Dramatic days of stage favourite

Surveying the damage after the fire, at the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, in September 1977

Surveying the damage after the fire, at the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, in September 1977

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With hopes the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, could finally rise from the ashes, Reflections takes a look back at some of the history of the much-loved entertainment centre.

The 600-seater theatre, in Ashton Gardens, was destroyed in a fire in 1977. It was never rebuilt.

Model of the proposed new Ashton Theatre in 1980

Model of the proposed new Ashton Theatre in 1980

But in its heyday, the popular attraction provided year-round entertainment for both local residents and visitors to the Fylde.

A variety of top stars would take part in summer season shows, which regularly proved a huge hit and drew massive crowds to the town.

During the summer, hundreds of holidaymakers flocked to the theatre and in the winter, it staged local dramatic society productions.

The theatre would be filled twice a week – on Mondays, when the box office promised two seats for the price of one and Saturday evenings, when regular patrons would book the same seats every week.

Ashton Theatre stage and seating, pictured in May 1964

Ashton Theatre stage and seating, pictured in May 1964

In April 1964, Ashton Theatre suffered another fire, which damaged the stage and seating. But this blaze did not prove fatal and that time, the show did go on. Some weeks later, the curtain rose again, following hard voluntary work by 30 electricians and joiners.

The theatre was under threat of closure again in 1975, but this time, it was due to money issues.

With financial losses of £18,000, it faced an uncertain future.

At the time, actor Bill Kenwright, the man behind David Gordon Productions, said the curtain would not rise again unless certain problems were ironed out.

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, in September 1977

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, in September 1977

But the theatre was thrown a lifeline, when owners Fylde Council made it a viable concern.

On the fateful night of the big 1977 fire, only hours before the blaze struck, hundreds of theatre-lovers had been enjoying St Annes Parish Church Operatic and Dramatic Society’s latest production Charlie Girl.

The alarm was raised at 5.42am on September 17, by a passer-by.

Four fire brigades tackled the huge blaze for more than an hour, but they could not save the 50-year-old building. The theatre, the fire service said, was 90 per cent destroyed.

Fire fighters tackle the blaze at Ashton Theatre, in 1977

Fire fighters tackle the blaze at Ashton Theatre, in 1977

It was the worst fire Fylde had suffered since St Annes Pier was hit in 1974. Dreams for a new theatre took shape in 1980, when architects were appointed and plans were drawn up – but hopes of it rising from the ashes got no further than building a model.

But while the building may not have come back to life, the Ashton Theatregoers Society was formed, to take members on theatre visits until the venue was restored to its former glory. In 2009, Express reader Queenie Hancock shared her memories of the theatre.

She had gone alone to the theatre to see a play at the beginning of the 1976 season and she told the Express how her eyes had been drawn to a stately grand piano positioned in the corner of the foyer.

She told the Express how she felt sad to see it standing there alone.

She said: “The following day I saw the manager and suggested he might like me to play each Saturday evening, before the play commenced. He was delighted.”

In exchange for tickets for each week’s show, Queenie played for 45 minutes before the curtain rose, occupied an aisle seat for the first half, then dashed to be seated once again at the piano in time for the audience to emerge for their interval drinks. Entertainer Helen Jayne also wrote in to the Express, about a scorched photo retrieved by her mother Teresa Earnshaw, which was a treasured item.

It was inside a glass display case at the Ashton, St Annes, where Helen was appearing for the season in a variety show.

n If you have any memories or photographs of Ashton Theatre you would like to share, email emma.harris@jpress.co.uk