The Blackpool Opera House Story by Barry Band
Above - The Blackpool Opera House during the run of 'Can-Can' on the 26th of March 1956 - Courtesy Gerry Atkins
In January, 1935, there was a week, prior to London, of Robert Donat and John Mills in Red Night, a World War One drama, and the company made the extraordinary decision to book ballet for the Whitsuntide (June) holiday. This "first time out of London" visit of the Vic Wells Ballet with Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Harold Turner and the young Margot Fonteyn, lasted 10 days and the repertoire included Giselle, Les Sylphides and Casse Noisette Suite. The revelation that it had lost £700 didn't deter the directors from booking the new Markova Dolin Ballet for a week the following June. This company soon went bankrupt and the Opera House persisted in its cultural aspirations by bringing the Vic-Wells Opera to Blackpool in June, 1938. This, too, was later revealed to have been a disaster and for a while the classics were invisible in Blackpool.
The brighter side was the knowledge that West End musicals would make good money and so it was with the biggest attraction of 1936, the Easter fortnight of Ivor Novello's triumphant Drury Lane show Glamorous Night, starring Muriel Barron, Barry Sinclair, Olive Gilbert and Trefor Jones, and the following year's visit of Barry Sinclair and Ivy Tresmond in Novello's Careless Rapture. Two big plays were seen at the Opera House prior to London - Robert's Wife, by St John Ervine, starring Edith Evans (November, 1937); and Thomas Browne's comedy Plan for a Hostess, which starred Yvonne Arnaud and Ronald Squire (March, 1938). Hollywood star Carl Brisson was seen in April, 1938, prior to London, in the musical Venus In Silk.
But let's look back to 1934, when an event of great significance took place at the Opera House. The management negotiated with a local producer, Jack Taylor, to present the theatre's first summer season revue, titled King Folly, starring the bizarre comedian Billy Bennett and the adagio act of the Ganjou Brothers and Juanita. The company set about making the Opera House summer show the biggest and best in town and Jack Taylor repeated the formula in 1935 with Shout for Joy, starring Albert Burdon, Randolph Sutton and Sylvia Cecil.
These summer shows contributed greatly to the transformation of the Winter Gardens complex under the management of the Tower Company. In 1935 the company enjoyed a record year and paid a dividend and bonus amounting to 20 per cent, which was more than double the best effort of the old Winter Gardens management prior to the Tower Company's takeover.
The company then gave Jack Taylor the go-ahead to produce a third summer show starring a young northern comedian who had become an Elstree film star with a motor bike comedy film titled No Limit. Taylor already had a good working relationship with the younge comedian and the stage was set for George Formby to build a local legend for himself, starring in two summer seasons at the Opera House - King Fun in 1936 season with Frank Randle and Randolph Sutton also on the bill and King Cheer in 1937.
The shows won great reviews. Typical was an Evening Gazette note about George "smiling his wide infectious smile and pursuing a laughter-making course with all the skill that has made him one of the greatest comedy stars of today."
George's film success was national, but as far as Blackpool was concerned, he belonged here - and George and wife Beryl agreed, for they sold their home near Preston, and bought a big house in Mains Lane, Little Singleton, five miles from the Tower.
His success showed the management that a strong summer show could be the anchor for the remainder of the year, which would, in the main, consist of big touring musicals and revues.
The trouble was that the Opera House was rather old fashioned and its size was limiting its profitability. The Tower Company took the decision to build a modern theatre-cinema with a large stage, the latest facilities and 3,000 luxurious seats.
But around this time there was a dispute between the theatre management and producer Taylor, which resulted in Taylor presenting 1938's King Revel at the nearby Hippodome Theatre. Two theories have been advanced for the dispute. The company may originally have intended to start rebuilding early in 1938, causing Taylor to find another venue. Or it could have been a serious dispute over the show's content, for a local newspaper report said that the Tower Company's entertainments manager, Clem Butson, had bought the 1937 Follies Bergere production to stage in the Opera House in the summer of 1938, presenting Taylor with a fait accompli.
Whatever the background, Jack Taylor presented his show at the Hippodrome while Clem Butson presented All the Best at the Opera House with a five star bill of Stanley Holloway, George Lacy, Anton Dolin, Elisabeth Welch and Betty Driver.
