The very best of friends

TUE DUKES DIARY- Friends of the Grand members Betty Clarke and Hazel Cherry make a new friend on a behind the scenes wardrobe tour of Blackpool Pleasure Beach
TUE DUKES DIARY- Friends of the Grand members Betty Clarke and Hazel Cherry make a new friend on a behind the scenes wardrobe tour of Blackpool Pleasure Beach
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How time flies when you’re among friends. Astonishing as it seems, the Friends of the Grand are a year away from their 40th anniversary.

Next year - 2013 for those of short memory - Friends of the Grand will be 40 years old.

Meantime they are looking pretty good for going on 39 – and the need for a strong and active support network remains as great as ever in an ailing economy when it’s more crucial than ever to get bottoms on seats and fundraise for one of the most beautiful theatres in Britain.

Social historian and Showzam! founder Professor Vanessa Toulmin hails Blackpool as theatre architect Frank Matcham’s “adopted town”.

“He was Blackpool by adoption,” she admits. “When you look at all the projects he completed in the town Blackpool can claim him above all other towns and cities.”

This year organisers hope more will join the 3300-plus strong group which support the beautiful Grand Theatre and its self styled “eclectic” programme each year.

It was formed in 1973 to save the building from demolition, and from the very first proved hands on.

They painted the dressing rooms, repaired holes to the ceiling and helped to get the theatre into shape.

Funds were raised in many ways, including Midnight Matinées; all part of the bid to save the theatre. Early Friends included such names as Violet Carson (Ena Sharples), Alistair Cooke, Ken Dodd, Leslie Crowther, Tim West and Prunella Scales.

The role of the Friends of the Grand has changed over the years; nowadays Friends, chaired by John Buck, support the theatre in different ways. They raise funds from subscriptions and social events to finance projects within the theatre, primarily aimed at enhancing comfort of patrons.

Over the last 20 years the Friends have contributed more than £750,800 towards projects including new carpets, seating and technical equipment.

They have also raised funds for the Sam Lee Appeal to improve theatergoer amenities and renovate the interior of the theatre.

Up to 150 of the Friends are particularly active volunteers, front of house teams acting as welcomers, and selling tea, coffee, juice, bottled water and programmes, generally assisting ushers, mailing team members who devote spare time sending out promotional information, the coffee morning set and event organisers.

The level of commitment is exceptional. One member travels 120 miles each time she volunteers to help out at the theatre. Irene Ryan who lives on the Wirral is now training to be an audio describer for the blind with sponsorship from the theatre. Irene says: “Any time given via Friends of the Grand helps the theatre to keep going. I would strongly recommend others to join.” Others admit the voluntary work has proved a quality of life saver for themselves, enabling them to make new friends, and also enjoy one of Britain;s finest theatres from all perspectives, since retirement.

Not that it’s all voluntary work and no play. Members recently got the chance go interview, among others, Fylde raised actor Stephen Tompkinson, who became a patron of the Friends of the Grand in 2009, while appearing in a production at the theatre.

One of the highlights of the treats organised last year was a personally conducted wardrobe tour by Blackpool Pleasure Beach creative director Antony Johns.

The links between both attractions –the fun park and the theatre – have been close since the late Geoffrey Thompson became a leading light of the campaign to save the Grand.

His daughter Amanda has since proved an equally passionate supporter.

Today the Friends start the new year with a brand new logo.

They have also become adept social networkers and keep members abreast of news, offers, promotions and events with a monthly e-blast... to receive one email friends@blackpoolgrand.co.uk and place the word E-BLAST in the subject header.

n Membership costs £16 (£8 seniors, under 18s, full time students) or £32 for Friends Plus, single adult membership withone guest. To volunteer contact the Friends’ office on (01253) 743300 or visit www.friendsofthegrand.co.uk

For shows call the box office on (01253) 290190.