The 1955 Royal Variety Performance – first time out of London – put the spotlight on the Opera House but a year later the focus was on the arrival of a second TV channel.

It ruined the viability of winter stage shows and films took over.

By 1967 The Blackpool Tower Company was ready to sell and in came the Mr Big of British show business, Bernard Delfont, first as a director of new owners EMI and in 1983 as boss of First Leisure Corporation in a £37.5m buy-out.

First Leisure were much-maligned as “London money bags” but without Bernie’s deal-making there would have been nothing doing at the Opera House.

His biggest coup was to bring the musical Cats for a six-month “first time out of London” season in 1989.

It changed the game and seven summers in the 1990s were filled by seasons of musicals.

The only solo artist to star in more than one season was Blackpool’s own Joe Longthorne (1993 and 2004).

The biggest Opera House headlines were for more big deals. A £74m sale to Trevor Hemmings’ Leisure Parcs in 1998 went sour in 2009 with a business report that the loss-making Winter Gardens complex had “no purpose in the modern world” and furthermore it could not be left “as a memorial to the past.”

A wonderful 2009 Royal Variety Performance with Bette Midler, Michael Buble, Lady Gaga, Katherine Jenkins and host Peter Kay was a single light in the gloom.

It took the boldest deal of all to save the venue. Blackpool Council, who had never owned or wanted to own a theatre, stepped in and acquired The Tower, Winter Gardens and half the Golden Mile in a £40m purchase.

Today the Gardens is a beautifully refurbished complex. But no matter what attractions go into this vast space, to many people 
the venue’s reputation hangs on the stars and shows that appear in the Opera House.

This year Mamma Mia! – a world-wide hit show built round the music of Abba – is here for 12 weeks.

It’s a summer of super troupers singing thank you for the music and hoping to attract money, money, money – for after all that’s the name of the game! 
Voulez-vous be there?