There’s no wonder it’s known as the ‘Hidden Gem of Blackpool’. The history of The Grand Theatre in Blackpool is long and lively and dates right back to 1894.
How the History of The Grand Theatre Began in Blackpool
The Theatre’s rich history began in 1894 and it was opened on July 23. It was built by the leading Victorian theatre architect Frank Matcham, for Blackpool’s first successful theatrical manager Thomas Sergenson, who always described it as ‘Matcham’s Masterpiece’. The theatre took just nine months to build and cost Sergenson £20,000, which in those days was a lot of money.
Did you know? The Grand Theatre opened just two months after the Tower.
He’d earned some of it by operating two small rented theatres, and from a circus that he staged for five summer seasons on the site of The Grand. These are the cottages and shops which once stood on the site of The Grand Theatre before their demolition in 1889. Then they were replaced by the Grand Circus.
‘Matcham’s Masterpiece‘ is even more deserved now that there are few surviving examples left of the work of Frank Matcham. This masterpiece offers ornate, gilded plasterwork, baroque ceiling, and cavorting cherubs.
Cantilevered balconies give every seat a clear view of the stage.
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. They ran The Grand for the next sixty-two years.
‘Firsts’ throughout the History of The Grand Theatre
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. In the 1920s it become noted for staging big American musicals like Rose Marie, The Desert Song and No No Nanette.
Top West End producers began using The Grand for British premieres, and for forty years many plays and musicals were seen at The Grand ‘prior to London’.
Did you know? Charlie the ghost is said to haunt the Upper Circle, after throwing himself off the edge in late Victorian times. He was in love with a ballerina but she wasn’t in love with him.
After the success of talking pictures, in the 1930s The Grand 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 of her Blackpool Variety appearances from 1932 to 1938 here.
The Golden Years of a Year-Round Playhouse
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.
In October, 1942, Noel Coward premiered and appeared in two of his plays.
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.
Did you know? That many famous people have appeared on Grand Theatre’s stage. In 1902, the Grand was rented for a political rally. The main speaker was the MP for Oldham, Winston Churchill.
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 seasons. Comedy favourites like Arthur Askey, Thora Hird, Glenn Melvyn, Danny Ross, Hylda Baker, Freddie Frinton, Sid James and Jack Douglas all appeared here.
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.
If you like looking at old photos, take a look at our ‘Old Blackpool’ board on Pinterest
A Proposal for Demolition… and the Saving of The Grand
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 apparent 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
Rebuilding the audience at The Grand Theatre
After the eventual purchase of the theatre by The Grand Theatre Trust, in September, 1980, a new chapter was to begin in the history of The Grand.
Dozens of ‘Friends’ helped to refurbish the dressing rooms and backstage areas in readiness for the reopening in the week of Monday March 23, 1981. The first production saw Timothy West and Prunella Scales in the Old Vic production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
Did you know? During the restoration in 2000 when the cradle first went up, 2 tons of dust and dirt was removed from the ceiling. The original colours were actually preserved by a triple layer caused by the dust, tobacco smoke (smoking was allowed in all theatres) and the varnish which had turned yellow.
In May 1981, the theatre had a prestigious two-week visit by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company with their Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. 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. With a varied programme of plays, dance, musicals and concerts, The Grand has proved that 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.
Blackpool’s Grand Theatre Today…
Today, The Grand Theatre aims to appeal to all; take a look at the eclectic offering of opera, ballet, quality drama, comedy and dance…there is no theatre quite like it!
Now, it’s one of Britain’s premier heritage theatres.
- Listed Grade II* it’s in the top 8% of all listed buildings in England,
- It’s one of only thirty listed buildings in Blackpool,
- Also one of only nine large theatres listed Grade II* or above, which are north of London.
The Grand is owned by the Blackpool Grand Theatre Trust Limited. This is the organisation which reopened the theatre in 1981 following the efforts of a number of committed volunteers who saved the theatre from demolition. Restoration work has continued without ever closing the theatre.
Did you know? The capacity of the theatre during the opening week was reported as 3000 –as there was also standing room on all four levels. Today, the seating capacity is 1153.
This amazing space is a wonder of restoration and revival, presenting a full range of every performing artform. It’s Blackpool’s community theatre, Lancashire’s preferred opera house and Britain’s National Theatre of Variety.
Experience the History of The Grand Theatre
If this article has whetted your appetite to learn more about the History of The Grand Theatre, why don’t you join one of their tours or photographic sessions?
- Heritage Tours take place most months and take you from the top to the bottom of this beautiful building.
- Renowned photographer Sean Conboy holds regular photographic sessions, beginners level and advanced. You’ll learn how to capture the best from a fine building, while getting to see all of the wonderful features.
Would you like your own Grand Theatre?
