SI Vault
John Garrity
July 29, 1996
When the Open comes to this wacky, tacky town, it's just another visitor
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July 29, 1996

Wish You Were Here

When the Open comes to this wacky, tacky town, it's just another visitor

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It was not always so. In the Victorian era Blackpool's innkeepers kept their fires warm for upscale travelers who came to "take the waters"—that is, drink the seawater for its supposed curative properties. The piers, the first of which went up in 1863, were built to carry health seekers out past the waves. Then came a series of technological innovations that made Blackpool to seaside resorts what St. Andrews is to golf. In 1879 the town threw the switch on the world's first electric-arc streetlights. Six years later the world's first permanent electric tramway opened. Finally, in 1912, in a move that humbled competing resorts, the town introduced the Blackpool Illuminations, a five-mile-long outdoor lighting extravaganza that draws millions of visitors to the Promenade in September and October.

"You wouldn't believe the people who come to see the lights," says Andrea Dolan, a University of Lancashire student who works in the ticket office of the Pleasure Beach casino. "It can be cold, rainy, horrible and stormy, but they drive through, three lines of cars and coaches, nose to tail. The lights blow in the wind till you think they're going to fall down, but the people in the cars keep eating their chips. They're having a wonderful time."

So popular is this illuminated stretch of the Promenade, with its 500,000 lamps, 60 tableaux and 21 themed sections, that Blackpool built a coach park for 1,800 buses. "On a weekend it's full," says George Hill, the town's director of publications and marketing. "You can walk across the tops of the coaches."

So peculiarly British are these activities that a recent American edition of Frommer's Guide to the U.K. omitted Blackpool despite its 120,000 "holiday beds" and a tourism base larger than that of Greece and the Greek Isles combined. Those Americans who do visit are either Air Force veterans who fell in love with the place during World War II or roller coaster enthusiasts making a pilgrimage to the Pleasure Beach amusement park. Built on sand dunes once inhabited by Gypsy tents, the park is in its centenary, all under the ownership and direction of the remarkable Thompson family. It is Pleasure Beach, with its American-inspired rides and carny games, that most of the British golfers playing in the Open recall from long-ago holidays. ("I used to throw up a lot," Feherty says wistfully recalling visits as a teen.)

The chairman of Pleasure Beach, at 93, is the indomitable Doris Thompson, M.B.E. Treated to her first carnival ride at the age of three, she became a coaster fanatic and now wishes she could make a run on her park's Big One, which is the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster, at 235 feet and 85 mph. She admitted last week, over lunch on the rooftop terrace of her casino, that she had lined up to ride the Big One when it opened in '94—only to be pulled out of the queue by her son Geoffrey, the park's managing director. "He thought I might die midway," she says with delight, "and that would not be good publicity."

Hardly anyone we met in Blackpool seemed aware of the golf being played down the road. An orange-vested electrician, testing the Illuminations late Friday night, confessed he had attended the second round. "I saw Jack Nicklaus practicing, and he looked awful," the electrician said, gazing down a North Promenade pulsing with incandescent energy. "Then he went around in 66."

Otherwise, indifference prevailed. "Wouldn't go near it," said a fireman conducting a fire drill near the Central Pier. "Is there golf?" asked a ticket seller at the Opera House, which is home to Britain's largest stage. It had us wondering if Blackpool's residents followed sports at all—a point which Geoffrey Thompson of Pleasure Beach answered by saying, "We have some Mexican cliff divers, and that's a sport, I suppose. One's in hospital, but the rest are all right."

So we left it to Gypsy Petulengro to put things in perspective. Consulting the larger of her crystal balls one last time, she saw the Open returning to Royal Lytham and St. Annes for a 10th time. She saw thousands of swimmers bobbing in the waters along the Prom as early as next year (when a new sewage-treatment plan goes into effect). And finally—after consulting the European tour media guide—she divined a splendid future for David Feherty, with no less than an Open title to look forward to. "It's not the ball I pick it up from, but reading that book," she said. "He's going to shock a few this year."

She pushed away the crystal ball and looked up expectantly. "So, who do you think is going to win?"

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