The Friends of the Winter Gardens will this weekend celebrate their 30th anniversary as the guardians of the town’s beautiful old theatre. Greg Lambert reports,
In 1986 a group of friends were sitting in the Queens Hotel in Morecambe chatting about the Winter Gardens.
They had just been to the theatre after seeing a Visitor article asking for volunteers to help clean up the building with a view to its reopening.
This conversation led to the formation of the Friends of the Winter Gardens. When the Friends formed, the 135-year-old theatre had been closed since 1977 and was in a dreadful state of repair.
Dry rot was rampant, particularly the stage, and the Theatres Trust said without huge expenditure the venue would have to be demolished.
At the time, the building was owned by Johnny’s Entertainments and restoration was estimated at between £2m and £5m. The Friends formed in order to raise money through fundraising events, hoping to keep the theatre in the public eye. Initially there were 50 members.
In 1988 millionaire Morecambe businessman Fred Edmondson bought the theatre and planned a phased refurbishment into a multi-purpose venue, funded by grant aid and tax payers’ contributions. In August 1993 the council gave planning permission for restoring the frontage, establishing new shop fronts and a bar area. Engineers did a detailed structural survey in May 1994, estimating the cost of full restoration at £7m.
After two years of talks, Mr Edmondson sold the Winter Gardens to the Buildings at Risk Trust (BART) for more than £1m in May 1995. BART aimed to partially reopen the Winter Gardens by April 1997. Restoration work, carried out by building company Barnfield Construction, finally began in September 2006, funded by £1.5m in grants.
The theatre was made watertight and given a new roof. The external terracotta decoration was renewed and six new Victorian-style shop fronts were installed.
The second phase was to work on restoring the gutted interior. But it never happened. In May 2003, the Friends threw open the doors of the theatre to the public for the first time since 1977.
Around 3,000 people poured in over the May Bank Holiday weekend to see the decayed, but still jaw-dropping interior. Almost £1,000 in donations was raised and visitors talked of the massive potential of the venue.
Then in October 2003, the first live performance was held on the stage for 26 years, by Shirley Bassey impersonator Maxine Barrie. In 2004 the Friends announced plans to buy the theatre from Barnfield for £250,000. The Architectural Heritage Fund had agreed to loan 75 per cent of the purchase price. The sale was completed in 2006 and, 13 years after it was first mooted, the Friends set up a charitable trust to run the theatre.
When the plans were revealed in April 2009, they were ambitious. They proposed an 800-seater main auditorium, dance space, cinema, studio, office space, cafe/bar, heritage displays and much more. The aim was to reopen the Winter Gardens fully by July 2012.
But then in November 2009 came disaster. A £12.5m bid for Government funds failed Since then, the Friends have continued fund raising and volunteers carried out DIY jobs on the interior. Improvements have been made and new features added bit-by-bit. New toilets have been installed and the Parisian Bar has opened. In 2016 the theatre is being used more than at any time since its closure in 1977.