Barry Band: The most successful stage show ever seen in Blackpool prior to London

Actress Flora Robson, seen here at Durham University, in 1958
Actress Flora Robson, seen here at Durham University, in 1958

Most of the starry nights of Blackpool’s showbiz story won’t be found on the internet.

Who appeared here? What did they appear in? Where? And when?

Advert for Me and my Girls at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool

Advert for Me and my Girls at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool

As Michael Caine is supposed to have said, not a lot of people know.

Names may be remembered – but dates are the problem. I was once assured by a visitor that he and his wife had been on honeymoon in Blackpool in September, 1953, when they saw Frank Sinatra at the Opera House. They couldn’t have. Sinatra sang there in July that year.

The irate visitor said: “Are you telling me I don’t know what I did on my honeymoon?”

As Eric Morecambe did say: “There’s no answer to that.”

Advert for Flora Robson, starring in Autumn

Advert for Flora Robson, starring in Autumn

But we’ll carry on picking events from my Blackpool theatre histories, in this case for our Grand Theatre highlights in the 125th anniversary year. Take, for example, the most successful stage show ever seen in Blackpool prior to London.

It was the musical comedy Me and My Girl, which toured to the Grand for the last week of October 1937, before opening at the Victoria Palace on December 16 for a run of 1,645 performances.

The show was revived several times and then revised, literally, by Stephen Fry in the 1980s before Robert Lindsay triumphed as Bill Snibson, the Cockney lad who inherited an earldom.

But back to 1937. A Gazette reviewer said it was “a gaily crazy revel from first to last, a real laughter show the had the audience rocking. It is, of course, due to Lupino Lane all through.”

(If you don’t know of Lupino Lane or the story, Wikipedia will oblige).

The writer continued: “Noel Gay has written some exceedingly catchy tunes, notably the Me and My Girl and Lambeth Walk numbers. The latter will be whistled by everyone soon, I dare predict.”

The writer was spot on!

The Grand was still a dual purpose venue, but things were looking up. By 1938 the Depression had receded and building was in progress – the Derby Baths, the Odeon, the Pleasure Beach Casino – but more significant for the Grand was the building of the new Opera House. It would soon lead to the Grand’s return as an all-year live theatre.

At Easter, 1938, Flora Robson was in a Russian play called Autumn, the first of her nine visits in dramatic roles over 25 years.

A Gazette reviewer thought it a superb piece of dramatic and emotional acting that held the audience spellbound.

Another great actress, Gladys Cooper, made her first Blackpool appearance in Dodsworth, adapted from a Sinclair Lewis novel about a shallow woman with a pathetic belief in her vanishing charms.

In lighter mood was JB Priestley’s When We Are Married, the story of three couples who discovered, after 25 years, that they might not actually have been married.

A local link in this play was the actor in the plum role of the press photographer – former Blackpool journalist Frank Pettingell.

For seven weeks in the summer, a Tom Arnold ice show called Switzerland occupied the Grand’s stage. And in the autumn, the theatre saw the tour of Ivor Novello’s Drury Lane hit Crest of the Wave.

Demolition of the old Opera House began in October, leaving the Grand clear for a full line-up of live shows in 1939.