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The Winter Gardens, as viewed from the west
The Winter Gardens is a large complex of theatres and conference facilities in the town centre of Blackpoolmarker, Lancashiremarker, Englandmarker. The site was opened in 1878 but a large part of the current building is relatively recent, dating back to the 1930s. The Winter Gardens is a favoured venue for political conferences, having hosted the main annual conferences for trade unions and all three major Britishmarker political parties. In fact, the owners of the centre claim that every British prime minister since the Second World War has addressed an audience there. The Winter Gardens has also been the venue of the Blackpool Dance Festival since its inception in 1920 and has hosted the World Matchplay darts tournament every July since 1994.

Location

The site is in Blackpool's town centre, about 250 metres from the sea front and more or less in the shadow of Blackpool Towermarker. The Winter Gardens complex occupies most of its block, a roughly square footprint with sides about 200 metres in length. The two north-facing corners of the block are not taken up by the Gardens buildings themselves, however, but by shops and restaurants. In fact the northwest corner is completely separated by a road serving the stage door of the theatres. The west face also accommodates a few small shops with the same architectural styling as the main building. The complex is surrounded by roads on all sides; the back roads are relatively quiet and are convenient for loading and for TV outside broadcast vans, etc.

Component buildings

The complex has several main components: the Opera House and Pavilion theatres, the Empress Ballroom, the Olympia exhibition hall and a function hall called the Arena are on the ground floor. All are contiguous and contained inside an Art Deco surface with a large arcade connecting two main entrances. There are additional function rooms upstairs in the first floor.

The long-gone Blackpool Ferris wheel, erected in 1896 (and no relation to the wheel currently working on the Central Pier), was also located at the Winter Gardens.

Opera House

According to its operators, the 3,000-seater Opera House is the largest theatre in the United Kingdommarker and second largest opera house in Europe. The original building, completed in 1889 was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham, who also designed the nearby Grand Theatremarker and the Tower Ballroommarker. With 2,500 seats, this incarnation of the theatre was deemed too small by 1910 and was consequently closed down for reconstruction. The new and larger building, designed by the architects Mangnall and Littlewood, was opened less than a year later. However, it was only in 1939 that the current, third Opera House was constructed. It is home to the last new Wurlitzer organ to be installed in the UK.

The Opera House still hosts many theatrical performances in addition to variety shows and music concerts.

Empress Ballroom

With a floor area of 12,500 square feet (1,160 sq. metres), the Empress Ballroom was one of the world's largest when it was added to the site in 1896. The space was requisitioned for military use during the First World War and, shortly after being restored to civilian duties, the Ballroom hosted the first Blackpool Dance Festival in 1920.

The Empress Ballroom has hosted acts such as The Beatles, Oasis, Radiohead and The White Stripes. The White Stripes perform at The Empress Ballroom in their DVD and concert Under Blackpool Lights.

By the 1970s, the enormous capacity of the Ballroom was no longer needed and so some of the floor space was adapted for other purposes. The Empress still hosts dancing events, including the Festival, but the large open area has found other uses over the years.

The Ballroom also housed a Wurlitzer organ, much of the pipework coming from the original Blackpool Towermarker organ. It was played for many years by Horace Finch but was sadly removed in 1969, evantually being broken up.

Pavilion Theatre

The Pavilion dates back to the original 1878 build, but was extensively altered in 1885 and again in 1897. Like the Grand Theatremarker, the Pavilion was also used as a cinema in the 1930s as talking movies stole some of the theatre's audience. After the cinema ceased operation, the Pavilion saw little use until its refurbishment in the 1990s. With its 600 seats, the Pavilion is clearly dwarfed by the adjacent Opera House, but it has appeal as a "cosy" theatrical venue and its adaptable space is also suitable for conferences.

Arena

The Arena area was originally known as the Indian Lounge by reference to its styling and was added to the Winter Gardens complex in 1896. The Indian theme was abandoned in 1964 when the Lounge was remodelled as a cabaret bar and renamed the Planet Room, perhaps because of the interest in space exploration during that decade. The latest Roman-inspired interior, added in the 1980s gives the Arena its current name. The room is used as a venue in its own right or as an extension space when the Empress Ballroom is insufficiently large.

Olympia

Like the Spanish Hall, the Olympia exhibition hall was added to the complex in the 1930s, forty years or so after initial construction took place on the site. The Olympia was styled after a Moorish village by film set designer Andrew Mazzei, and covers 2.600 square metres. The space was taken over for military purposes during the Second World War just as the Empress Ballroom was during the First. The Olympia later found use as a funfair until the 1980s when it was adapted to a more modern indoor adventure playground called Professor Peabody's Playplace. The area is now used as a venue for exhibitions and trade shows.

First floor

Roughly contemporary with the Olympia, the Spanish Hall is situated on the first floor (upstairs), and was also designed by Andrew Mazzei. The name derives from Mazzei's intricate plasterwork, evoking an Andalucian village. The Hall remains much the same today as it was in the 1930s, although it has been refurbished since then. The room is used as a banqueting hall and is a popular venue for larger wedding receptions. There are two further large function rooms on the first floor, the Baronial Hall and Renaissance.

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