Blackpool Grand Theatre 125th Birthday: a brief history

Frank Matcham
Frank Matcham

It began as a rags to riches tale, a simple clerk Thomas Sergenson from Penwortham, set out with a vision to turn showman and entrepreneur and build his own theatre in 1894.

Such was his ambition to create his masterpiece, he secured the talents of Frank Matcham – the finest architect of the Victorian era – to fulfil his dream.

The Grand was opened after a construction period of eight months, at a cost of £20,000 between December 1893 and July 1894.

Matcham’s brief was to build Sergenson the “prettiest theatre in the land”. The Grand was Matcham’s first theatre to use an innovative ‘cantilever’ design to support the

tiers, thereby reducing the need for the usual pillars and so allowing clear views of the stage from all parts of the auditorium.

The Grand first changed hands in 1909 to The Tower Company and continued to flourish.

Original site of the Grand Theatre in Church Street

Original site of the Grand Theatre in Church Street

However, in the late 20s, the arrival of the “talkies” threatened the theatre as movies grew in popularity.

But the love affair with stage did stand the test of time, with many audiences returning during wartime when London’s venues were badly damaged through the Blitz years.

Through the 1940s the greatest stars and most prestigious productions played at the theatre to huge box office success.

Further highs and lows followed and, while the golden days had gone, there was a renewed interest in live theatre in the 60s, with some big names still coming out on tour.

Grand Theatre Blackpool is celebrating its 125th Birthday

Grand Theatre Blackpool is celebrating its 125th Birthday

In 1968, the Grand changed hands again as EMI took over.

Then tragedy struck in 1972 when the theatre closed.

An announcement followed to say the historic site would be demolished to make way for a Littlewoods’ Store.

It was a member of the Victorian Society, Jeffrey Finestone, who had seen the writing on the wall and in preparation for the fight had applied to have the building become Grade II listed.

Grand Theatre, Blackpool

Grand Theatre, Blackpool

The original Friends of the Grand would fight for the theatre’s survival, a struggle that went to public inquiry in 1973, at which the Friends were successful.

Some years later, in 1980, after much fund-raising, the group was able to buy the venue.

On March 23, 1981, the Grand re-opened as a theatre once again to stage an Old Vic performance of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice featuring Timothy West and Prunella Scales.

The theatre’s big return was marked in May of the same year when a Royal Variety Performance was staged in the presence of Charles, Prince of Wales.

The Grand Theatre Trust Company has owned the theatre for nearly 40 years.

As well as essential maintenance to the “Grand old lady”, the owners have worked to modernise the facilities for today’s audiences.

There are now more toilets, greater leg room and canopies to shelter from the rain as well as extra dressing rooms, office space and a studio theatre.