Travel back in time
The Grand was opened on July 23 1894 by Thomas Sergenson, Blackpool’s first successful theatrical manager.
Sergenson immediately dubbed the theatre ‘Matcham’s Masterpiece‘, a title that is even more merited now that there are few surviving examples of the work of Frank Matcham, the leading Victorian theatre architect.
The theatre took just nine months to build and cost Sergenson £20,000, part of which he had earned by operating two small rented theatres and from a circus that he staged for five summer seasons on the site of The Grand.
With his imposing new theatre, Sergenson surprised the resort with the quality of his stars and shows. The theatre opened with a performance of Hamlet by Wilson Barrett, a leading actor-manager who had often appeared in Blackpool. But a few weeks later, Sergenson brought a much bigger star to The Grand, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who also gave Hamlet as part of a repertoire of plays.
In the first few weeks of the theatre’s existence, the owner-manager also presented the biggest musical hit of the London season, A Gaiety Girl; the comedy hit Charley’s Aunt; and a visit by the Carl Rosa Opera Company.
Sergenson made a valued arrangement with George Edwardes, the king of musical comedy production, to have the first choice in Blackpool of those famous musicals from the Gaiety Theatre and Daly’s Theatre, London.
During his fifteen years at The Grand, Sergenson presented great stars like Ellen Terry, Madge Kendal, Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, F R Benson and Dan Leno. In 1909 he sold the theatre for a handsome £47,500 to the Blackpool Tower Company, who ran The Grand for the next sixty-two years.
The Grand was the first Blackpool theatre to present the two big musical hits of World War One – The Maid of The Mountains and Chu Chin Chow – and in the 1920s become noted for staging big American musicals like Rose Marie, The Desert Song and No No Nanette.
The theatre was used by top West End producers for British premieres and for forty years many plays and musicals were seen at The Grand ‘prior to London’.
After the success of Talking Pictures, The Grand in the 1930s was a cinema in the winter and staged ‘live’ shows during the holiday season. Stars included Sybil Thorndike, Marie Tempest, Jack Buchanan and Leslie Henson.
Most famous of the 1930s’ attractions was Gracie Fields, who made all her Blackpool Variety appearances from 1932 to 1938 at The Grand Theatre.
When the Tower Company began to build the new Blackpool Opera House in 1938, The Grand was returned to its role as an all-year playhouse. In 1939 the theatre’s list of stars included Sir John Gielgud, Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; Rex Harrison, Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook in Noel Coward’s Design For Living; and Donald Wolfit in a Shakespeare week.
The first summer season show was held in 1940. It was a variety revue starring local comedian Harry Korris, who returned the following summer with a stage version of his famous Happidrome radio show.
During World War Two, Blackpool was a safe haven from German bombing and many great stars and shows came to The Grand. There were visits by Gielgud, Evans, Ashcroft, Harrison, Vivien Leigh, Flora Robson, Robert Donat, John Mills and Emlyn Williams.
In October, 1942, Noel Coward premiered and appeared in two of his plays – Present Laughter and This Happy Breed – and threw in Blithe Spirit for good measure!
The prestige of The Grand continued through the 1950s, which was a glittering decade in spite of the growing impact of television. Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Alistair Sim, George Cole, Evelyn Laye and Margaret Lockwood could be seen there, while the most frequent visitors were the husband and wife teams of Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge and Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray.
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A Seaside Town
Holiday-makers of the 1950s and 1960s best remember The Grand for the highly successful summer season forces, starring comedy favourites like Arthur Askey, Thora Hird, Glenn Melvyn, Danny Ross, Hylda Baker, Freddie Frinton, Sid James and Jack Douglas.
By the early 1960s theatres across Britain were closing due to loss of audience to television. The Grand survived longer than most, thanks to the backing of The Tower Company. But the shortage of good shows, coupled with declining ticket sales, forced a policy of winter closure from 1963. Fewer big names came to the theatre, although the summer season forces continued to make money.
In the mid 1960s, the theatre was included in a town centre redevelopment plan. The result of this was that in July 1972 The Tower Company applied for permission to demolish it. In its place they proposed a department store.
By then, however, following an application to the Deparment of the Environment, the theatre had been listed as a Grade II building. Because of that there had to be a full public enquiry.
Saving The Grand
Meanwhile, WWII veteran A Burt Briggs, barrister John Hodgson and other local theatre lovers banded together to resist the application. Early in 1973 there was a meeting at a local hotel where the Friends of The Grand was formed specifically to resist the application, which by then was supported by the Local Authority.
The public hearing followed later that year. With the support of national theatre celebrities, the Friends put forward a case which persuaded the Inspector that it would be wrong to allow the demolition of the theatre.
However, The Friends’ battle was not yet won. In 1975, after years of disuse, it became obvious that the Tower Company were planning to turn The Grand into a bingo hall. After another round of legal and financial wrangling, the Friends of the Grand, together with EMI and the local council put together a deal involving leasing the theatre for £10,000 per annum and final purchase for £250,000.
After the eventual purchase of the theatre by The Grand Theatre Trust, in September, 1980, dozens of ‘Friends’ helped to refurbish the dressing rooms and backstage areas in readiness for The Grand’s reopening in the week of Monday March 23 1981, by Timothy West and Prunella Scalesin the Old Vic production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
In May 1981, the theatre had a prestigious two-week visit by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company with their Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, and on May 29 the ultimate theatrical honour of a Royal Variety Performance in the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales.
The audience for weekly theatre, which had dissolved during the nine-year closure of The Grand, was slowly won back and developed during the 1980s. The Grand brought Northern Ballet Theatre and London City Ballet to Blackpool on regular visits. Annual concerts by The Halle and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestras became a feature Opera appeared on the theatre’s calendar of events, first by Opera 80 and now from international travelling Opera companies.
The theatre proves that, when scheduled within a varied programme of plays, dance, musicals and concerts, there is a healthy demand for the arts in Blackpool and the surrounding areas.
(Adapted from A Short History of the Grand Theatre by Barry Band, Grand Theatre historian and Director of the Grand Theatre Trust Ltd, and How the Grand was Saved by a Burt Briggs (TD), Vice-President of the Grand Theatre Trust and Founder of the Friends of The Grand, published in the pamphlet Centenary Appeal: Blackpool Grand Theatre 1894-1994.)