Articles

THERE’S A SEASIDE RESORT NAME OF Blackpool

Plus a galaxy of illuminations that put Broadway to shame, a fantastic reproduction of the Eiffel Tower, and a million other wonders including the lion who ate Little Albert

McKENZIE PORTER October 15 1953
Articles

THERE’S A SEASIDE RESORT NAME OF Blackpool

Plus a galaxy of illuminations that put Broadway to shame, a fantastic reproduction of the Eiffel Tower, and a million other wonders including the lion who ate Little Albert

McKENZIE PORTER October 15 1953

THERE’S A SEASIDE RESORT NAME OF Blackpool

That’s Noted For Fresh Air And Fun —

Plus a galaxy of illuminations that put Broadway to shame, a fantastic reproduction of the Eiffel Tower, and a million other wonders including the lion who ate Little Albert

McKENZIE PORTER

LONDON

IF BROADWAY could be lifted out of Manhattan tonight and dumped in Blackpool, on the Lancashire coast of northwest England, it would barely be noticed. If the Canadian National Exhibition could be deposited there, it would languish in anonymity.

Hundreds of Canadian servicemen who have been to Blackpool since the end of the war will agree with this bold claim and so will the millions of Britons to whom Blackpool is a synonym for the kind of pleasure that is in turn a synonym for noise and bustle.

At this time of year, when other holiday towns have put up the shutters on the penny-peep shows, speared the last lost pairs of swimming trunks from under the pier and are organizing the post-season seaside landladies’ winter ball, Blackpool is reaching the zenith of its season with a blinding attraction known as The Illuminations.

Between the middle of September and the end of October Blackpool is packed with sightseers all shuffling elbow to elbow along seven miles of unbroken promenade and goggling at a delirious phantasmagoria of electricity that casts a glare visible to mariners sixty miles out in the Irish Sea.

In Blackpool the night sky glows with three hundred thousand lamps, two thousand luminous pylons and flagpoles, fifteen hundred floodlights, seventy-five miles of fluorescent tubing and fifty miles of incandescent festoons. In Blackpool there are more than a hundred animated signs; many of them are twice as long as a football field.

In these wonderful tableaus of Blackpool, Hungarian gypsies whirl in a saraband on the banks of a glittering stream; Egyptian houris snake about the Sphinx and the pyramids; Mexican gauchos tango among the cactus plants; Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Pluto make a space-rocket flight to the moon; a famous soccer player scores the goal which gave Blackpool’s team The English Cup at Wembley last year; John Bull and Uncle Sam gaze with appropriate expressions of pride and jealousy upon the Queen Mary as she sails into New York harbor; and The Queen of Hearts, Little Boy Blue, Bo-Peep, Tom The Piper’s Son, Old King Cole, Mother Goose and many more nursery rhyme characters enact their classic dramas to rich and blaring1 music.

In Blackpool there are waterfalls, Japanese lanterns, rainbow arches and fountains; gnomes, fairies, knights and monsters; gondolas, battleships, galleons and zeppelins; trees, mushrooms, tulips and fruit; peacocks, cockatoos, pelicans, flamingoes and parakeets; rockets, roman candles and fire-

crackers; and bells, bird cages, crowns, fleur-de-lis, giant wheels and the signs of the Zodiac.

Blackpool has spent one million six hundred thousand dollars on The Illuminations. One hundred and sixty thousand man-hours went to build them. To keep them lighted during the six weeks’ season they burn enough kilowatts to drive a streetcar ten times around the equator.

They Swarm by the Millions

Scores of celebrities, from Charles Dickens to the late Lloyd George and the present Queen Mother, have publicly lauded the therapeutic qualities of Blackpool’s sea breezes. But Blackpool’s real magnetism lies in the unabashed catering by one hundred and forty thousand residents to what that famous comedian, the late George Robey, once described as “a widespread taste for honest vulgarity.”

Superficially Blackpool is the most gaudy, rowdy and ribald resort on earth. Yet behind its glittering, highly commercialized facade it is simple, friendly and inexpensive. It lures into its spangled fifteen square miles eight million visitors every year, more than any other resort in the world. Seventy-five per cent of them are cotton workers from the vast industrial region around Manchester, fifty miles to the east. Their average wage is only twenty dollars

a week. A feckless annual spree at Blackpool, where each spends between thirty and sixty dollars, affords them three great novelties: clean invigorating air; the sense of having money to burn; and glamour.