Work on the new Opera House was started in the autumn - and what an amazing achievement that was.
Above - Fortunino Matania's painting of the Blackpool Opera House Auditorium - From the Theatre's 1939 reopening brochure - Courtesy Barry Band
A precise timetable was drawn up to achieve the ambitious schedule of demolishing the ornate Edwardian theatre and building a handsome modern theatre in time for the 1939 season. On Saturday October 16, 1938, as the curtain descended on the last night of All the Best, an army of Tower and Winter Gardens workmen started to remove the seats even before the last patrons had left. By Tuesday morning a bare shell remained and the demolition men moved in. And so ended, without ceremony, the story of the second Blackpool Opera House, launched in 1911 after an extensive enlargement of the original theatre, built in 1889.
The directors had started to talk about a new theatre and super cinema in 1937 and were said in a Gazette article in July, 1939 to have travelled Europe and America in search of ideas. Their architect was Mr Charles H. MacKeith, of the Blackpool firm of Derham, MacKeith and Partners, and the cost of the construction was said to be £100,000.
The new auditorium was 110 feet wide and 106 feet from the curtain to the back wall. There were 1,504 seats in the stalls, 762 in the circle and 654 in the balcony, giving a total of 2,920 compared with the old theatre's 1,800. Everything was on a generous scale. Audiences would marvel at the leg room, luxurious seating, expensive carpeting and wide aisles and staircases, the large foyer and the lifts to all floors.
The stage was almost double the size of the previous theatre's; 110 feet wide with a proscenium opening of 45 feet; a space of 60 feet from the curtain to the back wall, and a fly tower of 70 feet, taking up to 90 backcloths and pieces of scenery, 50 of them on counter-weighted gearing. The theatre had a huge orchestra pit and the very latest lighting and sound systems, controlled by a panel with a capacity equalled only by that at Covent Garden. Together with stage lifts, traps and revolves and dressing rooms for 250 on three floors, served by passenger lifts, the theatre was a producer's dream.
It also had a large film projection room with the latest equipment to fulfil its role as a "super cinema."
Beneath a plinth at the left side of the stage (as seen from the auditorium) was a Wurlitzer theatre organ that would rise through the floor to be used for pre-show and interval recitals. This was the last three-manual Wurlitzer to be imported into Britain from America, for World War Two broke out within weeks and after the war no big cinemas were built. According to the Fylde Coast concert organist and Wurlitzer enthusiast Peter Jebson, in 2004 it was the only Wurlitzer in the north of England still in its original theatre setting and still working.
The elegant deco-style auditorium with its graceful curves was decorated mainly in copper with highlights of gold, while the main Church Street foyer was clad in dove grey marble. When fully fitted out the theatre had cost £125,000.
The official opening was performed on Friday, July 14, 1939, by Jessie Matthews, the golden girl of British film and stage musicals in the 1930s, who was appearing that week at the Grand Theatre. Miss Matthews, wearing a white suit and a floral headband, used a pair of gold-plated scissors to cut a gold ribbon stretched across the stage. She observed an old superstition by placing the scissors in her handbag and making a token payment of one penny to the chairman of the Blackpool Tower and Winter Gardens Companies, Mr Robert G. Bickerstaffe.
Above - The Summer Show 'Turned Out Nice Again' with George Formy at the Blackpool Opera House - From the Theatre's 1939 reopening brochure - Courtesy Barry Band
For such a great event, held before an audience of 1,300 shareholders, civic leaders, local worthies and show business figures, the speeches were brief. George Formby, the star of Jack Taylor's revue Turned Out Nice Again (a Formby catch-phrase), which was opening that night, thought the New Opera House was the most beautiful theatre he had seen. He hoped, jokingly, that the performers would be able to compete with the special effects.
He had a point, for although the Press reviews applauded the clowning and singing of the nation's favourite funnyman, there was greater admiration for the technical facilities. In the first few minutes of the show the audience saw a train wreck scene using a full size mock-up of the Royal Scot steam locomotive. Two other spectacular scenes were A Naval Battle of the Nelson Period, using every special effect in the book, and A Wedding In Porcelain, featuring human "porcelain" figures. They set the standard for Opera House seasons for the next 20 years, until producers were deterred by rising costs.
