Blackpool remains a summer entertainment venue, specialising in variety shows featuring entertainers such as Ken Dodd and Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown. Ken Dodd can regularly be seen throughout late summer at the Grand Theatre.
The Grand Theatre was designed by Victorian theatre architect Frank Matcham and was opened in 1894 after a construction period of seven months, at a cost of £20,000 between December 1893 and July 1894. The project was conceived and financed by local theatre manager Thomas Sergenson who had been using the site of the Grand for several years to stage a circus. He had also transformed the fortunes of other local theatres.
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.
Sergenson’s successful directorship of the theatre ended in 1909 when he sold the operation to the Blackpool Tower Company for a considerable profit.
The success of the Grand continued through World War I and on until the 1930s. The theatre now faced stiff competition from the newly introduced talking films and the building was operated as a cinema outside the summer tourist season. This practice continued until 1938 when the nearby Opera House was constructed.
The Grand was able to stay open during World War II but the post-war rise in the popularity of television was probably the cause of the theatre’s dwindling popularity toward the 1960s. Plans were filed for the demolition of the historic site in 1972 but the Grand’s status as a Grade II* listed building was sought and obtained by a group of friends, thereby preventing this from taking place. An agreement was reached with the Grand’s owners, EMI, that a refurbishment of the then unused building would take place if it could be used as a bingo hall. After three years of bingo use, the group of friends, now called the Friends of the Grand, with the support of Blackpool Borough Council, negotiated to lease and eventually buy the theatre back from EMI over a period of a few years. The purchase was complete by 1 October 1980 and a refurbishment, achieved partly through voluntary effort, was begun. Finally, on 23 March 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 return was further confirmed in May of the same year when a Royal Variety Performance was staged in the presence of Prince Charles.
The town also plays host to the longest running seaside show in Britain, Legends, which features multiple tribute artistes with a live band and dance troupe, first appearing at the North Pier in 1999, then at the Central Pier from 2000 to 2012 and now at the Sands Venue, located in the Palatine buildings (formerly the Palace nightclub) on the promenade near Blackpool Tower.