Barry Band: Looking back at Grand old years at Blackpool theatre

Prince Charles at the re-opening of The Grand, in 1981
Prince Charles at the re-opening of The Grand, in 1981
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In a few days the Grand Theatre enters a year of celebration. The 125th anniversary.

But if events of the 1970s had taken a different turn, the Grand would today be a diminishing memory.

If you doubt that, let’s recall the Palace Theatre, once Blackpool’s premier variety theatre, on the promenade next to the Tower. Demolished in 1961-62, not remembered by anyone under 60, visited by few people under 70.

Happily, the Grand survived closure in 1972 and is now a jewel of a theatre and a tribute to architect Frank Matcham, who built it for showman Thomas Sergenson in 1894.

We are starting a series of articles looking back at The Grand over the years.

The Memory Lane articles will be condensed from my Grand Theatre Centenary books, which highlight the names and events in the theatre’s story.

The articles won’t be in chronological order because we want to start with names and shows that are not a complete mystery to the theatre-going public.

That puts us in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. I think of them as the superstar years.

Later we will do the revival years from 1981 and as the Grand approaches the anniversary date – July 23 – we will cover the early years.

To kick off the series here’s a brief timeline of the building. Performance timelines will appear later, grouped in decades.

1889-93: Site used by Thomas Sergenson for summer circuses.

1894, July 23: Theatre opened with Wilson Barrett as Hamlet.

1909, December: Blackpool Tower Company bought theatre.

1910, January-March: Theatre refurbished and improved.

1920-21: Theatre refurbished; foyer enlarged, new staircase to dress circle.

1931: Theatre became cinema in winter months.

1938: Returned to year-round live theatre.

1940: Policy of summer season variety revues began.

1950, spring: Theatre modernised; new canopy, electric safety curtain installed.

1951: Policy began of summer seasons of single plays, with Wilfred Pickles in Hobson’s Choice.

1963: Beginning of winter closures due to impact of television.

1972: Theatre closed for redevelopment.

1973: Friends of the Grand won planning appeal against redevelopment.

1977: Owners EMI refurbished theatre for bingo.

1980: Grand Theatre Trust bought and refurbished theatre.

1981, March 23: The Grand reopened with Timothy West and Prunella Scales in The Merchant of Venice.

1981: May 29: Royal Performance and formal reopening by the Prince of Wales.

1994, July: Theatre Centenary visit of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

1994-2007: Series of major appeals and improvements to the building.

2014: Further building work created new spaces.