In the souvenir brochure of the opening show the directors coined two slogans - Europe's Most Modem and Beautiful Theatre and Britain's Wonder Theatre but they also made it clear that the Opera House would double as a "super cinema."
War with Germany, which had been imminent for months, was declared on September 3 and the Government ordered theatres to close as a safety measure against air attack. In Blackpool's case the edict lasted only a week, after which the resort launched itself into a very profitable period. It was relatively safe from German raids and quickly became the entertainment capital of Britain as producers moved north. The Grand Theatre gained immediately by receiving a string of West End plays but the Opera House needed big musicals - and none were available. The theatre switched over to its secondary role of a cinema until a West End musical comedy success Under Your Hat, starring two of Britain's best-loved stars, the husband and wife team of Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, came in for a November season. The show was a natural vehicle for the couple's style. "Sublime craziness," declared a local reviewer. The show was a farcical tale about a search for a miraculous carburettor that would make British aircraft go faster than the Luftwaffe's It gave the couple plenty of scope to poke fun at the Hun. At Christmas the theatre had the two-week premiere of a revue titled Funny Side Up, which starred Florence Desmond, Stanley Lupino and Sally Gray.
The scarcity of musicals meant that only three touring productions came to the Opera House before the 1940 summer show, which was produced by Jack Taylor and starred Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, Syd Seymour and His Madhatters Band and the Albert Sandler Trio. Askey and Murdoch were the stars of the highly successful radio show, Band Waggon.
There is a mystery about the correct tide of the show. The early Press adverts and the theatre's own programme had the line The Big Show of 1940 in small type above the much bigger and bolder Our Own Band Waggon, and a small credit line: "By arrangement with Jack Hylton" (who owned the stage rights). The reviews in the local Evening Gazette also referred to the show by the Band Waggon tide and that's how it appeared on the posters. But after a few weeks all reference to Band Waggon vanished and a reprint of the programme carried the sole tide The Big Show of 1940.
Had Jack Hylton demanded a bigger royalty for the use of the title? Had Taylor failed to pay him anything for the rights? Had Clem Butson gone "over the top" with his promotion of the show? It will never be known but to scrap a title after several weeks would have been acutely embarrassing to the management and also rather expensive. In 1988 I attempted to resolve the puzzle by phoning Clem Butson, the Tower Company's entertainments chief in the Forties, at his home in Brighton. I asked why had the title Our Own Band Waggon been dropped. His reply was: "We never had a show called Band Waggon." And yet there it was in the pages of the Evening Gazette in May and June, 1940! His statement, at the very least, was an indication that there was something about Band Waggon that was best forgotten.
A Randle scandal!
The politics of the show had been strange from the beginning. Arthur Askey recalled in his 1970s autobiography Before Your Very Eye's that Jack Taylor had originally booked comedian Frank Randle and then decided he wanted the stars of Band Wagon. Arthur said he was advised by his agent, Jack Hylton not to do the show if Randle was in the cast as he was a local man and would "wipe the floor with you." Taylor said there wasn't a problem. He would pay Randle off or put him in another show. Arthur wrote that Randle was actually paid £150 a week for doing nothing.
The comic responded by hanging around the stage door, often swigging a bottle of Guinness, to annoy Taylor. This story points to the fact that Jack Hylton was cautious about Randle's aggressive reputation, for he didn't object to another local character comedian, Norman Evans, being in the show.
The opening night was a splendid affair with a capacity audience of civic leaders, other local worthies, officers from the Armed Forces, local residents and some holidaymakers. After the finale there was a surprise when Syd Seymour went into the stalls and led the legendary Sir Harry Lauder to the stage. There was a tremendous ovation for the veteran star, who paid tribute to the artistes and spoke of the value of entertainment in wartime. He concluded by singing - unaccompanied - Pin Your Faith in the Motherland and was joined by the audience.
When Arthur Askey left the show in August it was said to be due to "other commitments" but he was actually suffering front painful carbuncles. George Formby joined the show for the final two weeks after returning from a tour of Armed Forces bases. He was also a member of the Home Guard at Singleton, near Blackpool, and had signed for a Christmas at home in the Opera House's first Christmas pantomime, Dick Whittington.
