How Friends of the Grand Theatre chairman helped to save and revitalise historic venue
Charity, say the uncharitable, begins at home.
But for Friends of the Grand Theatre chairman John Buck it began in the pubs and clubs of Blackpool – where he tirelessly raised cash every weekend for the venue he helped save from demolition.
At 77 he’s got sand and seawater in his veins. Living in Carleton and Blackpool all his life, John’s maternal grandmother had a boarding house on Queen Street where the Catholic Club now stands and his paternal grandfather owned two horse drawn landaus on the promenade.
Always an avid theatre goer, he first became involved in the Grand’s bricks and mortar when he realised the resort was in danger of losing it.
“When I read in The Gazette that they wanted to knock it down and build a Littlewoods store I was outraged,” he says. “I’d got fed up of seeing theatres disappear and that’s how I first got involved with what became the Friends of the Grand and their campaign to save the theatre.
“I used to love coming to the Grand every Saturday night in my younger days to see whatever was on. It was something to look forward to at the end of the week.”
But as we now know, saving the Grand from demolition was just the first step.
Once its future was secured John set about organising fund raising nights for the Friends of the Grand – the passionate group of theatre lovers who have subsequently volunteered thousands of hours of their time and raised millions of pounds along the way.
He took advantage of the town’s then rather more draconian licensing laws whereby the only way pubs and clubs could remain open late on a Sunday was by raising money on the door for a designated charity.
In the 20 years from 1985 he raised just under £250,000.
“One summer I’d three going on the same night - The Palace (now Sands), Central Pier and like most Sundays one of Basil Newby’s In The Pink Leisure venues,” says John. “It was very time consuming, in fact it became my sole spare time livelihood.”
His “proper job” was (and still is) as a decorator and, it goes without saying, he personally helped refurbish large parts of the Grand including the mezzanine walkway, the dress circle bar and various dressing rooms
“I can’t do it now because with being on the theatre’s board of directors it’s seen as a conflict of interest,” he says. “Not that I’m particularly worried about it. I’m still working hard and I had more work this January than I’ve ever had.
“January is usually quiet but I’ve been swamped out and it’s all been established customers so they must like the work I’m doing.”
He’s never trodden the boards himself and there’s no showbusiness roots in his family so he’s not sure where his passion for live entertainment began.
“I’d go to the Winter Gardens and Opera House in what I suppose we now call the ‘old days’ to see legends like Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Eartha Kitt and Hoagy Carmichael.
“There were so many, usually on a Sunday night – big American stars like Johnnie Ray. I just loved seeing things live on stage, I just liked theatre, I’d still rather be out watching something in a theatre than stuck indoors watching television.
“I used to like the season show opening nights – at the Hippodrome (now the demolished Syndicate site), the big Opera House first nights, Central Pier summer shows.
“That’s why it simply horrified me, the thought that anyone would even consider knocking down the Grand. I mean what would have happened? Littlewoods stores don’t exist anymore. It would have ended up as another car park.”
So what makes the Grand so special to him?
“Apart from the fact that it’s such a beautiful building it’s probably with getting involved from the word go to save it and seeing that something could be done,” he says. “Even things like the weekly lottery we used to operate. It all helped. I started with a handful of people and ended up with 90-odd paying and playing every week.
“We were and still are always looking at ways of raising money.”
But he’s the first to admit that fund raising has changed.
“Pubs and clubs don’t need to apply for late licenses or Sunday opening now – they open and close pretty much when they want.”
Perhaps in a way it’s for the better. These days there are least two sell out Friends of the Grand events at Funny Girls each year (the next is on June 16 and is selling fast) and a regular series of coffee mornings with guest speakers (the next being February 18).
“It’s better than going out on a Sunday in the pouring rain collecting the money on the door,” he admits. “Sometimes when there were three in one night I’d go round on the Monday in my overalls so no one knew I was carrying all this money in shopping bags to cash up at the Grand. On a busy weekend I could take £1,000 in one night.”
Coffee mornings are safer. And they are something he has pioneered and persevered with since being elected chairman in 2002 after the death of the previous incumbent George Thomson, father of the former Grand Theatre general manager Neil Thomson.
“Charity nights became very tiring but when they stopped I was a bit lost. That was my Sunday night. I used to go out early to all the taxi firms to let them know where the charity nights were and who had got a late extension that night.”
