These photos of the Grand from Sean Conboy
The Theatre’s rich history began in 1894, having been built by the leading Victorian theatre architect Frank Matcham, and being described by the first theatre manager, Thomas Sergenson, as ‘Matcham’s Masterpiece’.
It was opened on July 23 in 1894 and the name it was given 'Matcham's Masterpiece' is even more merited now that there are few surviving examples left of the work of Frank Matcham, the leading Victorian theatre architect. The theatre took just nine months to build and cost Sergenson £20,000.
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 began to be 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. 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. 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 and the prestige of The Grand continued through the 1950s, which was a glittering decade in spite of the growing impact of television. 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 faces 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 Department of the Environment, the theatre had been listed as a Grade II building. Because of that, there had to be a full public enquiry.
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.
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.
Photo: Sean Conboy
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 Scales in 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".
The Friends today are still a valuable and active asset in The Grand’s operation.
Today, the theatre aims to appeal to all; with an eclectic offering of opera, ballet, quality drama, comedy and dance...there is no theatre quite like it!
Photo: Sean Conboy
Blackpool’s beautiful Grade II* listed Grand Theatre attracts the best in award-winning touring companies, including The National Theatre, English Touring Theatre, UK Productions, Opera and Ballet International and the Russian State Ballet.
The Theatre has presented some of the UK’s biggest touring productions including English Touring Theatre’s Anne Boleyn and Eternal Love, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) adaptation of A Mad World My Masters, the National Theatre’s renowned One Man Two Guvnors, UK Productions award-winning 42nd Street, the Nation’s favourite play Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s And Then There Were None, the 25th anniversary tour of Return To The Forbidden Planet and not forgetting the Children’s Touring Partnership’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Dance is a key feature at The Grand too and companies who have performed here include Hofesh Shechter, DV8, Ultima Vez, BalletBoyz and Fabulous Beast.
The Grand Theatre also plays host to some incredible one-off events, these have included being a location for a National Lottery Christmas commercial, the BBC Radio 2 New Comedy Awards hosted by Patrick Kielty, and an episode of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.
Quality drama, comedy, and dance are always top of the ever-eclectic bill at The Grand Theatre - which is also at the heart of Blackpool town centre.
Find out about current shows and how to book for the Grand
Information about Friends of the Grand Theatre
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This is our original watercolour painting of the Grand Theatre - available framed or as a plain print. Follow the link and have a look around at both local scenes and traditional seaside views.
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