Belle Vue, the North West’s premier entertainment park, was going through a rough patch in 1954.
The post-war boom, which saw crowds of 250,000 people at holiday weekends, was well and truly over.
Attendances had declined and the zoo suffered bouts of vandalism and burglary, resulting in the death or disappearance of animals.
Action was needed to stop the rot – something bold and new to bring back the crowds.
The first part of the solution in 1954 was the revival of an old favourite – Belle Vue’s legendary firework spectaculars.
Started by park founder John Jennison in the 1850s, the firework displays were grandiose affairs to say the least. They often recreated famous battles or historical events.
The very first re-enactment, The Bombardment of Algiers in 1851, included a massive 30,000 square foot canvas backdrop and an elevated gallery for more than 4,000 spectators.
Firework extravaganzas maintained their grand scale until the 1930s, when costs became prohibitive as crowds dwindled.
But that didn’t prevent the park owners giving their new displays the full Jennison treatment in 1954.
Once again, the formula failed to catch on. The last grand Jennison-style spectacular, Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, took place in 1956. Displays were then scaled down.
The second part of the 1954 solution was more down to earth – and far more lucrative.
It was stock car racing, brought to Belle Vue on June 16th by speedway manager Johnnie Hoskins.
It became such a hit that, in August 1955, Hoskins organised a one-race World Championship at Belle Vue. It was won by Jerry Woltowicz.
Stock car meetings quickly overtook the Midget dirt-track racing that came to Belle Vue from the USA in the 1930s.
Tiny 500cc cars – so low they almost touched the track – raced round the speedway circuit after getting a push start.
Entry prices for an evening’s racing ranged from one to three shillings, about the same price as a night at the cinema.
Midget cars never recovered their popularity after meetings were suspended for the Second World War – and were gradually phased out.
The third part of the solution to bring in the crowds was a revolution in catering. For many, dining out in the 1950s meant cheese and onion rolls in the pub.
Not so at Belle Vue. Themed catering outlets were opened at the park, starting with the Bavarian Banqueting Suite.
Others soon followed. The former Belfast and Exhibition Hall Suites were converted into the Cumberland and Windermere Suites – and the Palm Court was extended.
The catering revival suffered a setback in 1958 when a serious fire destroyed a number of buildings, including the Pagoda restaurant, Tudor Suite and five shops.
Swift action by firemen and staff ensured there were no casualties – and all the animals, except for one lioness, were saved.
A second major fire in October 1964 engulfed the Cumberland and Windermere Suites, but they were reopened in a year. During rebuilding, the company added the new Kendal Suite.
Another new development, the Caesar’s Palace pub, was opened in extraordinary style in December 1969.
Landlord Sam Mason arrived in a chariot borrowed from the Samson and Delilah act at Belle Vue circus. It was pulled by toga-clad circus performers Sandra Ashley and Sue Neilson and greeted by strongman Trevor Barnett.
Investment also went into greyhound racing – always a prime attraction at Belle Vue. By 1960, a new £30,000 stand was fully operational at the racecourse.
Belle Vue hosted the first greyhound race in the UK on July 24th, 1926. There were six races, each with a first prize of £10.
Mistley, the first dog listed on the first ever programme, went on to win the first ever race, coming in at odds of 6 to 1.
Half a century later, punters could go to the dogs in style, enjoying a meal behind glass as the greyhounds sped by outside.