The Friends of the Winter Gardens has achieved far more than many thought possible.
Considering the venue was set to be demolished after it closed in 1977, then went 30 years without hosting any ticketed shows at all, for it to be used regularly for big events such as Saturday’s starring TV comedian Jon Richardson is quite remarkable.
The lack of a heating system is the latest in a long line of obstacles the group of volunteers has had to overcome since it formed in 1986.
Back then, the theatre was in a dreadful state of repair with dry rot rampant, and the Theatres Trust said that without huge expenditure the venue would have to be knocked down.
But for the Friends, led by Evelyn Archer, and their tireless work fundraising and keeping the Grade II* listed venue in the public eye, the Gardens would have been flattened. Talk of demolition continued, on and off for the next seven years, until restoration work at a cost of £1.5m finally began in September 1996.
The theatre was made watertight and given a new roof.
The second phase was to work on restoring the gutted interior. But it never happened. The years ticked by, marked by various delays, until in October 2003 the first live performance was held on the stage for 26 years, by Shirley Bassey impersonator Maxine Barrie. This was the start of the building being used regularly for one-off plays and concerts.
The Friends then bought the building in 2006 and set up a charitable trust to run it.
The first ticketed show, Jack and the Beanstalk, was held in November 2007.
Big events were held there such as Morecambe Variety Festival and Wayne Hemingway’s Vintage-by-the-Sea, and the scenic interior was in demand for TV programmes including the acclaimed ‘Eric and Ernie’ biopic and hit paranormal show Most Haunted. Annual events such as ‘Carols by Candlelight’ and the Morecambe Beer Festival made their home in the Gardens, and boxing and wrestling shows returned for the first time in decades.
A pivotal year in the theatre’s history was 2009, when a bid for £12.5m cash including £4m from a new Government pot called Sea Change, was rejected.
Since that devastating setback, the Friends have continued to plod on, raising money and renovating the theatre piece by piece. In recent years a new bar, changing rooms and toilets have been installed and the seating capacity on the ground floor increased to 700.
Demand for the theatre is increasing from entertainment promoters, both inside and outside the town. Saturday’s event with Jon Richardson was a new high point, the biggest show at the venue in almost 40 years.
But complaints about the cold building have poured icy water on the celebrations. Supporters of the Winter Gardens hope its intrepid team of volunteers can overcome this chilly issue and keep on moving forward.