Live Blackpool is one of the Visit Fylde Coast websites, which are independently published by The Rabbit Patch Ltd. We’re a design and creatives company right here on the Fylde Coast and we have an online shop called Seaside Emporium where we sell our own original art.
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.
70 Fascinating Facts about the History of the Grand Theatre, Blackpool.
- Listed Grade II*, the Grand is in the top 8 per cent of all listed buildings in England, and one of only thirty listed buildings in Blackpool.
- We are one of only nine large theatres listed Grade II* or above, north of London.
- The Grand Theatre is a product and symbol of the late nineteenth-century boom in theatregoing and the expansion of live entertainment at Blackpool, Britain’s biggest show town after London’s West End.
- The exterior of the Grand Theatre is a visual landmark of the town centre; whilst inside, architect Frank Matchams decorations and four-tier 1,100-seat intimate auditorium creates an atmosphere of festive spirit for what is also a cultural landmark.
- Frank Matchams designed The Grand Theatre to be ‘ The best, prettiest and cosiest theatre possible’ (as Thomas Sergenson requested).
- The work on The Grand Theatre began in September 1893.
- The theatre took just nine months to build and cost £20,000.
- The Grand was designed by Frank Matcham, the leading Victorian theatre architect. By the outbreak of the First World War, no significant town was without its theatre, or music-hall, over 150 designed by Matcham.
- Sadly, only some two dozen of Frank Matchams theatres survive till this day, with Grand being ‘Matcham’s Masterpiece’.
- The auditorium of the theatre is one of Matcham’s finest creations, combining intimacy with a sense of imposing spaciousness. He achieved this by stacking the audience vertically in three closely spaced, relatively shallow, balconies which curve well round the sides, separated from the proscenium by only one box on either side at dress circle level.
- Frank Matcham used a steel frame and the cantilever system to support the Dress and Upper Circles and the Gallery at The Grand Theatre. So apart from the rear stalls, there are no columns to obstruct the view
- The Grand Theatre has eight boxes, including the Royal Box.
- The balconies at Blackpool Grand Theatre are partly cantilevered and partly supported on iron columns.
- The balcony fronts at Blackpool Grand Theatre are thickly encrusted with deeply-cut Baroque plasterwork.
- Proscenium stage at Blackpool Grand Theatre – which is raked – is just over 30 feet wide and 30 feet deep.
- The proscenium opening at Blackpool Grand Theatre has an imposing round arched frame with openwork plaster ‘frills’. The spandrels of the arch contain large paintings of the muses.
- The oval ceiling at Blackpool Grand Theatre is opulently decorated with painted panels of composers by Messrs Binns of Halifax.
- Back in 1894, when it first opened, the seats were covered in blue English velvet. They were changed to red colour in the 1970s. During refurbishment in 2007 they went back to the original colour.
- The two busts in the auditorium of The Grand Theatre are Handel (looking to the stage) and Shakespeare (looking to the audience).
- It can clearly be stated that the Grand Theatre represents one of the most complete and important Frank Matcham ‘survivors’.
- The Grand Theatre was opened on July 23, 1894, by Thomas Sergenson, Blackpool’s first successful theatrical manager.
- The Grand Theatre opened two months after the Tower.
- The theatre opened with a performance of Hamlet with Wilson Barrett, a leading actor-manager who had often appeared in Blackpool.
- On the opening night of The Grand Theatre the programmes were printed on perfumed silk. The perfume was called ‘Tower Bouquet’.
- When the theatre first opened, the seats cost 4 shillings (20p); 1 or 2 guineas (£1.05 or £2.10) for a box.
- The Blackpool Gazette reported that the capacity of the theatre during the opening week was 3000 –as there was also standing room on all four levels. Today, the seating capacity is 1153.
- When the theatre was first opened, Blackpool Gazette reported that the gallery will provide accommodation for at least one thousand! Today, the seating capacity of the whole theatre is 1153.
- When the Grand Theatre first opened, smoking was allowed in the auditorium.
- Going to the theatre in the Grand’s early days was a much different occasion than today. Patrons in the grand circle and the stalls were expected to dress in an evening wear. They would not be admitted to those areas unless they were correctly dressed.
- Over the years, many famous people have appeared on Grand Theatre’s stage. In 1902, the Grand was rented for a political rally – the main speaker was the MP for Oldham, Winston Churchill.
- In 1901 Thomas Sergenson decided to put in more seats in the stalls, taking space from the pit area in the centre, where he could charge a top price for them (which was then one shilling – 5 p).
- Lillie Langtry, who billed herself Mrs Langtry, starred at The Grand three times.
- In 1909 Thomas Sergenson sold the theatre for a handsome £47,500 to the Blackpool Tower Company, who ran the Grand for the next sixty-two years.
- The Tower Company completely repainted, redecorated and reupholstered the Grand from floor to ceiling. Some areas were modernised and reconstructed, and improvements were made to the stage lighting.
