David Wood occasionally deputises as the guest organist at the famous Morecambe Winter Gardens for the theatres wonderful redident organist Peter Jetson who has been a friend of David’s since the 1980’s.
David’s love of organ playing goes back to his childhood when he had ‘entertainment organ’ lessons with Ronnie French (who had previously had a residency at the Morecambe Winter Gardens) and ‘theatre organ’ lessons with Harold Graham (who had previously had a residency at the Floral Hall, Harbour Band Arena, and the Central Pier).
David’s deputising (as an organist) goes right back to the 1980’s. As a teenager, David played organ for several summer seasons in the 1980’s; and began deputising in the mid 80’s for the Blackpool theatre organist, the late Raymond Wallbank (1932-2010) in the Sunlounge on the North Pier at Blackpool.
Raymond – affectionately known as ‘The Prince of North Pier’ – had held the residency in the palm court elegance of Blackpool’s 1863 north pier sunlounge from the mid 1960’s to the mid 1990’s. He was contracted to play seven days a week for around five months a year. This was great experience for David, playing 50/50 dance medley’s for many hours a day.
After David had started Promenade Music in 1989, he represented the Yamaha, Technics and Hammond organ companies at several national organ shows where David would play and demonstrate their latest models; this has also stood him in good stead for when he plays now at the Winter Gardens.
Morecambe Winter Gardens
Originally known as the Victoria Pavilion and Oriental Ballroom, the Morecambe Winter Gardens was opened to the public in 1897.
The Grade II listed building is one of the North’s oldest and most iconic buildings for music and entertainment and its history is a “roll call of stars of popular music and variety theatre”.
When it opened, it was known as the ‘Albert Hall of the North’ and was one of the UK’s largest entertainment venues with its 2,500 capacity and 118ft roof span.
Over the years, many musicians and entertainers have graced the Morecambe Winter Gardens stage.
They have included the likes of: Sir Edward Elgar, the Halle Orchestra, Shirley Bassey, The Rolling Stones, Max Wall, Beryl Reid, Billy Connolly, George Formby, Adam Faith, Laurel and Hardy, The Shadows, Matt Monroe, The Who, Tony Hancock, Abbott & Costello, Dame Julie Andrews, Frankie Howerd, Morecambe & Wise, Frank Randall, Vera Lynn, Ambrose and his Orchestra, Lonnie Donegan, Dame Joan Hammond, Lonnie Donegan, Thora Hird, Max Wall, Laurel & Hardy, Al Read, Jack Watson, and Spike Milligan.
There have been many owners and operators of the Morecambe Winter Gardens over the decades; and it went from thriving, to derelict, and now it’s thriving again.
In March 1909, the Winter Gardens property was owned by William H. Broadhead who owned a chain of music halls; and in 1933, some Morecambe businessmen established a new company and purchased the block for £24,000 and put Harry Smirk in charge of running it.
In 1953, Moss Empires Ltd – who operated a massive chain of theatres in the UK – took a controlling interest in the Winter Gardens and they leased it to the Trust House Forte group in 1968.
Sadly, the theatre closed in 1977; and the adjacent ballroom was closed in 1978, and demolished in 1982.
Thanks to its new governance, the Preservation Trust, the help of their restoration volunteers; and the Friends of the Winter Gardens; they are slowly restoring this remarkable building, that’s been a mecca of music and entertainment, back to its former glory.
Morecambe Winter Gardens Musicians
There have been many musicians who have been resident at the Morecambe Winter Gardens including: Peter Jetson (who David Wood deputises for); Lois Sagar, Reg Fisher, Lionel Millard, Wilf Sutcliffe, Syd Munson, Johnny Cadwell to name but a few.
Peter Jetson: Morecambe Winter Gardens Resident Organist
Although ‘very’ slightly older than David Wood, the Morecambe Winter Gardens resident organist Peter Jetson started learning to play the organ as a teenager. Like David, he was fortunate enough to have the legendary Morecambe entertainment organist Ronnie French as his teacher. By the time Ronnie was teaching Peter, he had been a top professional musician all his life and had toured with Cilla Black, Shirley Bassy, Gene Pitney, to name but a few. Through Ronnie’s guidance and Peter’s hard work, Peter went on to became an excellent semi-professional organist who regularly played at local working men’s clubs to continually learn and improve his craft.
In the 1990’s, Peter got his big break and began working for Jim Bowen (the English stand-up comedian, actor and television personality who was the long-time host of the ITV game show Bullseye). Jim owned ‘The Red Well’ – a pub and entertainment venue near Jim’s ‘Arkholme for Kirkby Lonsdale railway station’ home – and he soon spotted Peter’s talent – both as an organist and big personality – with the customers. Peter quickly found himself playing for the likes of: Bernard Manning; Mick Miller; Frank Carson; Johnny Casson; and through Jim, Peter met many stars including: Paul O grady; Mark Little; Gabby Rosalyn, etc.