Every natural feature Blackpool ever possessed along its golden beach has been buried under a promenade constructed of granite, concrete and asphalt, in places three tiers high. Above it there rises a hackle of such rococo buildings as only an architect with the soul of a confectioner could have conceived. Soaring over them all is the Tower, a five - hundred - and - twenty - foot imitation of the Eiffel in Paris, and the genesis of Blackpool’s fame and prosperity.

When the Tower was built sixty-two years ago, the dizzy elevator ascent to its observation platform at the four-hundred-and-eighty-foot level made Blackpool the most talked-about holiday place in Europe. And after the Tower had lured them, the menagerie, the circus, the aquarium, the dance halls, the restaurants and the bars in the buildings at its feet gave vacationers something to do when the notoriously wet skies of Lancashire wept for them. It is the firm policy of Blackpool to provide against every dull moment, rain or shine.

In Blackpool they now have five thousand hotels, boarding houses and pubs, fourteen live stage shows, seventy-five cinemas, a huge carnival ground, the biggest and

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second-biggest dance halls ever built, an ice rink, three piers, innumerable tennis courts, bowling greens and paddling pools, several golf courses, a fine inland park and a vast swimming pool. Down the Golden Mile in the centre of the promenade there is a plethora of fish-and-chip shops, hot-dog stands, shrimp bars, ice-cream booths, shooting galleries, slot-machine arcades, mock auctioneers and a regiment of hucksters who sell every emblem of Saturnalia from paper hats, Kewpie dolls, and beach balls to dirty postcards, stink bombs and a prurient journal called Billy’s Weekly Liar.

The late Sir Charles B. Cochran, one of Britain’s greatest impresarios, once said: “Blackpool’s entertainments are without rival in the world.” His strongest competitor, Julian Wylie, said: “You could take the whole of Atlantic City and Coney Island and put them into Blackpool without knowing they were there.” There is not a single month in the calendar when Blackpool is without guests. Every Sunday all the year round there are celebrity concerts which bring motorists in to see artists of the stature of Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Gracie Fields, George Formby and Lena Horne. The Illuminations were devised thirty years ago to extend the summer season until the end of October. They are paid for by the town council, and thus indirectly by Blackpool’s fifty thousand taxpayers. The resort was once described by Lord Woolton, wartftne Minister of Food, as “a wonderful example of the combination of municipal and private enterprise.”

The off season, from November to April, is filled by an average of more than fifty conventions, by music, dance and drama festivals, by dog shows, beauty demonstrations, art exhibitions, billiards championships, philatelic congresses, sports car rallies, photography - judging and cocktail -shaking contests. Blackpool has even drawn Scots from their mountain fastness two hundred miles to the north with an annual Highland Gathering. Britain’s three political parties and many trade unions return to Blackpool every few years for their conferences.

At Christmas, only those who have made reservations months ahead can get in. The traditional four-day Easter holiday is Blackpool’s warmup for the summer season. In the first week of May there is an Old Folks’ Holiday which brings thousands of aged who wish to avoid the dense throngs of later days. About the same time the annual fifty-mile walking race from Manchester to Blackpool draws photographers and reporters from all over the country to herald the readiness of the resort to move into full stride. From dark and huddled streets in the teeming ant world of industrial Britain, from the hollows of black and shaggy moors, from a vast mosaic of tracks, junctions, stores and factories, all streaked with the grime of cotton production, come most of Blackpool’s customers. At peak periods they pour into Blackpool at the rate of one trainload every two minutes, one coachload every ten seconds, and by cars, motorcycles and pushbikes that jam every road within a radius of twenty-five miles.

They rush to the promenade and gulp in the air of the Gulf Stream, the air that has been cleansed in crossing the wide Atlantic and sweetened and softened by its eastward passage across verdant Ireland. It seems to intoxicate

the Lancastrians. They spend wildly. They drink joyously. They dance ardently. They ride the roller coasters hilariously. The men roll up their trousers and paddle in the cold sea, oblivious to the incongruity of a gold Albert watch chain and a flat cap which most of them wear. The women hitch up their skirts and ride donkeys. The teen-agers swim till their skin turns blue, or play galloping games of cricket with a big soft colored ball. The infants dart between the legs of the donkeys, scream at the cruelties of Punch and Judy, and, helped by father, build enormous sand castles topped with fluttering paper flags. Ammon Wrigley, a poet in the Lancashire dialect, once remarked to this writer: “If it weren’t for Blackpool 1 think the whole of bloody Lancashire would go ‘bang’! ”

Every town in Lancashire has its annual Wakes Week, a vacation common to the entire population. Usually the whole place just shuts down and goes off to Blackpool. In Blackpool the landladies have grown used to each town’s different characteristics. Bacup folk like to sing and dance in the boarding house after the pubs have closed. Wigan folk are just a bit too rowdy. Westhoughton folk will help you wash the dishes if you let them. Scunthorpe folk are so quiet, says one landlady, “you wouldn’t know there was anybody in the house.”

