The final curtain comes down in the last part of local entertainment historian Barry Band’s short series on the ill-fated Blackpool Palace.
IT came as a huge shock to Blackpool and the Fylde when the mighty Blackpool Tower Company announced in the spring of 1961 that the Palace was to be demolished after the summer season.
The theatre, cinema, ballroom and café complex next to the Tower had long been a palace of romance for those who wanted an evening more intimate than could be had in the often over-crowded Tower and Winter Gardens.
And for 60 years every great star of variety – from Marie Lloyd to Shirley Bassey, from Sir Harry Lauder to Sir Norman Wisdom – had appeared in the 2,000-seat theatre.
But the fate of the Palace had been signalled in 1957, when the variety theatre began to close for the winter months. It had become Blackpool’s first victim of the expansion of television.
In the North West, our choice of TV channels doubled in May, 1956, and within months the social lives of millions of Britons were changing.
Theatre attendances slumped as people stayed home, watching the novelty of commercial telly and the improving product of the BBC, who had previously held a TV monopoly.
And soon there was a fall-off in enthusiasm for ballroom dancing as rock ‘n’ roll came in.
According to my old friend the late Bernard Crabtree, entertainments manager of the Tower Company, it became difficult to assemble decent variety bills for the Palace.
“We took the precaution of putting our first summer season show into the theatre for 1956, Summer Showboat with comedian Albert Modley, singer Edna Savage and the new comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters.
“It was a success but we still couldn’t get enough decent autumn shows for the Palace Varieties and the Grand Theatre. So we closed the Grand and worked a very mixed autumn season at the Palace. Six weeks of variety and four weeks of plays and musicals.
“Many stars were staying near London in the hope of being booked for the new variety shows and plays that were springing up on both the BBC and ITV channels,” said Bernard.
The Grand reopened at Christmas, 1956, but from that day the Palace Varieties was closed every winter, while the cinema and ballroom stayed open.
Summer season shows ran for the next few years. In 1957, the headline star was Hylda Baker, in 1958 Dave Morris, in 1959 Roy Castle and Marion Ryan, and in 1960 Harry Secombe, Ruby Murray and Harry Worth.
The shock news of intended closure came before the 1961 summer season that starred Frankie Vaughan, Arthur Worsley and Ted Lune and a long cinema season of the spectacular Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston.
Blackpool wasn’t alone in losing a famous theatre. By the end of the 1950s more than 250 had vanished in Britain, the sites being taken by office blocks, shopping centres or car parks.
But why was it the Palace that had to go? It was a huge building with a large staff and heavy business rates and it had been hardest hit by the loss of the audiences.
It was losing money by the ton and owners the Blackpool Tower Company had to release the site value in the form of a Lewis’s department store.
It was unthinkable for them to close the Tower. And they couldn’t close the Winter Gardens/Opera House because it was also the resort’s conference centre.
So it was on the Palace that the axe fell.
There was no chance of the council saving the building. They were concerned only for the summer season business and the resort was not exactly short of theatres, cinemas and ballrooms.
It was many years, and in a much-changed holiday environment, before the council saw the need to intervene (in 2010) and secure the future of the Tower and the Winter Gardens complex.