Now for ‘wow’ Wednesday at the Winter Gardens

SPECIAL SPACE: The interior of the Opera House
SPECIAL SPACE: The interior of the Opera House
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Kath Smith admits she’s not a naturally front of house person. She prefers backstage, behind the scenes, rather than glad handing VIPs and meeting the stars.

But it also means she knows the Winter Gardens, warts and all, inside out and says her job, as general manager of the Winter Gardens, now 135 years old, is the “best in the world”.

And it’s Kath’s passion for the people who have passed through these impressive portals, played their part in shaping such a significant part of the British seaside’s history, which has promoted Wow Wednesday at the Winter Gardens. This is not one of those grandstanding open days organised by bigwigs in civic ranks.

It’s an access all areas open day - tomorrow - for locals and visitors who really want to find out what makes this magnificent building tick.

Many over use the term “iconic” but the Winter Gardens fits the bill - along with the Tower.

And the Winter Gardens was the people’s palace. It still is.

Bit by bit, under Blackpool Council, ergo our, ownership, the Winter Gardens is looking like its old self. Its pre-faded glory self.

The 2800 seater Opera House is still a cornerstone of entertainment - witness the three nights of full houses for one Bob Dylan.

Kath didn’t get to meet the great man, he wasn’t the sort to share too much of himself, other than via his music, but boy, what an impression he made.

“He has to have been one of the greatest entertainers ever to stand on that stage,” she admits.

And Kate caught a concert. Blew her away. Even after eight years in the role of general manager, she’s far from blase about running the show at one of Blackpool’s greatest heritage buildings.

For Kate the Winter Gardens is living breathing vibrant social history - and as much part of our story today. Tomorrow marks Wow Wednesday. It’s not called that, officially. But that’s the hope of all staff involved in the open day - that each and every visitor will drop by and go “wow”.

Kath and special events manager Kila Redfearn take me on a whistlestop tour of the building. It’s not the first time I’ve seen parts of the Winter Gardens few get to see - having covered the political conferences here regularly of old and interviewed my share of stars in the dressing rooms behind the stage. There have been the tours of the centre with the academic who helped drive through the restoration - Professor Vanessa Toulmin. And heritage guides and ambassadors and champions.

But where Kath has the edge is in her appreciation of not so much the finer points of heritage or architectural excellence - although she gets all that too - but the small things that halt visitors in their tracks. Under the stage to see the Wurlitzer, for example - one of two at the Winter Gardens. That puts Blackpool bang on the map for music pilgrims.

Then there’s the set of old spotlights tucked away in the corner of the massive stage, the rake not as pronounced as that at the Grand Theatre, and with memorabilia, much of it in need of a facelift, all around. Stage and technical chief Duncan Jump hopes to restore the spotlights in time. They date back to the 1920s. Picture the stars they once lit. Kath’s full of fascinating titbits of the type which may not make the pages of some lofty academic tome but are nonetheless fascinating. She says American stars played the venue - Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bob Hope - but never made it to the Brits-only board of stars. If she could go back in any period of entertainment history here it would be to see and hear Sinatra sing. But she’s happy with Dylan. “I know I got to see a living legend.”

Kath’s Wow Wednesday runs from 11am to 3pm tomorrow.

It marks the Winter Gardens’ 135th birthday. It’s a winter’s tale with a difference showcasing the Wurlitzer theatre organ and granting the public access to seldom seen backstage areas, offering insights and information on each of its rooms, along with the chance to tread the boards of the Opera House.

Kath and Kila have their favourite spots of the massive complex. For Kath it’s the spacious Olympia Arena. She also loves the Floral Hall - when it’s not cluttered. “I love the space and light,” she admits. A mighty Christmas tree, the real thing, has pride of place within the restored Floral Hall right now. It’s about 21ft tall and Kath helped hoist it into position and then adorned it with baubles.

They also love the Spanish Hall suite and the gloriously over the top Baronial Hall - and the intricacies of the network of offices that link the lot. The devil really is in the detail here, the sweep of gold brocade which looks like a curtain but is a design feature, the incredibly elaborate floral flourishes, the reconstructed Spanish village, the gothic looking fireplace.

The Winter Gardens has two unscheduled visitors when we go on our rounds - a couple of pigeons have infiltrated the building and are strutting their stuff over one of the smaller dance floors. Funky pigeons are an habitual hazard thanks to the nooks and crannies through which they enter the building.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Kath admits.

Backstage of the Opera House, the third Opera House on the site, opened in 1939, is a delight. A small office off the stage door opens up on a poster gallery, all of them signed by the stars. Peter Kay beams forth from one wall with a nice message. If Dylan’s there I’ve yet to spot him. Posters line the corridor leading to the dressing rooms. We pause at the dressing room the top bill stars bag - the big one with sofa and plenty of space to sprawl. Kila, who is a naturally front of house person, springs immediately to the mirror and poses obligingly. It’s nice but no star on the door. Outside the posters promote visits by Tommy Cooper, Bob Monkhouse - American entertainer Joan Rivers way down the bill - and Ken Dodd, still going strong. There’s one of Tommy Steele somewhere, coming soon to star in Scrooge, an evergreen entertainer whose career virtually began here.

Elsewhere, in the Empress Ballroom there’s no sign of the young dancers the Winter Gardens has virtually adopted as their own - sponsoring the pair, now 14, to train here, and compete at national and international level, again the events being hosted here. Kath remembers how it all began for the strictly ballroom boy and girl, from Preston and Blackpool respectively, who turned up at the Winter Gardens in tears one day, pleading for a place to train ahead of an event, the Tower Ballroom having been closed by a private event. Kath took them in and they came back -time and again. Now they get sponsored by the venue, access training at the highest level, and represent the resort on the dance floor.

Kath admits: “I don’t suppose we shout about that kind of thing much. The sponsorship comes from the Winter Gardens Trust. The theatre bar also does collections for them. We have a heart here, and we want to encourage locals, of all generations, to realise we are here for them, the whole building is, because it’s Blackpool’s Winter Gardens in every sense now.”

Kath and Kila, who has finally managed to escape from the finance department after more than 20 years working there, look like proving a winning team in projecting the brave new Winter Gardens as a leisure and pleasure palace for modern times, however harsh the economic climate, however challenging the custodianship of such a fine listed building.

In partnership with the trust and Blackpool Council, Crown Entertainment Centres is inviting visitors to come to tomorrow’s open day to share their memories of the building which still boasts many of the original features. Michael Williams, managing director of the complex, says it’s a first for the venue - because visitors have very much kept to the beaten path through the building before, with only a few specialists, civic trust members, heritage campaigners, venturing into the more secluded areas.

He adds: “It really will be the first time that the public has had such extensive free access to some of the amazing spaces within the building. It will also give us the opportunity to unveil some of the work that the Trust has been doing in association with Crown to interpret public areas of the Winter Gardens.”

Kath stresses it’s more informal than an organised tour. “We want to let people wander where they will - with pop up information available and suchlike but no pressure to make it structured and formal. It will be more fun that way for all. Pineapple Jack will be playing too. They have been here for 20 years so are part of the history too.”

The viewing gallery within the restored dome will be open too. “The whole aim is to let visitors fully immerse themselves in the history and architecture of each and every room - and even step on the stage and emerge from the stage door.”

The Winter Gardens first opened to the public in the summer of 1878, with a lavish ceremony attended by the Lord Mayor of London and 68 other Mayors and Mayoresses.