Since curtain up in 1939 the Opera House has enjoyed a star-studded history, playing host to some of the biggest names in show business.
It was opened on 14th July by stage and screen siren Jessie Matthews and her husband, actor and director Sonnie Hale. The actress declared the theatre officially open by cutting a gold ribbon with gold scissors, and the glitzy occasion was followed by a performance from ukulele-playing comedian George Formby with his revue, Turned Out Nice Again.
Boasting the biggest stage in the UK, and the second largest in Europe, the Opera House has been chosen to launch the tours of West End shows such as CATS the Musical and Summer Holiday, and in 1955 it was the first ever venue outside of London to host the Royal Variety Performance. Artists entertaining the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh included Arthur Askey, Morecambe and Wise and Charlie Cairoli, with celebrity organist Reginald Dixon at the Wurlitzer organ.
The Opera House again hosted the 81st Royal Variety Performance in 2009 starring Bette Middler, Peter Kay, Diversity, Whoopi Goldberg, Lady Gaga, Michael Buble, Andre Rieu and more, along with three orchestras who were able to play in the theatre’s own orchestra pit.
The first version of the Opera House opened in 1889 and was closed in 1910 for building works. It reopened in 1911 but was demolished to be rebuilt again 27 years later in an Art Deco style designed by architect Charles McKeith. The result is today’s magnificent Grade II listed theatre, with its capacity for 2813 guests over three levels and one of the widest proscenium arches in the world, at 45ft wide and 30ft high. The backstage space includes 17 dressing rooms and the theatre still has an original projector room, said to be haunted by the old projectionist.
The Opera House was created as a super theatre and super cinema, equipped to screen CinemaScope films. The cinema returned to the Opera House in 2014, offering the latest in cinematic technology, with 4k digital projectors and 3D.
However the focus as ever remains on live performances, and the enormous stage features an impressive flying system with 96 fly bars and considerable wing space. Ideal for a double decker bus to be driven across the stage with Darren Day at the wheel for the UK tour premiere of Summer Holiday - the Opera House’s summer season show of 1996. The Opera House was the only stage big enough for the full version of the bus, which continued its journey across the UK in a shortened form before returning to Blackpool in 1998.
In 2000 the curtain closed on the venue’s final summer show, with the theatre becoming a receiving house for large touring musicals.
The sheer size of the Opera House and its facilities provide a world of possibilities for shows with spectacular sets. Its blank canvas enabled the famous junkyard with its giant cans to spring out of the stage for CATS, when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s record-breaking show arrived for a three-month season in 1989 - making the Opera House the first venue for the production after leaving London.
The theatre’s double lift is used for touring shows to carry their scenery and props up on to the stage, to lift lighting and sound systems, and to lower items to be stored under the stage. Before the stricter days of Health & Safety the lift was even used to lift performers – rumour has it The Nolan Sisters were the last to emerge via the lifts back in the 80s.
Over its 80-year history the Opera House set has been transformed into all kinds of imaginative sets for an enormous variety of shows and performers, from 42nd Street and Sister Act to Frank Sinatra and Alfie Boe.
All of this is carefully overseen by Technical Manager, Duncan Jump. Four generations of his family have worked for the Winter Gardens, and Duncan himself has clocked up 40 years after joining as an apprentice.
One very significant claim to national and historic fame is that the Opera House is home to the only original Wurlitzer theatre organ in a UK theatre, and this special instrument was unveiled on the theatre’s opening night, with Horace Finch and Reginald Dixon at the console. The treasured Wurlitzer is stored beneath the stage and raised on a lift to the left for concerts.
The Opera House has undoubtedly enjoyed an illustrious history in entertainment over the last eight decades, and those wanting to see some of the stars’ names who’ve graced its stage can read the Roll of Honour plaque which is situated in the Church Street entrance and lists legends such as Vera Lynn, Shirley Bassey, Bruce Forsyth, Cilla Black and Bob Dylan.
There will be many more to come. Here’s to the next 80 years.