So how many hours has he dedicated to the Grand over the years?
“I’ve never even thought about it.”
And how many shows has he seen at the Grand?
“I’ve no idea. A lot.” And that “lot” can include anything.
“I didn’t use to watch contemporary dance but I do now. I watch most shows really – the recent Vampires Rock was unbelievable, and so popular.
“I still get the same kick out of seeing a live show that I used to. I’ve got the same enthusiasm and I like most things.”
“The only bad one I can think of was a 60s night headlined by Billy J Kramer. I wouldn’t like to have it spread around town but he was the worst act I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve never seen so many people walking out of show – and he was top of the bill. Everybody else was good.
“I saw him in his heyday when I joined The Beatles fan club, much to a lot of peoples’ amusement. But you got notice of their shows ahead of everyone else. It was the website of its day!”
So he saw the Fab Four twice in Blackpool and once in London (with support from Cilla Black and the then much younger Billy J Kramer).
As for the best Grand Theatre show he reckons it’s the rock musical Return to the Forbidden Planet
“I love the music and everything about it,” he says. “There’s not much time to go elsewhere but I did catch Paul Weller at the Winter Gardens. Unbelievable. The floor was bouncing up and down for Eton Rifles.”
Blackpool is lucky to have such good venues he says.
“People should look up and look in,” says John. “The Costa Coffee manager came to the Heritage Open Day last September and I’ve never seen anybody so overwhelmed. He said obviously he’d seen it from the outside but had no idea what it looked like inside. He was absolutely gobsmacked.
“We get a lot of that on Heritage days. People who live here yet have never been inside before. Where have they been all their lives?”
Given that he sees something just about every week – his record was four different shows in one week last year – it’s hardly surprising he has a favourite seat (it’s C21 in the dress circle with its good sightline of the stage and good view of the volunteer Friends on duty every night).
“I don’t know what we’ve made over the years but even the little Grand Theatre badges can bring in £2,000 a year,” he says. “I don’t think it’s any problem recruiting new FOG members, there’s always people who want to work front of house.”
His favourite Blackpool building apart from the Grand is The Tower.
“It’s quite spectacular, especially now with its new light and sound show. I kept telling people to go see it last summer.”
So he would recommend Blackpool?
“I’d definitely come if I didn’t live here. I went to Bacup and Rawtenstall when I was an apprentice for three weeks because my boss had three elderly aunts there. I’ve never been so glad in my life as when I saw the Tower as the coach came up Preston New Road.”
Is there anything he’d like to change?
“The beggars annoy me. We used to have Meet The Cast nights on a Monday but I stopped going because every time I walked up the road to my car afterwards there’d be someone asking for money. I’ve been threatened three times. It’s not good for the town’s image, it puts people off. It put me off.”
“But that’s all I’d change – it annoys me when people run Blackpool down. To me it’s progressing, money is being spent on it and it’s becoming full of eating places now. So why do people criticise it?
“I went to London with friends a few years ago and Leicester Square on a Saturday night made Blackpool look like a kindergarten. It was disgusting.”
He has no idea how long he will remain chairman of the FOGs – “they keep saying they like the way I’m running it” – and he is full of praise for the theatre’s chief executive, Ruth Eastwood. The future seems bright. I think Ruth is doing a superb job and is also very supportive of the Friends.
“She usually shows her face at our committee meetings, no other manager has done that. She’s very helpful and appreciates what we do.
“Without the volunteers the theatre would still be here but it would cost a lot more to run. Us selling coffees, programmes sweets and suchlike saves a lot of money.”
Of all the entertainers he’s met he would rank panto star and broadcaster Steve Royle as the nicest.
“I could ring him now and ask if he’d do a charity event and he’d be here like a shot even though he lives in Chorley. In fact we’ve made him a lifelong patron. He is and has been very helpful to the Friends. If there were more like him it would be great.
Surprisingly Leslie “Dirty Den” Grantham is another favourite. “On Meet the Cast nights he took such a lot of trouble to talk to anybody and everybody, not a bit showbizzy. Su Pollard is another one – she’ properly dizzy, but talks to everybody.
“Most performers are fine and they can’t believe how beautiful the theatre is.”
So he still has real sense of pride about the Grand. And none more so than on the occasions he met the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Edward and the Duke of Westminster.
All a bit different to those dark Sundays nights pounding the streets with a collection box.