For eleven and a half months in the year Lancastrians save up for their Wakes Week. They put a few shillings from their pay packets into non-profit organizations known as Slate Clubs. At Blackpool they spend every penny. This is so traditional that before they set off they leave under the clock on the mantelpiece enough money to pay for the taxi on their return. Some whitecollar workers in Lancashire of course go south to the gentility of Bournemouth or Torquay, or even cross the Channel to the sophistication of Paris and the Riviera. Even a few of the younger mill workers are now venturing abroad, or taking long-distance motorcoach tours. But most of them, like their parents and grandparents before them, remain loyal to Blackpool. The percentage of Scots and Cockneys is increasing every year.

The last war acquainted thousands of American and Commonwealth troops with the modified pleasures Blackpool provided and since then many have taken their families there on a sentimental journey.

You can stay at Blackpool in seafront boarding houses like The Belle Roy, The Roxy, Breezeland, The Rex, Oak Villa or The Aldro for as little as two dollars and a half a day with four meals included. Or you can take bed and breakfast in five-star hotels like The Imperial, The Clifton, The Cliffs and The Savoy for between four and five dollars daily. These prices do not seem cheap to the Lancashire folk who earn about half the average Canadian wage.

In a typical boarding house the landlady is prim, arch, formidable and jocose by turns, according to the mood of her guests. Always at the back of her mind is the need for preserving respectability without losing business.

She is probably coping with three young men who insist on sleeping in one bed rather than relegate one of their number to the loneliness of a separate room; with four flighty girls in their twenties who are “dance mad” and who come home after midnight with lipstick smeared and beer on their breath; with a family of six whose brats insist on shaking the sand from their socks into the toilet rather than into the cardboard box provided for that purpose in the vestibule; with a couple

of old folks who demand cocoa every night at ten and a glass of hot water every morning at six; with the sportsman who noisily rings up his bookie five minutes before each race at Lingfield Park; with the life-of-the-party type who gives the aspidistra a shot of gin every midday and even tries to organize a singsong around the fretwork-fronted piano when the sun is shining; and with the wolf who is eyeing the boarding-house waitress, a pretty colleen from Dublin.

At Christmas, however, she will send all her varied guests a card in the hope

they will be back again next summer.

In a typically expensive hotel the pretty daughter of a self-made cotton manufacturer comes in from a horseback ride along the sands with all the airs and graces of a member of the Pytehley Hunt; a group of local businessmen who are trying to improve the standards of cooking are gathering for their periodic Gourmets’ Club meal, an event nearly always written up in the evening newspaper; a well-dressed mother and daughter arrive from their aristocratic country house in the Lake District, eighty miles north, to make the

round of the shows; a group of young salesmen who visit Blackpool every week end to flv with the West Lancashire Aero Club are sampling Pimm’s No. l as concocted by a barman who once won the European cocktail shaking contest in Cannes; an exhibitor at the Royal Agricultural Show of England—which this year attracted more U. S. visitors to Blackpool than have been seen there since the war—says that after a few evening walks on the north pier he is eating like a horse and sleeping like a dormouse. And two chorus girls from a local revue are

talking about Lindy’s on Broadway to a highly-impressed young fishmonger’s son who is itching to get them into his fawn Jaguar so that he can show off with them on “the Prom.”

But rich and poor alike share Blackpool’s main attractions and find in the razzle-dazzle entertainments an escape from that glowering Cottonopolis of the hinterland whence they came.

The Tower Buildings are irresistible. For two shillings, or about thirty cents, the customer can remain inside from ten in the morning until midnight and find something to do all the time.

The great steel needle itself was raised in 1891 by a man called John Biekerstaffe who marveled at the fact that the Eiffel Tower, twice as high, and built a few years earlier for the Paris Exposition, paid for itself in six months.

Biekerstaffe floated a company which spent a million dollars, a huge sum in those days, on Blackpool Tower and its subordinate buildings. The company has paid thirty-five percent on its stock ever since, and the Biekerstaffe family still directs its affairs.

In summer seventy-five thousand people a day ride to the observation platform, at about twenty cents a trip. The agile climb to the Crow’s Nest about forty feet higher. A favorite game in Blackpool is to watch the sun set over the horizon of the Irish Sea from the promenade, then charge into the Tower, take the elevator, and see it set again.

