For more than 150-years, Blackpool’s North Pier has been at the heart of entertainment in the resort.
The pleasure pier has survived the batterings of the North Sea, while hosting a galaxy of stars in its show bars and theatre.
Comics hail its 1,400-seater theatre - a quarter of a mile into the sea - as a venue which confirms you’ve ‘made it’ in the business.
Last December the pier was left unsafe when gales lashed at the buildings and high tides swept the shores.
The boardwalk and railings were torn apart, the theatre’s orchestra pit was destroyed and the sun lounge was shattered strewn with broken glass.
Owner Peter Sedgewick bought the pier in 2011, in a romantic gesture towards his wife to whom he had proposed on the boardwalk, but the devastation of last year’s storm put his family’s plans for the venue back by two years.
“We had spent a lot of money and it was just washed into the sea,” he said.
And despite a £1m bill for vital repairs to the whole structure since in the wake of the devastating storm damage, North Pier Theatre was, in September, added to the Theatres Trust’s annual list of venues deemed at risk of demolition, redevelopment or closure, warning it was in need of urgent further repair. Now, in a bid to transform the fortunes of the venue, Blackpool compere and showbiz manager Tony Jo has joined forces with the Sedgewick family to revamp the entertainment offering at the pier.
Local stars Johnnie Casson and Mick Miller were among those celebrating the new partnership and looking forward to a full show programme for 2015.
Johnnie - ‘a little fat Yorkshire comic who’s spent a lifetime in Blackpool’ - said: “It’s an iconic venue in the variety world of showbiz.
“When I was a kid in the 50s I used to come here and it was THE venue.
“You knew you had arrived if you played North Pier.
“It’s part of the Blackpool ethos and it holds a place in the hearts.”
And Merseysider Mick, who now lives in Poulton, said: “There’s something about Blackpool.
“I did my first summer season in 1978 on South Pier, coming from Liverpool, and fell in love with the place.
“I did five years on South Pier, six seasons on Central and five on North, as well as two years at Merrie England with the Mick Miller Comedy Store - so it’s come right back round and I’m looking forward to a summer at home.”
Mr Jo is promising a new line-up and hopes to attract household names from TV comedy to grade two-listed theatre for weekly charity comedy nights - with the aim of raising £250,000 towards a new bowel cancer unit at Victoria Hospital.
Also on the bill is a weekend double header from resort singer Joe Longthorne, production shows Dancing Queen and That’s Entertainment, and the old-school Comedians, including Johnnie and Mick, among others.
“The family approached me and we reached an agreement, not just for the theatre but we want to redevelop and tidy up the pier and get the public down it,” Tony said.
“The Sedgewicks, the management and I are all wanting it fixed; the pier, the shows and Blackpool.”
He is pledging to attract up to 6,000 people a week to the pier’s show bar the Merrie England and the theatre, for a 20-week season from Easter to the end of the lights.
The team is looking forward to captialising on the buzz seen in Blackpool throughout this year’s summer and Illuminations’ season.
Last week’s bumper half term, hailed by many as the busiest in years, has also raised hopes for the historic boardwalk.
“I haven’t seen it as busy in 40 years as it was last week” Tony added. “The weather’s contributed, but so too has the fact going abroad is too expensive, as well as violence and war, and sickness and disease world wide. I know I’m less likely to go abroad now than two years ago.
“Perhaps Blackpool’s having an Indian summer.” Pier owner Peter Sedgewick has praised Tony’s ambition for the show programme and says he is the venue’s ‘last hope’ - and admits he needed the expert guidance to make it a success. “We have tried to run it ourselves without success,” he said. “The theatre is one of those businesses, it has lost a lot of money over the recent years and it’s expensive to run.
“I thought doing up the dressing rooms that would be it and it would be easier.
“We have had some success; the pantomimes have been big this summer but when you have a building and need to staff it you need a big success to meet the costs.
“I knew North Pier would be very hard when I bought it.
“We have had a lot of people down the pier this year and it’s a good job really.
“The New Merrie England bar has done really well and that part of the pier. We’re going to be putting more shows in there - one or two are already sold out for the winter too.
“We have been looking at all the different options and this is the last option. If this doesn’t work we will have to look at something else.
“People don’t want to sit next to each other, they want tables and space - more like a cabaret, show bar, but that’s against what we want to do. We want North Pier to go back to what it was. We have spent a lot of money on the theatre. But it’s one of those things where you have got to know what you are doing.”
‘Boxing and wrestling’ are one option, but is keen to keep the theatre as it is and hopes the lure of the venue’s iconic status - combined with Tony’s experience in star bookings - will bring in big names.
“It’s a beautiful theatre really and it would be a shame to see it broken up,” Peter said.
“I’m one for tradition and would hate to see that, but you get to the stage of asking ‘what do we do next?’. “If Tony Jo doesn’t make it fit we would have to look elsewhere, maybe at boxing or wrestling which would pull people down the pier.”
The Sedgewick’s plans for North Pier have been stalled by two years, according to Peter, after the storms last December.
But he is determined to capitalise on this and grow business in 2015.
“It’s been a great summer,” he said. “We haven’t had a bad weekend through the Lights season too.
“I judge the firework competition too, and it is the first year with four Fridays of good weather. It has come at the right time for Blackpool.
“The town is looking good and people are coming to see what’s been done.
“It’s on the up.”