There is no doubt that Peter’s greatest honour – whilst playing at the Morecambe Winter Gardens – is when he met and played for Prince Charles in 2022, who became King Charles III in May 2023. When Buckingham Palace wrote a letter of thanks on behalf of King Charles – to the Chair of the Winter Gardens – there was a special mention for Peter.
In June 2022, Peter appeared (and was heard playing) on Susan Calman’s ‘Great Day Out’ where Susan headed into Lancashire and Morecambe Bay – with its contrasting landscapes, quirky traditions, historic landmarks and community spirit – which was partly filmed in the Morecambe Winter Gardens.
Peter is a ‘massive personality’ at the Morecambe Winter Gardens! He says “it gives me tremendous satisfaction in meeting lovely people that come into the theatre from all over the country and the world” and Peter makes everyone welcome.
David has a long and wonderful friendship with Peter and he is honoured to deputise for him when he is unable to play… which is rare.
Peter (as the theatres organist) and David (as a deputy organist) are a good team at the Winter Gardens and are both passionate to keep the continuity of organ playing alive in this remarkable theatre.
Louis Benjamin: Morecambe Winter Gardens General Manager from 1953 – 1959
Although not a musician, probably the most successful time in the history of the Winter Gardens was under the direction of a young 31 year old business executive called Louis Benjamin. After Moss Empires Ltd – who operated a massive chain of theatres in the UK – took over the Morecambe Winter Gardens in 1953, they appointed their assistant manager at the London Palladium (Louis Benjamin) to be the new general manager at the Winter Gardens.
Whilst at the Winter Gardens, Louis did an amazing job bringing many of the biggest stars of the day to Morecambe.
In 1959, Louis left the Winter Gardens to be put in charge of Pye Records where he signed Petula Clark, The Kinks, Sandie Shaw, Donovan, etc and in 1975 he became the joint Managing Director of the ATV television network. Louis went on to be: the chair Pye Records; the managing director at ATV; the managing director at the London Palladium, the organiser of the Royal Variety Performances (that was broadcast on television); and in later life was actively involved in show business charities including: the Variety Club; the Grand Order of Water Rats; and the British Music Hall Society. Louis passed away in 1994.
Lois Sagar: Morecambe Winter Gardens Resident Organist from 1954 – 1961
In 1953, Louis Benjamin bought a brand new Hammond B2 organ – which he had radically customized in white so it looked like a futuristic organ – and one of his first appointments was the organist Lois Sagar to play it.
Lois took over the job in June 1954 (at the beginning of the summer season) and for her £28 salary, she had to play gruellingly long sets; and often played seven days a week in some seasons! Her normal daytime playing would be a morning set from 10am until 1pm (three sets from 10.00am -10.50am; 11.05am – 11.55am; and 12.10pm – 1.00pm) and an afternoon from 2.00pm until 5.00pm (three sets from 2.00pm -2.50pm; 3.05pm – 3.55pm; and 4.10pm – 5.00pm). Some seasons she would play on a Tuesday where she played for the talent show from 7pm to 11pm; her own ‘Lois Saga’s Guest Night’ show on a Wednesday evening from 7pm until 11pm; and sometimes another evening when the night would be shared with a dance band.
Lois also had an un-credited part in the 1960 released film ‘The Entertainer’ that starred Laurence Olivier and was filmed on location Morecambe. If you see the film, watch for a scene in a ballroom and that’s Lois playing the organ. Although un-credited, Lois was paid £200. She played the 1954 to 1961 seasons at the Winter Gardens.
– John ‘Johnny’ Cadwell who was the organist at the Winter Gardens in the 1960’s. Johnny went on to be the musical director for Lynne Perrie who as a singer appeared at the London’s Royal Albert Hall and shared the same bill as the Beatles; the Rolling Stones; Sacha Distel; Rod Stewart; Engelbert Humperdinck; and Shirley Bassey.
– Syd Munson Orcestra
– Lionel Millard and his music
– Reg Fisher Musical Director
– Wilf Sutcliffe Orchestra
1954 Season at Morecambe Winter Gardens
By the 1954 season, Morecambe Winter Gardens was owned by Moss Theatres. Prince Littler (not royalty, just a name) was the Chairman; Val Parnell was the Managing Director; and the regional director looking after the Winter Gardens was C.A. Ingram.
On a local level, the new General Manager at the Winter Gardens – who had been appointed in 1953 [and stayed until 1959] was a young thirty-something called Louis Benjamin who would go on to make the Winter Gardens one of the most successful theatres in the UK; and made himself one of the most successful entertainment executives in the UK.
Louis had a close team and in 1954, his Assistant General Manager was James Pitman; the theatre manager was Roy Armitage; and the theatre musical director was Reg Fisher.
The booking office opened each day from 10am until 9pm (earlier in the season) and was open daily from 9.30am until 9pm by the end of the season.