By the autumn of 1940 the German bombing blitz was under way and more producers and stars packed their trunks and headed for Blackpool for the duration. Jack Hylton and George Black were just two impresarios who ran their showbiz empires from Blackpool and it was great news for the Tower Company, whose premises were used for shows in rehearsal and the launch of national tours.
The autumn saw some big names at the Opera House. Jack Warner headed a stage version of his BBC radio success Garrison Theatre,. Maurice Winnick and his band, Pat Kirkwood and Douglas Byng were in Jack Hylton's Dorchester Follies; Richard Tauber starred in his great success by Franz Lehar, TheLand of Smiles; and Ivor Novello brought his musical hit The Dancing Years for two weeks in November. With him were his regular principals, Muriel Barron, Roma Beaumont, Minnie Rayner, Olive Gilbert, Barry Sinclair and a company of 100. The show made two early returns to the Opera House, making it the most popular touring show of the war years.
George Formby made his return to the theatre at Christmas in Dick Whittington, the first of Torn Arnold's seven annual pantos at the Opera House. The show won an enthusiastic Evening Gazette review - "Blackpool's greatest pantomime ever." George played Idle Jack, Helen Breen was principal boy, Roberta Huby was principal girl, Beryl Formby was Polly Perkins and Jack Williams the Dame.
Business at the Opera House was now thriving. At the annual general meeting of the Winter Gardens Company the secretary, Mr J. H. Clegg, said the ambitious decision to go ahead with a new theatre had been justified by the first full year of operation.
Right - Bill for the BBC's 'The Good Old Days' at the Winter Gardens in 1972 - Courtesy Barry Band.
The joint companies (the Winter Gardens and the Tower) had both done better than expected, said Mr Clegg, thanks to the resort's greatly increased wartime population, which had the effect of spreading the business evenly through the year instead of a few busy summer months. Profits had doubled and a dividend of 15 per cent was declared - the first of several generous pay-outs in the 1940s.
In 1941 there were changes on the summer show scene. Local producer Jack Taylor had fallen from favour because of the embarrassing mix-up over the 1940 show title. Taylor never produced another show for the Tower Company. But the irascible Randle still had a valid contract to appear at the Opera House and pressed for it to be honoured. And that's why the comic, an acknowledged box office favourite, was given just one short spot in the 1941 summer revue Hullaballoo. The contract was honoured - if not to Frank Randle's expectations.
The Palladium touch
In Taylor's place the company had invited one of the most successful men in light entertainment, London Palladium managing director George Black, who delegated his top producer, Robert Nesbitt, to stage the show. The stars were the comic duo Nervo and Knox, of Crazy Gang fame, the singing duo Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, heavyweight xylophonist Teddy Brown, singer Judy Shirley and Frank Randle. The Gazette reported that Randle was a big successes as his Grandpa character in a serio-comic birthday sketch. The reporter commented: "We should like to have seen more of Frank." The comedian had made his point and quit the show before the end of the season. He, too, never again appeared in a Tower Company theatre. George Black presented the summer shows for the next four years.
The above extract is from the book 'The Main Stage - The Blackpool Opera House Story' by Barry Band who has very kindly allowed me to include it on the site. Images on this page are also courtesy Barry Band.
Barry Band, *Researcher and publisher of Blackpool's Entertainment Heritage, and the author of the following Titles.
All For a Laugh A national anthology of stars from all spheres of comedy; stage, film, radio and TV. 600 artists. The Centenary History of the Grand Theatre (1994) Out of print Blackpool's Century of Stars (1999, updated 2002, updated 2007) Blackpool's Comedy Greats/Stars who lived at the seaside (2003). Illustrated. That Was Showbiz (2003) - Memoirs of entertainments chief Bernard Crabtree. Illustrated. Matcham's Masterpiece (2007) - Brief History of the Grand with archival section. Illustrated The Main Stage (2005) - History of the Blackpool Opera House with archival section. Illustrated *Commisioned writer, Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night, Blackpool heritage programme, 1994. *Consultant to authors, Press and Radio researchers on the resort's stage history. *Talks to Rotary, Inner Wheel and Probus Clubs, W1s, local history groups, lunch clubs.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: