The Blackpool Grand Theatre was designed by the renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham, and constructed by the Cardwell Brothers for a small syndicate, of which Thomas Sergenson, then lessee of the Blackpool Prince of Wales Theatre, was the main instigator. The Theatre took nine months to construct and cost £20,000, and opened on Monday the 23rd of July 1894 with a production of 'Hamlet' with Wilson Barrett in the leading role. The Grand Theatre today, is said by the Theatres Trust, to be one of Matcham's 'finest creations' and is a Grade II* Listed building.
Right - A plaque situated in the foyer of the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, commemorates the reopening of the Theatre by the Prince of Wales, after a long period of closure, on the 29th of May 1981. - Photo M. L. 2012.
The ERA reported in a rather gushing piece, even for them, on the original opening of the new Grand Theatre in their 28th of July 1894 edition saying: -'Mr T. Sergenson's New Grand Theatre and Opera House at Blackpool was opened on Monday evening by Mr Wilson Barrett with a performance of Hamlet. The building was crowded with a fashionable and very enthusiastic assembly, and on every hand were to be heard expressions of admiration of the handsome theatre and its comfortable internal arrangements. It is beyond doubt one of the fittest theatres in the province. It was designed the eminent architect Mr Frank Matcham, and is considered his best work. It is situated in the heart of the town, and near to the Promenade. The general style of the interior is similar to that of the Gaiety, London, but the distance across the theatre is much greater...
Above - The Auditorium of the Blackpool Grand in 2002 - Courtesy Ted Bottle
...The erection of the New Grand has been watched with keen interest on all sides. The rapidity of its progress is a great tribute to the energy and ability of the contractors, Messrs Cardwell Brothers, while it is another triumph for the architect, Mr Frank Matcham, of London, who was also the architect of Her Majesty's Opera House at the Winter Gardens. The new house is a three tier theatre. The pit has a neat and tasteful dado of tiles. The scenery has been painted by Mr Dugan. The "flies" are quite in keeping with the colossal size of the stage itself, and are worked by most elaborate machinery. The proscenium is a real work of art. A fine dress-circle, with a series of comfortable boxes, forms the first tier. The upholstering is in blue English velvet, with plush curtains and draperies, and nothing which tends to luxury and comfort is neglected. Then to the upper circle, which is another distinct tier, where the seats are most comfortable and the view of the stage complete. The gallery comes above as the last tier. A promenade extends along the whole length of each of the three tiers.
Left - A programme for 'The Best Laid Schemes' at the Blackpool Grand in the summer of 1962, with Thora Hird, Freddie Frinton, and Michael Medwin - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The refreshment saloons, on each tier, are most spacious and convenient. The preparations for comfort are remarkable. Exit accommodations abound on every hand, and safety has evidently been a prime factor of its design. Wherever wood, or anything combustible, can be omitted, it has been, and concrete, iron, stone, and bricks are the material everywhere. The decorations are of the most artistic kind, and wonderfully effective. The superbly moulded ceiling is the work of the Plastic Decoration Company, and splendidly they have done it. Every panel on the arches and walls is decorated with a painting of the most excellent and artistic character by Messrs Dinns and Co., of Halifax. The elevation is imposing and effective. The architect has done wonders with the space at his disposal. Facing Church-Street is a handsome stone front, surmounted by a well proportioned, wide, and spacious, dome, which is illuminated by electricity...
Above - The Foyer of the Grand Theatre, Blackpool in August 2012 - Photo M. L.
...The vestibule and staircases lead to all parts of the building, which in the winter will be heated by hot water apparatus. The ventilation seems as perfect as it can be. The theatre will be lighted throughout by electricity, and to ensure a regularity in the event of the Corporation supply failing, Mr Sergenson has put down a private installation on the ground floor. Patrons of the dress-circle and stalls will be allowed to pass to and from these parts at will. The electric light has been lavishly used throughout the building with charming and brilliant effect. Gorgeous draperies of blue velvet are the chief feature which strikes the eye, while the superbly painted ceiling and panels give an impression of a building devoted to art.
Right - You can now walk around the Grand Theatre, Blackpool Interior courtesy Google StreetView - Click to Begin Tour.
As to the accommodation, the great width of the theatre gives a great area for the pit and stalls, which must give room at least for a thousand. The dress-circle gives another 150, and it will be a favourite portion of the House, with its fine saloon behind. In the upper circle there is room for for over 400, and it is estimated that the gallery will hold another 1,000. The total accommodation is said to be not far short of 3,000, so that it is one of the largest theatres out of London. There are no columns to block the view of the stage, the tiers being built on the steel cantilever principle...
Above - The Grand Theatre, Blackpool - From a 1938 programme for the Winter Gardens Complex - Caption reads: -'GRAND THEATRE specially drawn by Fortunino Matania, R.I. The famous artist has captured the charm and dignity of this lovely theatre to perfection. It is one of the premier theatres out of London, and you can always be assured of seeing West End successes and London Casts at the Grand.
...When the curtain rose on Monday night, at 7.30, Miss Alice Ainsworth, Mr Seymour Jackson, and Mr Stanley Cookson came to the front, and the audience rising, they sang "God Save the Queen." Miss Ainsworth was then presented with a lovely basket of flowers by Mr and Mrs A. P. Firth. When Mr Wilson Barrett appeared (for the first time in England since his fourth successful tour in America) he received quite an ovation. The performance was an admirable one. Mr. Barratt's impersonation of the Prince of Denmark was magnificent in every detail; it was characterised by all the vigour and power which have made his acting so well known, and it made a great impression upon the audience.'
The above text (edited) in quotes was first published in the ERA, 28th of July 1894.
Right - The Proscenium of the Blackpool Grand in 2002 - Courtesy Ted Bottle.
The Stage Newspaper's report on the opening of the Blackpool Grand Theatre was a little more reserved and less flowery, and more detailed, than the ERA's, saying: -'To those who are acquainted with the energy which is put forward in Blackpool both by public bodies and private individuals for the attraction of visitors to that watering-place of pleasures, and for the provision of amusements of the highest class, it will be no matter for surprise that on Monday last was added to the formidable list of places of amusement (already numbering nearly a score) a theatre which will compare more than favourably with any theatre in the provinces both with regard to holding capacity and beauty of structure and decoration. Indeed, Mr. Frank Matcham, from whose plans the theatre has been erected, must be heartily congratulated on having designed a building worthy of being classed among the leading theatres of the country...
Above - The Auditorium of the Blackpool Grand in 2002 - Courtesy Ted Bottle
...The Grand Theatre and Opera House (by which name the new theatre is to be known) has been erected by a small syndicate of which Mr. Thomas Sergenson, the lessee of the local Prince of Wales's is the moving spirit, and it is into his well-tried hands that the management is committed. It is situated on the south side of Church-street, about 100 yards from the Promenade, and the plot on which it is built is admirably adapted for the purpose, being bounded along the whole length of the south and west sides by Oak-street and St. Ann's-street respectively, thus giving no fewer than twelve exits into three separate streets, an advantage which cannot be too highly estimated. The frontage to Church-street is somewhat limited, but the circular facade, which is of handsomely carved stone work, fully compensates by its magnificent appearance for any defect in this respect. It is surmounted by a large dome, on the top of which is a small minaret supported on columns.
Left - The Blackpool Grand Theatre in August 2012 - Photo M. L.
The principal entrance, with its marble staircase and columns, rockeries, beautifully decorated walls and ceilings and mosaic floor, is very handsome, as also are the foyer and retiring rooms, all being fitted up in the most luxurious and tasteful style. The theatre consists of three tiers, which are erected on the cantilever principle, thus obviating the necessity for pillars, which are always a drawback to a perfect view of the stage. This can be had from every seat in the house. The auditorium is in shape wide rather than deep, and is most capacious. There are four rows of stalls, containing 105 seats, and the pit is unusually large, the floor of which is slightly raked, and is fitted with comfortable seats with backs. A promenade in parquet runs round the whole of the pit, and the dado of artistic tiles gives it a clean and bright appearance. The dress circle is on the first tier, and contains 159 seats, which, like the stalls, are tip-up seats upholstered in blue velvet. On this tier there are two highly ornate stage boxes, and adjoining are six other boxes at the rear of the circle. A promenade, foyer, and beautifully fitted refreshment saloon are also on this tier. The second tier is devoted to the upper circle, the seats of which are also upholstered in blue velvet; and here again a promenade and other adjuncts are provided. The gallery is a spacious one, and comfortably fitted up.
The stage is a large one, having a depth of 32ft., and wings 18ft. high, with a proscenium opening 32ft. wide, while the width of the stage itself is 72ft., thus leaving space sufficient to work the most elaborate productions. The construction of the stage, with the admirable mechanical and general arrangements, is from designs by Mr. George Wignall, who is well known to the profession as the stage carpenter at the local Prince of Wales's, and the whole of the work has been carried out under his personal supervision. The result is a stage probably second to none in the provinces for the excellence of its arrangement, and Mr. Wignall must be complimented on his excellent work. The stage, as well as the auditorium, is lighted by electricity, and is also fitted with red and green mediums. A private electrical installation has been laid down to meet the possibility of the Corporation supply failing at any time. The sparing use of gas, coupled with the fact that iron and concrete have been substituted for wood wherever possible, minimises the danger of fire to a reassuring degree. An asbestos fire curtain is also provided.
Right - A programme for 'We're Frying Tonight' at the Blackpool Grand in the summer of 1963, with Jimmy Clitheroe, Albert Burdon, and Peter Butterworth - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The dressing-rooms are models, being lofty, well ventilated, fitted with carpets, triple mirrors, hot and cold water, and lighted by electricity. A bath is also provided for the artists' use; indeed, the comfort of those engaged at the theatre seems to have received more than ordinary attention.
The decorations have been carried out with the most perfect taste, and the result is most charming. The proscenium is in the shape an enormous arch 40ft. high, which gives a most imposing appearance, being treated with splendid results with elaborate decoration in plastic cement, while the base is composed of dark walnut heavily gilt. The ceiling is most elaborate, and is inscribed with the names of the most celebrated composers. The ornamental fronts of the stage boxes, with their light marble columns and statuary, are perfect works of art, and from them run out the three tiers, the fronts of which are enriched by groups of figures in high relief and with many small painted panels. The two large panels at the top of the proscenium arch are exquisitely painted. The general scheme of decoration is in white, buff and pink, with a generous use of gold, while the handsome tableau curtains, box curtains and draperies and general appointments are in peacock blue plush. The brass electrical fittings are remarkably pretty, the double centre pendant of 50 lights, with its connecting garland of flowers in brass, being especially handsome.' - The Stage Newspaper, July 1894.
Above - The auditorium of the Blackpool Grand Theatre - From a Souvenir Programme for a Gala Royal Performance at the Theatre on the evening of Friday May 29th 1981.
The Grand Theatre opened on Monday the 23rd of July 1894 with a production of 'Hamlet' with Wilson Barrett in the leading role, and then went on to stage a season of plays, including another production of 'Hamlet' with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, long famous for his association with London's Her Majesty's Theatre. Following this there was a production of the 'Gaiety Girl' direct from London, and then a production of 'Charley's Aunt', and a production by the well known Carl Rosa Opera Company.
Thomas Sergenson, who ran the Grand from its opening carried on with great success at the Theatre for another 15 years but sold it in 1909 to the Blackpool Tower Company for £47,500 and they would go on to run the Theatre for the next 62 years.
Right - The Auditorium of the Blackpool Grand in 2002 - Courtesy Ted Bottle.
In the 1930s the Grand began showing 'Talking Pictures' in the winter whilst still putting on live productions during the summer seasons, but all the big stars of the day appeared there, including famously, Gracie Fields, who appeared there in her variety shows from 1932 to 1938.
The Tower Company set about rebuilding their Opera House in 1938 and so the Grand returned to live theatre use all year round, and then went on to find a role as a home for very popular summer seasons of variety and plays, with all the big names of the day appearing there, until 1963, when the decline of live theatre throughout the Country finally caught up with the Grand, and it began closing down completely for the winter each year.
In 1972 the Grand's owners, The Blackpool Tower Company, applied for planning permission to have the Theatre demolished and to replace it with a department store. However, thankfully the Grand had already been Listed Grade II by this time and there had to be a public enquiry before any demolition.