During the dog days British editors like to send reporters to test their nerves among the thirty steeplejacks who work all the year round painting the latticework and replacing struts corroded by the salt breezes. Every piece of metal in the Tower has been changed since 1891 so that actually not a single element of the original structure remains.

In the first world war the Tower was used for submarine spotting. In World War II it was the most efficient radar eye in England, even though it was on the least useful coast.

By comparison with a New York skyscraper, of course, the Tower is a dwarf. But it is still the second highest edifice in Europe. Other English resorts have sought to build a Tower but none save New Brighton, opposite Liverpool, has succeeded in raising enough money. The New Brighton tower is considerably smaller.

About half a dozen suicides have taken the plunge from the top of Blackpool Tower. Just before the last war a young man jumped and hit a steel girder supporting the roof of the Tower ballroom. If he had fallen eighteen inches to right or left he would have dropped among some six thousand dancers, one of whom was the girl who a few minutes before had jilted him.

The Tower ballroom is only the second biggest dance hall in the world. It is exceeded slightly in size by the Winter Gardens ballroom, in another building, which also belongs to the Tower company. The Winter Gardens ballroom attracts stenographers and store clerks and on that account is supposed to be more exclusive than the Tower, where the mill girls go.

“In the old days,” says Reginald Dixon, organist at the Tower ballroom, “the distinction used to be quite marked. Nowadays however you can’t tell the difference between the two types.”

Dixon is Blackpool’s most famous man. He was one of the first players of the mighty Wurlitzer organ. Today the discs he has been recording at the Tower since 1930 still sell all over the world. He is a young-looking forty-two, dark, handsome and modest. He gets thousands of fan letters every year,

nearly a thousand from Canada. During the war he had an excellent record in the RAF.

The size of the Tower ballroom can be gauged from a story Dixon likes to tell. In his early days he had a small mirror above the keyboard of the organ to see how many dancers he was attracting to the floor while the band rested. One night he noticed with concern that he seemed to he about half a beat behind the farthest couples. He speeded up, but the faster he went the more the flying feet of the dancers seemed to elude him. Finally there were howls of protest from nearby couples who were now whirling like dervishes. Dixon realized then that there was a pronounced time lag between the moment he struck a note and the moment the dancers at the far end of the room heard it.

Over the stage of the Tower ballroom in twelve-inch gilt letters there is a quotation “Bid Me Discourse And I Will Enchant Thine Ear,” a survival of the ballroom’s grandiloquent Victorian origins. Beneath it in harsher twentiethcentury tones runs the notice: “No Jive: No Bop.”

Behind the ballroom extends the longest bar in Britain. It sells ten thousand bottles of beer a day.

Blackpool turns out more showgirls than any other town in Europe. It is the home of the famous Tiller Girl troupes who travel the world. Most of them graduate from The Children’s Ballet, an early-evening entertainment in the Tower ballroom which has been running every summer for fifty years. It is staged with impressive professional finesse by girls from Blackpool schools.

Between the giant legs of the Tower is a permanent circus which plays to three thousand people every afternoon and evening from June to the end of October. The only other circuses which match the quality of its acts is Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey in the United States, and Bertram Mills at his annual Olympia in London.

Before he retired in 1944 the resident clown, Doodles, had endeared himself to three generations of Blackpool circus fans. He was a friend of the late W. C. Fields who played Blackpool many times in his early juggling days. Today the resident clown is Charlie Cairoli, a Frenchman who couldn’t speak a word of English until he came to Blackpool. He now speaks it with a thicker Lancashire accent than George Formby. Such world famous acts as John Lester’s Midgets, The Sensational Borosinis, Vojetech Trubka and his Tigers, Hagenbach’s Elephants, and The Flying Cordonas, the greatest aerialists of all time, have all played Blackpool.

Blackpool circus has an advantage over all rivals. The floor sinks at the press of a button and floods with water illuminated from below. Every grand finale is a water spectacle with performing seals like Sharkey, a swimming hallet and high divers.

Also in Tower buildings are the zoo where Little Albert was eaten by the lion, an aquarium with a magnificent collection of huge fish from the seven seas, a florid aviary, a roof garden with special vaudeville shows for children

every afternoon, some fifteen bars, and a unique collection of penny slot machines dating back to Victorian times. One of the oldest announces its charms thus: “The Horrors Of The Torture Chamber, The Iron Maiden, The Rack and The Whipping Post.” Another urges you to “Listen For The Last Stroke Of The Bell When The Doors Will Open And The Terrible Drama Of A Modern Execution Will Unfold Itself Before Your Eyes.”

