In the second of two Memory Lane specials we publish more extracts from The Blackpool Hippodrome/ABC Story, a fascinating new book from showbusiness historian Barry Band which can be viewed in the Blackpool Local History Room at Central Library
The ABC was redeveloped in 1962-63 within the massive walls of the old Hippodrome, built in 1895.
The new chequerboard frontage and large illuminated marquee shouted show biz and the interior of the 1,934-seat venue made even the resort’s spacious Opera House look ordinary.
It certainly lived up to the company’s claim of Europe’s most luxurious theatre. Indeed, every night at the ABC was a night of a thousand stars. Well, hundreds, because the entire ceiling was covered in tiny embedded lights.
The ABC was built as a cinema-theatre-TV studio by the company that had the weekend ITV franchise for the North and Midlands.
In addition to its summer show, the ABC transmitted live Sunday shows on the ITV network under the title Blackpool Night Out for four summers from 1964. But the Sunday TV shows ended when ABC TV lost its franchise and merged with Associated Rediffusion in 1968.
In the opening summer season of 1963 the ABC was Pop Music Central. The summer show was Cliff Richard and the Shadows in Holiday Carnival, which also starred Blackpool ventriloquist Arthur Worsley and an upcoming comedian called Norman Collier.
But the name that is most often repeated from 1963 is The Beatles.
Head office had booked the Fab Four for five Sunday nights with two shows each, and for good measure the other Sundays starred Gerry and the Pacemakers, Frank Ifield and Helen Shapiro - all of them chart-toppers.
Manager Bob Parsons, who opened the theatre after being the ABC circuit’s Champion Manager, deftly handled the press invasion and fan mania. King Street, at the side of the theatre, seemed ever full of screaming girls!
It was the same when the Sunday TV shows included The Beatles with one date in July 1964 and again on August 1, 1965, when Paul McCartney gave the first public performance of his song Yesterday.
Bob Parsons, remembered for his courteous welcome in impeccable white tie and tails, left for London in 1967 and was succeeded by Gordon Chadwick, who managed the venue until the 1990s.
The 70s onwards
Bernard Delfont, the executive in charge of EMI’s entertainment division, pushed through a £63m takeover of ABC, whose assets included Elstree Studios, 350 cinemas, 50 per cent of Thames Television and various other entertainments businesses.
In 1972 his name duly appeared on top of the season show at the ABC, but the famous producer’s magic touch was not all-encompassing. The show, titled Holiday Startime, was the biggest “turkey” in local showbiz history.
The audience was sometimes so thin the management had to paper the house (free tickets) and the season closed early.
Although Bernie was no longer actively in summer show production it was his (company) name above the title.
The show had actually been assembled by Billy Marsh who ignored the tastes of seaside audiences. They wanted to see familiar names and the bill-topper, the handsome black American singer Lovelace Watkins, was virtually unknown here.
A much needed highlight of the 1972 show was Blackpool ventriloquist Arthur Worsley, often called the best in the business. With his cheeky doll Charlie Brown, Arthur was in his fourth season at the Hippodrome/ABC – and his last Blackpool season.
The Seventies had opened with moderately successful summer shows; 1970’s bill of Tommy Steele and Mary Hopkin and 1971’s Jimmy Tarbuck-Frank Ifield season before the 1972 failure surprised the resort.
Britons on the move
There was an uneasy feeling among the more astute patrons that shows were becoming a bit samey and that stars of television were often unable to replicate their work on stage. There were fewer “must see” films in the winter months and television was offering more; the programmes were now in colour!
At the ABC in 1973 Holiday Startime opened with the star, Mike Yarwood, very popular on TV but audiences expected his brilliant range of impersonations and didn’t get them. His TV disguises would have taken too long to apply. Second-billed Basil Brush, a puppet, didn’t have that problem.
Nationwide the cinema industry was turning to multiplexes where patrons had the choice of three or more programmes.
In the Blackpool and Fylde area there were four “multis” by 1975, including the big Odeon on Dickson Road. The ABC would follow six years later.
Summer show headliners in the 70s had to be TV stars – but there were winners and losers here.
In 1974 Larry Grayson’s unique slant of camp comedy with Fag Ash Lil, Slack Alice and Everard was a big success and had a great supporting bill but in 1975 Mike and Bernie Winters were becoming irritating, although they did concerts until 1979.
They were, however, more successful than Dick Emery in his 1976 season when he showed more interest in crooning than in his TV comedy characters.
It fell to northerner Les Dawson to regain lost ground in 1977 and he was at the top of his game in the very theatre that had made his name in 1967’s Blackpool Show TV series.
His Cissie and Ada partner, Roy Barraclough, was working elsewhere so Blackpool comedian Bobby Bennett, one of Les’s mates, stepped in.
One hot July night the two comics, still in drag, walked out of the stage door and into the nearby Stanley Arms pub, where the regulars were regaled with Cissie and Ada material that was, shall we say, not for a family audience!
Irish eyes were smiling in the 1978 Holiday Startime season when the enduring power of the Bachelors’ golden oldies contrasted well with the songs of Blackpool’s own Nolan Sisters, who 10 years earlier had come to notice in the ABC’s free Christmas party for local pensioners.
It was sad that the stand-out show of the decade – the only original one in fact – Tommy Steele’s brilliant song and dance spectacular of 1979, failed to get the support it deserved.
Unpredictable results from summer shows, the impending return of live shows to the Grand Theatre in 1981, and a pressing need for an ABC multi-screen in Blackpool compelled ABC to lower the curtain on live shows after 1980’s Fancy Free with John Inman the Blackpool comedy actor of TV’s Are You Being Served fame, and Scottish songstress Moira Anderson.
But not before a last hurrah! The theatre was still equipped to handle TV shows and the BBC hired it in the autumn to record its Rising Stars series, won by Blackpool’s Jacqui Scott.
After conversion into a triple, the cinema re-opened on Thursday, April 30 1981, with Private Benjamin in Screen 1, Ordinary People (Best Film Oscar) in Screen 2 and The Long Good Friday in Screen 3.
ABC Screen 1 was the former circle area, partitioned forward of the old proscenium arch, with 728 seats. Screens 2 and 3 were in the old rear stalls area, with 321 and 231 seats.
The same year ABC sold the Princess Cinema to Blackpool entrepreneurs the Nordwind family who developed it as the Waterfront night spot, succeeded a few years later by Club Sanuk.
The ABC name was replaced countrywide by Cannon Cinemas in 1986 and in further financial manoeuvrings changed to MGM in 1992.
Then in 1995 there were moves by MGM’s owners, the French bank Credit Lyonnais, to sell off the cinemas.
It led to the final name change in the venue’s history.
Those big initials ABC went back on the frontage in June 1996 and remained there until the lights went out for the last time in July 13, 2000.
The last films on the three screens were Mission Impossible 2, Chicken Run and Gladiator.
The building was acquired by the Nordwind family, stripped out and redeveloped into Britain’s biggest night spot the Syndicate, a £4m project that opened in 2002.
After a change of ownership in 2006 the Syndicate closed in 2010, remaining empty until Blackpool Council bought the building for £635,000 in 2013 with plans to make the site a car park until land values recover and, hopefully, a new business is established.
A small but vocal protest group campaigned in vain for it to be retained for entertainment or exhibition purposes.
There was too much spare capacity in the council-owned Winter Gardens.
And so the story that began with the Empire in 1895, turned the pages of a century’s technological advances and social upheavals, and went through 11 changes of name, closed with a rather sad fade-out...