ON its opening day 90 years ago, Bournemouth’s Pavilion was described by its management as “the greatest municipal enterprise of its kind”.

The £250,000 cost of building the town’s grand entertainment complex equates to around £16million in today’s money.

Larger than Wells Cathedral, it contained a concert hall (later designated a theatre) with Compton organ, ballroom, two reading and relaxing rooms and three restaurants.

The management’s statement of intent also called it “one of the finest places of public resort in the country”.

And in the decades that followed, it would host just about every entertainment and cultural event possible: Summer variety shows, pantomimes, operas, ballets,musicals heading to or from the West End, military bands, religious events and party political conferences.

The Pavilion’s anniversary is being celebrated with three events beginning this weekend.

Hugh Ashley, who has a long personal association with the venue, has put together a commemorative booklet for the occasion.

Building the theatre was a vast project, he says. The Pavilion even pumped in seawater which fed its steam heating system, its fountain and a waterfall on the West Terrace – and was even used to clean Westover Road.

Mr Ashley landed a summer job at the Pavilion in 1958, while at Bournemouth School, but returned as a permanent member of staff in 1960.

His favourite memories are of the summer variety shows, which could run for 18-20 weeks.

“They were the big thing in the 1950s and 60s, with all the big stars. We didn’t know them so well in those days as we do now because television hadn’t bitten so well in this part of the world,” he said.

Often, the summer shows would include a visual spectacle such as dancing waters. One year, there was a simulation of a burning oil field – with Hugh underneath the stage, using a broom handle to lift the lid of a burning drum to simulate an explosion.

Hugh started as a prop boy for Bob Monkhouse and the Beverly Sisters but went on to operate lighting. Once, he plunged Ken Dodd into darkness during his act.

“I really thought I’d lost that job because you don’t black out a big star and get away with it,” he said.

“He came off immediately because he thought it was the stage manager warning him he was on too long and should come off straight away. Nobody ever said a word about it but I cringe when I think about it.”

Later, he operated the lights for Shirley Bassey. “She came up to me after one of the Sunday night shows and thanked me for the lights. She was probably the biggest person in the world who ever paid me a complement,” he said.

As well as just about every variety and light entertainment star in the land, the Pavilion stage welcomed Sir John Gielgud, Dame Margot Fonteyne, Bournemouth-raised film star Srewart Granger and even Sean Connery.

The future James Bond had a small role in a touring production of South Pacific. “He said in his autobiography it was that tour that made him decide we wanted to be a real actor and went into films,” said Hugh.

The first talk of closing the Pavilion came in 1956 and over the coming decades, the venue survived threats to its future. In 1978, there were plans to build the town’s new conference centre on the site, and in 1983, Tommy Trinder launched a Save the Pavilion campaign.

Today, though, its future seems secure in the hands of BH Live, the non-profit trust that runs Bournemouth council’s entertainment and leisure venues. Part of the complex is home to Pavilion Dance South West, which has support from Arts Council England.

Hugh Ashley notes: “It really does seem to be on an upward trend.”

The Pavilion’s anniversary is being marked with three events:

On Saturday, March 16, there will be an open day from 11am, with tours, performances, and archive displays. Admission is free.

On Tuesday, March 19, 7pm, a showing of the great 1933 musical 42nd Street will part of an evening aimed at recreating an evening at the Pavilion in the 1930s, with music from a recreation of the town’s Municipal Orchestra and on the venue’s Compton organ.

Wednesday, March 20, 2pm, sees a grand anniversary tea dance. Details are at bhlivetikets.co.uk

* What are your favourite memories of the Pavilion? Whether it’s variety or rock, theatre or comedy, we’d like to hear. Email darren.slade@bournemouthecho.co.uk with your memories or photos.