It’s a wardrobe department rather than a wardrobe but step within and it feels a lot like Narnia – complete with furs, otherworldly creatures, blasts of chill from Valhalla above, the occasional scream from thrill-seekers, and the suspicion the Snow Queen is never that far away.
This is the world the rest of us seldom see, behind the scenes of Blackpool Pleasure Beach-based Stageworks Worldwide, the kingdom of creative director Antony Johns, where there are furs, frills, feathers, flounces and all the flourishes of theatrical life, painstakingly designed, created, fitted and maintained right here.
The rare tour has been laid on for Friends of the Grand, the volunteer force who keep that other great Blackpool entertainment institution, the Grand Theatre, ticking over, front of house and back stage, reducing costs to keep some of the best shows heading our way.
The Stageworks tours are open to the general public, as part of the Pleasure Beach’s education academy, involvement in heritage events, and when Showzam! returns next year.
Every time a tour has been offered, it’s sold out so fast additional dates have had to be added.
It’s a reminder the good times are never really that far away, and also a seamless lesson in social history, when it comes to the costumes that make visitors long to dance on ice, high kick their way through Mystique or Forbidden, or gaze in awe upon the wonder that was the still much-missed Eclipse.
Fabulous glittering costumes have long been a tradition in Blackpool with the Stageworks wardrobe team producing stunning pieces and not just for local productions, the costume characters patrolling the grounds, the showgirls and others in the shows, but for Royal Variety performance, countless West End productions and touring performances of ice shows and pantomimes.
All of which gives the Louis Vuitton-clad Antony, who, as a former dancer, knows exactly how a costume should look, feel and move.
“We’re very conscious this is a unique tour of a unique attraction, and offers access to areas people simply wouldn’t see. And the reaction is just wonderful. People come out buzzing with excitement about it.”
The tours not only give in-depth insight into the design and production of the costumes, but include archives which contain designs and costumes from decades of showbusiness, including beautiful art deco posters, no-expense spared fabrics of the age, and elements no longer considered politically acceptable.
The archives contain more than 10,000 costumes from more than 75 years of show business.
What’s more, visitors are encouraged to look and touch, to contrast the weight of, say, earlier hats and headgear, and heavily encrusted costumes, with the lighter, more fluid and flexible weights worn today.
There are insider tips too, such as how wardrobe mistresses cope with the fluctuating weight of higher profile personalities taking part in their pantomimes, or how long it takes (a day and a half...) to sew Swarovski crystal stones into place and fix the feathers onto a hat which could be worth as much as £850. Some of the pieces are priceless in entertainment heritage terms.
It’s a great treat, particularly for the ladies of Friends of the Grand’s ranks, as Hazel Cherry, of Marton, and Betty Clarke, of Cleveleys, admit. “When you see things so close you really appreciate the intricacy involved,” says Betty.
Stageworks wardrobe manager Simone Bolajuzon oversees costume design, bespoke costumes, and hiring, assisted by her sister Joanne Blackburn, the pair having grown up watching their mum work there.
“She taught us patience – of sorts,” says Joanne. Simone was with Hot Ice as a dancer for 13 years, meeting her husband there, and says: “The costumes are more user-friendly today.”
For the sisters, Stageworks is nothing like Narnia. Simone concludes: “It’s hard work in a surreal setting. From the end of this month to Christmas is our busiest time. You step on to the park at the end of a long working day or night and it’s a reality check. You can lose yourself here, all sense of time, and reality, and age too. That’s the magic of it. But it’s work.”
n Friends of the Grand are inviting locals to join them at Hot Ice, and for a buffet in the Paradise Room, on August 31, for £22.50 (to book call (01253) 290190.