- In the 1920s 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.
- In 1939 war was declared and the Government ordered the closure of all theatres. The Grand was only closed for a week.
- During World War Two, Blackpool was a safe haven from German bombing and many great stars and shows came to the Grand.
- In 1940 theatre was nearly destroyed by a fire when a night shift of cleaners found a section of seating alight in the gallery caused by a cigarette end, but the fire brigade quickly extinguished the blaze.
- 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.
- 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.
- The shortage of good shows, coupled with declining ticket sales, forced a policy of winter closure from 1963 to 1972.
- At the end of 1968, the Tower Company’s parent group, EMI, took over the Grand – with plans to use it as a bingo hall.
- In the mid 1960s, the theatre was included in a town centre redevelopment plan. The result of this was that in July 1972 the EMI applied for permission to demolish it. In its place they proposed a department store.
- In 1972, however, following an application to the Department of the Environment, the theatre had been listed as a Grade II building.
- In 1973 local theatre lovers banded together to resist the application to demolish the theatre. The Friends of the Grand was formed specifically for the purpose.
- The Friends of The Grand put forward a case which persuaded the Inspector that it would be wrong to allow the demolition of the theatre.
- In 1975, after years of disuse, it became obvious that the EMI were planning to turn the Grand into a bingo hall. It staged bingo for three years.
- After the purchase of the theatre by Blackpool Grand Theatre Trust Limited, in September, 1980, dozens of Friends helped to refurbish the dressing rooms and backstage areas.
- The Grand was reopened on 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.
- Since 1981, restoration work has continued without ever closing the theatre. Significant work to date has included a reinstatement of the cast iron, glazed marquee on the theatre’s entrance, the addition of small shop-kiosks on the west elevation (that provide much needed income), the cleaning and repairing of stonework and the dome, the creation of a new Stalls Bar, covering of Matcham Court to make an all-weather patio, restoration of beautiful stained glass windows that are now triple glazed, and several interventions to improve disabled access and provide new lavatories.
- In 1988 under the supervision of Neil Thompson, the deputy general manager and technical manager, a five year programme of refurbishment was instigated. It included, among others, the conversion of the annexe to an 80-seat modern studio theatre with four refurbished dressing rooms, new offices, toilets and the installation of a lift.
- During the restoration in 2000 when the cradle first went up, 2 tons of dust and dirt was removed from the ceiling. The original colours were actually preserved by a triple layer caused by the dust, tobacco smoke (smoking was allowed in all theatres) and the varnish which had turned yellow.
- In 2001, a three-phase Glorious Grand Restoration scheme and public appeal was launched. Phase One was completed in 2002: the (partial) renovation of the auditorium, including re-gilding of ornate plasterwork, restoration of ceiling and proscenium arch paintings, and new house curtains.
- On Friday 18th January 2002 the Glorious Grand was finally revealed at a Gala Celebration Evening with The Cala Rosa Opera Company performing The Mikado.
- The programmes for The Mikado (opening night after the restoration 2002) each included a piece of the original curtain.
- In 2004 till 2006 phase two of The Glorious Grand Appeal, Sam Lee Appeal was launched with a special performance of Boogie Nights. Fundraising events continued to help bring the amount raised to £ 250.00.
- In 2007 Grand Theatre closed for five weeks for refurbishment.
- During the refurbishment in 2007 the carpet was replaced . It was commissioned by the Grand Theatre with support of the Theatres’ Trust on an original design from 1894.
- During the refurbishment in 2007 over 1700 square-metres of carpet have been laid with precision to allow the pattern repeat to follow throughout the theatre.
- During the refurbishment in 2007 a total 4000 metres of wiring has been used to update the theatre’s various installations. This would stretch from the Grand Theatre to Pleasure Beach, Blackpool.
- After the refurbishment in 2007 the theatre now houses wider and correctly raked seats in the stalls and the dress circle.
- The base of the seats that were installed during refurbishment in 2007 have a comforting 10cm cushion nearly double the previous seats and will last an incredible 20 years rather than 10 years at average occupancy.
- In total 22 screws hold each seat that were installed during refurbishment in 2007 together and to the floor, and weigh an incredible 10 kilos.
- An unbelievable 31,000 screws were used during refurbishment in 2007 to resurface the floor and position the seating.
- A total 4000 metres of wiring has been used to update the theatre’s various installations during refurbishment in 2007. This would stretch from the Grand Theatre to Pleasure Beach, Blackpool.
- For Phase Three restoration that is planned, there are more excitements ahead, as we investigate circulation spaces, the original layout of the vestibule and mosaic flooring, the relationship of the theatre to the shops on Church Street, and much more!
- Charlie the ghost is said to haunt the Upper Circle, after throwing himself off the edge in late Victorian times. He was in love with a ballerina but she wasn’t in love with him.
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