Whilst this was going on a new group was set up by the World War Two veteran A. Burt Briggs, the barrister John Hodgson, and local supporters of the Theatre who formed the 'Friends of the Grand' to oppose the demolition, and they were also supported by the local Council.
There was a public hearing the following year and the 'Friends' fought hard for the retention of the Grand but the battle went on for many years until, after a plan to turn the Theatre into a Bingo Hall was proposed in 1975, the 'Friends' managed to get together with EMI and the local Council with their own plan, which was to lease the Theatre from the Tower Company for £10,000 a year, with a final purchase price of £250,000, and in the meantime let the Theatre be used for Bingo by EMI. The Friend's then set about getting the Theatre back into a usable state and when this was complete they were granted permission to use the Theatre for the first two weeks. Consequently, on the 25th July 1977 the Theatre reopened with the Noel Coward play 'Fallen Angels'. A programme for this event can be seen right, and viewed in more detail here.
Right - A Programme for the reopening of the Blackpool Grand Theatre on the 25th July 1977 - Click for details.
In 1980 the purchase price was achieved and the new 'Grand Theatre Trust' took over the building in September, the Theatre was then readied for its reopening the following year and on March the 23rd, 1981 a production from the Old Vic of 'The Merchant of Venice' finally reopened the Grand for live theatre use again. In May 1981 the Grand Theatre was home to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for a short season, and then on the 29th of May it was officially reopened when it became host to a Gala Royal Variety performance in the presence of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. A programme for this event can be seen left, and viewed in more detail here.
Left - A Souvenir Programme for The Royal Performance in the presence of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales on the Evening of Friday May 29th 1981 at The Grand Theatre Blackpool - Click for details.
This event put the Grand back on the map and its 9 year closure was finally at an end, since then it has gone from strength to strength and it is now one of the Country's top touring Theatres.
The Above Plaque Reads:- 'Blackpool Heritage - Trail The Grand Theatre (Grade II Listed) - The leading Victorian theatre architect, Frank Matcham, was commissioned by Thomas Sergenson to build 'the best, prettiest and cosiest theatre possible' and the Grand was opened on July 23 1894.
In 1973 the theatre was saved from demolition at a public inquiry and, in 1977, was refurbished and opened as a bingo hall.
This Listed Building is one of the finest examples of Matcham's work. The Grand Theatre Trust and the Friends of the Grand have endeavoured to ensure that 'the glorious Grand' is preserved for posterity. - Kindly Donated by Friends of the Grand.'
Right - The Proscenium of the Blackpool Grand in 2002 - Courtesy Ted Bottle who says:- 'Without personally knowing many of the Blackpool theatres which have closed, I imagine that the Grand must be one of the best. Usually, if a theatre survives in a town, it is the least suitable - cf. Halifax, Workington, Burnley etc. The proscenium is so like those at Hammersmith and Cheltenham. And to think it almost became a store - Littlewood's I think.'
One of Blackpool's not to be missed events at the Grand Theatre is Ken Dodd 'The Master of Mirth' who ends the Blackpool Summer Season in a mammoth four hour stand up show at the Theatre each year. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the show in November 2013 and had a wonderful time. If you haven't seen him live you haven't seen him at his best, one of the last of the old variety entertainers, and one of the best. Ken Dodd was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the prestigious British Comedy Awards and is in the Guinness Book of Records for telling 1,500 jokes in three and a half hours. If you visit Blackpool in October / November be sure to catch him at the Grand.
Left - The creator of this website, Matthew Lloyd, outside the Grand Theatre, Blackpool before seeing the last night of the Ken Dodd show at the Theatre in November 2013, billed as 'The Longest Stand Up Routine Ever' and it really was!
In March 2015 work began on a £1 million refurbishment scheme at the Grand Theatre, funded by the Arts Council England, Sita UK, the Friends of the Grand, and the Blackpool Investment Fund. The first phase of the scheme includes the construction of a new rehearsal space next to the Theatre, connected through the Theatre's Dress Circle level, and refurbishment of the Theatre's Dressing rooms. The next phase will be to open up and modernise office space at the Upper Circle level which has been empty and almost derelict for the last 30 years. And the final phase of the work will see the Foyer and Box Office refurbished.
The Blackpool Grand is owned by the Blackpool Grand Theatre Trust Ltd., and you may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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