The booking office telephone number was 8 and the other published telephone numbers were 1114 for the general office; 1842 for the stage door; and 677 for the restaurant.
There were “fully licensed bars in all parts of the theatre” and in 1954, the prices were: Whiskey 2-/; Gin1/9; and Port and Sherry 2-/ and Beers and Minerals were advertised at “popular prices”.
1954 Season In The Ballroom
– Daily in the ballroom (except Thursday) was Lois Sagar who played the brand new Hammond B2 organ for dancing and general entertainment from 10am to 1pm and from 2pm to 5pm. The entrance fee was 6d for adults and 3d for children.
– In the evening, there were several offerings of ensembles throughout the season playing for ’Modern Dancing’ and they included: Vic Lewis And His Orchestra (“Britain’s Modern Man of Music”); Eric Lawe And His Orchestra; and Sid Phillips And His Band who often had the wartime singer Betty Miller fronting the band. There would be two ensembles on nightly (except Thursday and Sunday) and their set times were: Monday and Tuesday from 7pm to 11pm (2/6 entrance fee); Wednesday and Friday from 7pm to 1am (3/- entrance fee); and Saturday from 7pm to 11pm (3/- entrance fee).
– Saturday in the daytime: Lois Sagar hosted a Children’s Ballet twice daily at 11am and 3pm.
– Thursday Evening: Boxing and Wrestling.
– Friday the 27th of August 1954 from 7pm to 1am was a ‘Grand Beauty Contest’ and dance. It was billed as “You Be The Judge” and all the prizes were supplied by ‘Toni Cosmetics Limited’. To entice the ladies to attend it was advertised that “EVERY lady attending this dance will receive a gift”.
1954 Season In The Theatre
For the 1954 season, there were twice nightly performances on Monday to Saturday at 6.15pm and 8.30pm of different touring stars who would do their show for either a week or a fortnight; and a visiting one night show of a big named star on a Sunday at 7.30pm. The theatre musical director was Reg Fisher and he and his orchestra would be a part of all the shows in the theatre. The evening always finished with ‘The Queen’ [the national anthem].
– From Monday 28th June 1954 to Saturday the 3rd of July 1954 the headline artiste was Joseph Locke who was supported by the acts: Clayton And Ward (‘Dancing Moments’); Connor and Drake (Britain’s ambassadors of laughter’); Pan Yue Jen Troupe (‘World’s greatest Chinese entertainers’); Joe King ( ‘always joking’); Albert Strum (the newspaper man’); The Skyloons (‘Thrills in the air’) and the interval music was an arrangement of “Popular Favourites” by Reg Fisher and played by the Winter Gardens Orchestra under the direction of Reg Fisher.
– Sunday the 4th of July 1954 at 7.30pm was an evening with ‘Carroll Levi’s And His BBC Discoveries’ (‘18 brand new acts’) with Violet Pretty and the teenagers. Ticket prices were 5/- to 2/-.
– From Monday 5th of July 1954 to Saturday the 17th of July 1954 the headline artiste was the real French show from Paris billed as ‘Folies Bergere revue Paris to Piccadilly’ which came direct from its triumphant run at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London which accompanied by the Winter Gardens Orchestra under the direction of Reg Fisher. Ticket prices were 5/- to 2/-.
– From Monday 23rd of August 1954 to Saturday the 28th of August 1954 doing two shows nightly (6.15pm and 8.30pm) was the headline artiste Guy Mitchell (with Joe Antman at the piano). He was supported by: Seaton and O’Dell (‘Dancers’); Hackford and Doyle (‘Wood and Wind, Mostly Wind’); Brian Andro (‘On the Wire’); Leslie Randall (‘The New Style Comedian’); Vera Cody (‘with Herat.V Horse Goldie and film star Dogs Corin and Domino); The Shipway Twins (‘Hanging Around Bars’) and the interval music was an arrangement of “Ray Noble Medley” arranged by R. Hamner and played by the Winter Gardens Orchestra under the direction of Reg Fisher.
– Sunday the 29th of August 1954 (7.30pm) was ‘A Grand Concert featuring Europe’s Greatest Drummer Jack Parnell And His Orchestra with Denis Hale and Annie Ross. The concert was billed as “The biggest big band thrill of 1954”. Ticket prices were 5/- to 2/-.
– From Monday 30th of August 1954 to Saturday the 4th of September 1954 doing two shows nightly was the headline artiste ‘Vic Oliver – Mr Showbiz’ who was billed as ‘Britain’s Most Versatile Entertainer’. He was supported by: Sylvia Campbell (‘Radio and T.V. Singing Star’); Eddie Arnold (‘Mr Everybody’); Alan Bros. And June (‘Unusual as Usual’); and a ‘Big Supporting Company. Ticket prices were 5/- to 2/-.
– From Monday 6th of September 1954 to Saturday the 11th of September 1954 doing two shows nightly (6.15pm and 8.30pm) was Peter Brough in “Educating Archie”.