Empress-ive launch is music to our ears

Winter Gardens Organ Launch by Dawn Manders

We may have a reputation for tat, hen parties and bad taste, but Blackpool has a lot to be proud about. There are plenty of jewels in this town’s crown – and one of the most sparkly has to be the Winter Gardens. The place has even more polish now, thanks to a band of enthusiasts from Cannock Chase Organ Club, who have worked long and hard to bring a top class instrument back to the Empress Ballroom.

It has taken two and a half years for the team to source all of the bits needed. And on Sunday the finished instrument was put through its paces for a large and hugely enthusiastic audience. Best of all, for the first time since 1970, dancers strutted their stuff on the dance floor as talented organist Cameron Lloyd gave them everything from a quickstep to the wonderfully named Saunter Shiraz.

The ribbon was cut by Jill Steel, daughter of Reginald Dixon who was the organist at the Tower Ballroom from 1930-1970, and his theme tune, Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, was the first to be played to an appreciative audience of organ music fans and dancers.

Reg was a regular visitor to the Winter Gardens, playing the organs in both the Opera House and the Empress Ballroom. In his heyday, he was up there with the recording greats, Victor Silvester and Bing Crosby, and his BBC radio broadcasts from the Tower Ballroom in the 1930s went out as often as five times a week.  It’s no wonder the public voted him most popular organist in a national newspaper poll, where he won more than double the votes of his nearest rival.

His fame continues today, much to the surprise of his daughter, Jill: “So many young organists get in touch and tell me they idolise my dad,” she said “It’s wonderful that his memory lives on – and I think he would have been touched to know about today’s concert.

“I was happy to do the honours. The Cannock Chase Club have done a wonderful job and have worked so hard. It is a marvellous achievement and their chairman Steve Tovey is a remarkable man.”

It was 1970 when the former Empress Ballroom organ was sold for a pittance to the BBC, to become BBC Theatre Organ no 3, so Sunday was a special day for a lot of people. Cannock Chase Organ Club member Grant Pilcher had travelled from Norfolk for the occasion. “It has been a long time coming but today is a thrill,” he said. Members from as far afield as Wales and Scotland have been involved in creating the new organ – all at their own expense. It has been a labour of love for us and to hear the organ sounding so well is fantastic.”

Let’s leave the last word to the Mayor of Blackpool, Councillor Val Hayes: “It’s brilliant to see dances back in the ballroom and it is all thanks to Steve Tovey and his team. Hopefully we can look forward to more and more events like this one.”


Images by Dawn Mander of Two Old Birds Photography.

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