Outside there are three piers, about a mile apart, each offering dancing morning, afternoon and evening, and at night top flight London and Lancashire comedians in racy little revues. This summer at the Opera House, a big modern theatre, Les Compagnons de la Chanson, a French singing act which bewitches Montrealers every winter, was at the top of the bill. At the Winter Gardens Pavilion there was a revue starring the singer Allan Jones; at the Hippodrome a sexy musical entitled Latin Quarter; and at The Grand Theatre Arthur Askey, one of Britain’s top comics, in a farce about domestic life in Liverpool.

Down at the Pleasure Beach, a huge and riotous amusement park, there are four big roller coaster rides. The lion of them all is the Grand National, the biggest ride ever built. Starting from one hundred and fifty feet up it not only makes precipitous drops but takes corners at the same time. Two cars race side by side on parallel tracks, the most heavily loaded, of course, always winning.

Atom Scientist Moon-trip

It was the Grand National that brought out the fact that there are in this world such things as dilettantes of the roller coaster. Every season curious zealots who say they have ridden roller coasters in Bombay and Rio, in Paris and Cairo, in Berlin and New York, come to inspect the Grand National and poster the management for statistics about its performance. One man last year took twenty-four rides, his face illuminated with that beatitude which marks the connoisseur who has found perfection.

A couple of summers ago the British newspapers were desperately trying to got a picture of Sir William Penny, the key man in the nation’s atomic development. He was extremely elusive. Then a snapshot photographer at Blackpool Pleasure Beach scooped the

world with a shot of U r William happily disembarking from A Trip To The Moon.

Along the Golden Mile not far away you can see “NOT ONE, NOT TWO, NOT THREE, BUT. LADEES AND GENTLEMEN, FOUR, YES FOUR, OF THE MOST RAV-ISH-ING BEEYOU - TEES THE LANGOROUS LATIN COUNTRIES HAVE EVER BRED, EACH CLAD IN THE BRIEFEST OF BIKINI BATHING SUITS, AND ALL OF THEM, YES ALL OF THEM, FR-R-ROOZEN IN A BLOCK OF ICE.” There is a place which advertises “Spanish Beauties And Stark Naked Reality.”

It was along the Golden Mile in the Thirties that the notorious Rector of Stiff key sat in a barrel as one of the peep-show attractions. This poor unhinged Anglican of excellent family took too liberal an interpretation of charity in his self-appointed role of “the prostitutes’ priest.” His unfrocking at a public trial by the Ecclesiastical Courts provided the Sunday newspapers with some of the most salacious evidence ever published. The rector sat in the barrel for several years, ostensibly to raise funds for an appeal. When business began to fade he moved to a lion’s cage. One day the lion seized the frail little rector in his claws and tossed him around the cage like a mouse. A few hours later as the clergyman lay dying his last whispered words were taken down: “Do not forget to tell the newspapermen. All this is excellent publicity.”

On the Golden Mile you can buy the most vulgar picture postcards on sale anywhere. Lancastrians like them and a favorite trick is to mail one to a man they know is happily married, write on the back “Wish you were here,” and sign it “Flossie.”

Blackpool got its name from a black pool which lay near the beach in 1602. In those days the settlement consisted of two fishermen’s cottages. The Royalists, under the standard of Lord Derby, fought the Roundheads near the site of Blackpool a few years later. The present Lord Derby still owns most of the land around Blackpool. The first visitors arrived about 1714. They were hand-loom weavers. In 1735 there were two boarding houses. By 1751 an inn had been added. Twenty years later the Manchester Mercury was advertising Blackpool’s bathing facilities to the hordes of peasants who were pouring into Lancashire looking for work in the cotton mills. By 1846 Lancashire lay under the black pall of smoke which marked the triumph of the industrial revolution. A railway was run into Blackpool. Thousands of immigrants who had left the sweet fields of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and southern England for a mirage of wealth began scrimping and saving enough for the fare to Blackpool and a breath of fresh air.

Speculative money flowed into the resort. Buildings mushroomed. When the Tower was erected in 1891 Blackpool’s unbeatable appeal was fully established. It became the symbol of the Lancashire good time: a romp on the beach by day and a romp around the pubs and dance halls by night.

So much has Blackpool become a symbol of carefree contentment that many Lancastrians take up residence there when they retire. Most of them never lose their honest vulgarity. A few weeks ago the writer was in a bar on the central promenade when one of the customers, an elderly retired man, was seized with a spasm of coughing. After he had recovered he patted his chest, glanced apologetically around, and said to the assembled company: “Eeee-eeh ’ell, I must ’ave getten a drop of blood in me beer stream.” ★