How Blackpool Tower Circus has stayed at the top for 100 years
Every spring for more than a century, the Blackpool Tower Circus has opened its doors to present a new season to locals and holidaymakers. It’s one of only two purpose-built circus venues in the country still employed in their original role, and the longest serving.
Beneath the arena, the cages once used to pen wild animals are still in place, although animals haven’t appeared on the bill since 1990. Hydraulic mechanisms that lower the ring floor to create an onstage lake produce an elaborate water finale to every show throughout the summer, just as they did a century ago.
The circus arena was built as an integrated part of the famous tower, nestling between its four legs following the initial designs of Lancashire architects James Maxwell and Charles Tuke. The first audiences were welcomed in 1894 but, before the decade was out, the arena had been revamped by Frank Matcham in the Moroccan-styled opulence that visitors enjoy today. The grade I-listed building now has a capacity of 1,350, reduced from its original 1,500 due to modern accessibility requirements.
Blackpool Council bought the tower buildings in 2010. Since then, Merlin Entertainments has operated them on the council’s behalf. In addition to the circus, Blackpool Tower hosts four other attractions, offering package ticket options to combine one or more activities with a visit to the Matcham-designed ring.
Creation of the circus show itself is contracted to Tom and Laci Productions Ltd, a company formed in 2012 by the tower’s resident clowns, Laci Endresz Jr and Tom ‘Bubu’ Endresz, more commonly recognised as Mooky and Mr Boo.
The Endresz family has run the Blackpool Tower Circus since before Merlin took over operations, and celebrated its 25th year at the venue in 2016. Laci Endresz Jr is not only the third of his line with the same name, he is also the third generation Mooky, a clown character previously interpreted by his father, Laci Endresz Sr.
“The circus here is very traditional,” explains Blackpool Tower’s general manager Kenny Mew. “It uses state-of-the-art technologies to produce a spectacular 21st-century show, but the family are still the ones who pull together to make it all happen in-house.”
Laci Sr directed the show himself until last year, when he officially handed the reins over to his two sons. He is still heavily involved in the casting process, travelling to circus festivals and competitions around the world to scout for talent while the younger men continue to run and perform in the show on a day-to-day basis in Blackpool.
“The best acts must be booked two or three years in advance,” Laci Sr explains. “I am lucky: our family knows everyone. It makes negotiations easier because we have a good reputation. But now circus has to compete with television, CGI effects and the internet, it’s important to find artists who give technical excellence and some novelty.”
5 things about The Blackpool Tower Circus Water Feature
1. The Blackpool Tower Circus and Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth are two of only four theatres worldwide with working features of this type.
2. Although parts have been replaced, the mechanical system is the same as was originally installed in the 19th century. The original Victorian pump kept the feature running for 80 years.
3. The floor of the arena sinks to a depth of 137cm to allow for the incoming water. While sea water was originally used, this is now fresh water, chlorinated and treated to modern hygiene standards.
4. The arena takes less than a minute to fill with 42,000 gallons of water, weighing 190 metric tons.
5. The water tanks are emptied and refilled annually, and every other year the winter pantomime is produced without using the water feature to allow for maintenance and re-painting.
Laci Sr is the fifth generation of a Hungarian circus family, while his wife Maureen follows eight generations of the British Fossett dynasty (see p42). When they met, she performed her own foot-juggling act, but now she is company manager in charge of juggling the office paperwork.
“The business load and paperwork requirements are getting heavier and heavier,” says Laci Sr. “We have artists from Ethiopia, China, Brazil, Hungary… every country has different requirements, which sometimes change in the space of a fortnight.”
TLP Ltd is licensed by the UK government as an A-rated sponsorship organisation, so the production company can grant foreign nationals a unique sponsorship number that helps process their visa application to perform here. Contracts are offered based on industry standards upheld by members of the British Association of Circus Proprietors, and the Endresz family also provides visiting artists with a recommended digs list.
Summer season at the Blackpool Tower Circus runs from April until November each year. A two-week rehearsal and preparation period then begins for the circus pantomime that starts mid-November and runs until mid-January. The Christmas show is an Endresz innovation that has become a favourite with tower visitors over the last two decades, mixing traditional circus and classical pantomime.
Laci Jr has taken over the writing and direction of the shows from his father, and also programmes the lighting and sound consoles, while brother Bubu is in charge of rigging and costume. Their sister Kate works in Hungarian television after an award-winning youth as a juggler, but her daughter Kelly Banlaki takes a break from her screen-acting career each winter to perform the lead role in her family’s pantomime.
With two new shows annually, the circus is a major draw for returning audiences. Mew has worked at the tower for 22 years, landing the top job in 2016. He has been able to witness year-on-year growth across visitor numbers and revenue.
“The circus is consistently number one on TripAdvisor for shows and theatre in Blackpool,” he says. “Not all our visitors realised it had such a great history, so a timeline exhibition has recently been added to the queuing area to share posters, clippings and footage from the past.”
The circus contributes handsomely to the tourist trade the area relies on each year, but is also a regular entertainment for locals. JL Coldham is a performer who became interested in circus when his parents moved to the area 16 years ago. “Other parts of the country only really see the odd travelling circus and these give varying displays of skill,” he explains. “In Blackpool, we know the tower circus is always there, every year we know a new show is performed. People know there is a Christmas panto and can name Mooky like a local celebrity.”
Coldham now performs in the Vander Wheel of Death that tours the outdoor circuit, and has twice appeared in the tower ring with juggling and balancing acts. “The Blackpool Tower Circus is world famous as one of the best in the business and hosts the most amazing acts that can be found around the planet. To perform alongside these superb acts is an honour,” he says.
To ensure the circus venue isn’t left unused, it’s hired out externally when not in performance season. The international Snooker Shoot-Out has been hosted in the arena, and key scenes from last year’s Tim Burton hit, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, were filmed there, putting the resort back into the global spotlight.
“When Merlin first took over the contract, for a while I think they didn’t know what to do with us,” says Laci Sr. “They are massive and experienced in corporate entertainment, and our traditions were treated a bit like a formality at first. But now they are very appreciative and supportive.”
Blackpool Tower’s classical circus has proven itself a jewel in the crown for Merlin and the local area, and Mew confirms that there are no plans to change anything anytime soon. “If it’s not broken, as they say, don’t fix it. There’s no reason to change. We will just continue to deliver a magnificent show.”
Profile: Tom & Laci Productions (TLP) Ltd
Managing directors: Tom Vilmos Endresz, Lazslo Robert Endresz
No. of performances: More than 400 per year
Audience figures: Estimated 400,000 annually
No. of employees: Around 50 contractors during show season, including circus performers, live band and specialist circus technicians
Funding levels: 100% earned income
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