Big future projected for Opera House venture

Opera House cinema in the Winter Gardens.  Pictured is stage crew member Jonathan Spencer with the new projector and the old projectors either side.
Opera House cinema in the Winter Gardens. Pictured is stage crew member Jonathan Spencer with the new projector and the old projectors either side.
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It might be difficult for younger readers to imagine but there was a time when there were more than 15 cinemas in Blackpool.

The flicks were sold out most screenings. Excited crowds queued at the door to try and get in. It was the number one form of entertainment.

Cinema isn’t what it was. TV put paid to all that.

But after years of decline and tough times it is making a comeback and at one particular landmark town centre venue they are about to relive the glory days.

Those of a certain age will know that the Opera House, inside the Winter Gardens, hasn’t always just been a theatre for musicals, comedians and pop concerts.

It used to be a cinema too. In fact it was designed for that very purpose. In the late 1930s, bosses at the Winter Gardens trawled the world looking for the best possible design for an Opera House they were about to rebuild.

It opened in 1939, a theatre-cinema that could stage shows throughout the summer and be transformed into a cinema out of season – and until well into the 70s boasted packed houses for new releases, from Laurel and Hardy to Charlie Chaplin, Some Like It Hot to Vertigo, Mary Poppins to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

On May 15, 1975, five days after a Gene Hackman double bill of The French Connection and Poseidon Adventure, and due to dwindling audiences and a general lack of interest, the screen was dismantled and cinema in the Winter Gardens came to an end. Or so we thought. Almost 40 years later it is back.

As first revealed by The Gazette last August, the venue has spent £130,000 installing a giant screen, surround sound, and a new projection system so hi-tec it can be controlled by remote-control backstage.

“Gone are the days when someone had to sit all night in the projection room,” said Winter Gardens marketing manager Anthony Williams.

But first question is why bring cinema back to the venue?

“Well first of all the idea is to make the venue much more diverse because the Winter Gardens as a show venue will only be in operation for around 100-200 nights a year, so we were looking for other ways we could use it,” said Williams.

“We went back to our past and looked at how it was used before, how we could use it going forward and cinema seemed an obvious answer.

“Why do we think it will be a success? Because the Winter Gardens is completely different, the Opera House especially. We are offering something different to what, say, the Odeon are or places like that because we are offering a whole experience.

“It’s isn’t just coming to watch a film, it is being engaged in an absolute magnificent venue, watching some of the greatest films of all time, as well as high art movies. It is about buying into an experience as opposed to just watching a film ... and you can get popcorn too, and wine!”

Last year The Gazette launched a competition asking readers to chose the new venue’s first film. And the new era of cinema at the Opera House kicked off last night with the Oscar-winning Gravity. Tonight there’s the Prince movie Purple Rain, tomorrow live satellite feed from the Royal Albert Hall of BBC Radio 2’s D-Day 70th Anniversary Concert. “That’s the good thing about it,” added Williams. “We are looking at a really diverse range of programming that will appeal to everybody – modern movies, all-time classics, but also high arts like Nureyev and the English National Opera.”

Ted Lightbown is, with his wife Ann, the official archivist for the Winter Gardens.

It means he is in charge of a collection of programmes, posters and photographs dating back to the venue’s opening in the 1870s.

He is also a local lad and remembers seeing films at the Opera House in the glory days of the 50s and 60s, so it’s little surprise he’s pleased the cinema is back.

“It is a great idea, not least because this building is perfect for films,” said Lightbown.

“A lot of people believe the Opera House is the best cinema bar none in the country, because it was actually designed as a cinema as well as a theatre.

“When they were building it in the late 1930s – the third time they’d rebuilt the Opera House since the Winter Gardens opened – they went round the country, and to America and Europe, looking for the best designs and getting their ideas.

“They built this beautiful art-deco building that has hardly changed a bit since and so it is ideal for watching films in because that’s what it is actually for.” He added: “Prior to 1939 they had been showing films in the Pavilion and another room called Victoria Hall, which is now the Baronial Hall. But if you go back even further the first film to be shown in Blackpool was actually in June 1896 – which was a year after the Lumiere brothers invented the cinematograph. Films were shown in June 1896 at the Prince of Wales theatre, which was where the Palace was subsequently built. That was quite something because the first film to be shown in the UK was at Leicester Square in London in February 1896 – so Blackpool was only four months behind.”

Maybe cinema in Blackpool is a representative of the town itself – a glorious beginning, a peak, then a sharp decline, before gradually moving onwards and upwards again.

That’s good news for everyone in the town, especially film-lovers. For information on the Opera House cinema and upcoming films and prices go to