Memory Lane: Sixpences killed off theatre

The old Prince of Wales Baths and Theatre 1896
The old Prince of Wales Baths and Theatre 1896
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FIFTY years ago this week the site of the Blackpool Palace was being prepared for the building of Lewis’s store. Local entertainment historian Barry Band begins a series by sketching the early years.

IN the mid-1890s a Blackpool entertainments boom was in full swing. The Winter Gardens and the North Pier were joined by the Tower and the Grand Theatre. Visitor numbers were growing yearly.

Word went round the world of business and finance that the resort was a likely place to make some “brass”. Six per cent dividends were the norm.

The wealthy textile manufacturers and dealers of the north wanted their own piece of the action, and a Manchester group built the Empire (later to become the Hippodrome) in 1895. It went bust in 18 months.

Undeterred, another group of promoters thought they knew better. What was needed was a prominent promenade location. So they acquired the block of land next door to the Tower!

They bought the Prince of Wales theatre, arcade and baths, knocked it down and in 1899 opened an extravagant marble palace they called the Alhambra. The place looked wonderful, but was riddled with faults.

It had a variety theatre, a fixed-ring circus, a ballroom and bars. But the ambitious venture was brought down by the humble sixpenny-piece.

Sixpence (2.5p) was the accepted admission price for Blackpool entertainments. And even if the Alhambra was packed every day, it was never going to be enough to fund the scheme’s total outgoings of £380,000 plus the annual running costs. It went bust in three years.

Management made desperate efforts to draw the crowds. They booked the biggest variety stars and their circuses aimed to outdo the Tower’s.

It was to no avail. At the annual meeting in November, 1902, the company was forced into liquidation by Worthington’s, the brewers, who held the preference shares.

The business was kept open’ but the only likely buyer was the Blackpool Tower Company and it waited until July, 1903, before paying a bargain £140,000.

The circus was scrapped and architect Frank Matcham, designer of the Grand Theatre, the Tower Ballroom and the Tower Circus was called in to correct the faults and remodel the place.

The building reopened as the Palace on July 4, 1904, but the failure of the Alhambra, in which many investors and local traders had lost money, was fresh in people’s minds.

Success was slow in coming. At the Tower Company’s annual meeting in 1905 the chairman, Ald John Bickerstaffe, referred to the Palace being open all winter (1904-05) and said: “We made a loss but we are going to give it another trial this winter and I appeal now to the inhabitants of Blackpool and district to give better support.”

The policy paid off, and the Palace built a reputation on the back of great variety stars like Vesta Tilley, Harry Lauder, Little Tich, George Formby (senior), Florrie Forde, Eugene Stratton and Wilkie Bard.

When the nearby Grand Theatre began to operate winter variety weeks the Tower directors took action to protect the Palace. They bought the Grand at Christmas 1909, for £47,500 and made sure it remained a playhouse!

The Palace gradually became the region’s number one variety theatre and with a new cinema and revamped ballroom was Blackpool’s favourite night out for the more discerning patrons until the 1950’s.