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Blackpool Wonderful Blackpool

An Article on Blackpool Theatres by Donald Auty, 2003

Blackpool Theatres Index

Blackpool and the Winter Gardens from the top of the Blackpool Tower on the 26th of March 1956

Above - Blackpool and the Winter Gardens from the top of the Blackpool Tower on the 26th of March 1956 - Courtesy Gerry Atkins

The site of the Queen's Theatre in 2003 - D. A.Blackpool Wonderful Blackpool was the opening chorus with the spectacular summer revue titled 'Singing in the Reign' starring Josef Locke and Nat Jackley that reopened the Queen's Theatre in 1952.

Right - The site of the Queen's Theatre in 2003 - D. A.

Blackpool was wonderful to a 15 year old boy who ate and slept show business in those days. The resort was full of summer shows, 14 in number, and the home of many bill toppers and supporting artistes not to mention its own resident top notch producers Jimmy Brennan and the great Jack Taylor.

Frank Randle's Last Blackpool appearance in February 1957 - Recreated by Barry Band in the style of the original press ad.The site of the Queen's is now a shop. It began life in the twenties as Feldman's Theatre and was a number two touring theatre with a diet of variety and touring revues. It was intimate on two levels and seated around 1000. At the rear of the stalls behind the pit was a little raised balcony where the cheapest but best seats in the house were and I spent many a happy night there with Uncle Jack Taylor. Blackpool's greatest home grown producer of summer shows, touring revues, and pantomimes.

Left - Frank Randle's Last Blackpool appearance in February 1957 - Recreated by Barry Band in the style of the original press ad.

The Blackpool TowerOne of my treats was to be taken to lunch at Hill's restaurant, that was a meeting place for the theatre fraternity and because I was with my Uncle Jack we sat at a table reserved for producers and managers. Bob Johnson the portly manager of Feldman's was always there and I considered him to be the height of sophistication because he crumbled a bread roll into his soup and added Worcester Sauce to it, be it minestrone tomato or mushroom. The conversation between the managers about artistes salaries, box office takings, and contracts was electrifying to me. I was sitting and dining with the greats of Blackpool. They talked about how business was in far away theatres such as the Palace Bath, the Empire Swindon, and the Palace Reading which at that time I had never been to and I imagined the interiors of them as these learned conversations took place and stored it all away for the future. They are all dead and gone now, producing shows at that great Moss Empire in the sky, but they inspired, me a thirteen year old boy, to take up a career that has been good to me and lasted more than fifty years, and I have enjoyed it. There are not many people who are actually paid for doing something that they love and I have been one of those few lucky ones.

Premier Venues in St.Annes Lytham & FleetwoodJimmy Brennan bought Feldman's Theatre in late 1951. Blackpool was in the boom time after the war years and the visitor's appetite for variety and spectacular revue was insatiable. He wisely decided to put on a top notch summer show each year for 16 weeks and to play out the rest of the year with touring revues variety and pantomime. Jimmy was in every respect a self made man. He originated from Barrow in Furness and was originally a scrap metal merchant. He bought a battle ship off the navy when the first world war ended that was sunk in Barrow harbour for twopence and salvaged it, and that set Jimmy on the road to becoming a millionaire. By 1951 he was one of the richest men in the area and lived in St Annes. (See programme cuting right). He also owned a chain of around twenty Cinemas, and the Hippodrome Wigan, The Pavilion Liverpool, and the Hulme Hippodrome Manchester were his other theatres. He did not hire shows on a percentage of the box office but paid them a salary because business was good at all his theatres in those days. He also strengthened the show by adding a name to the top of the bill to ensure quality. He was notoriously mean, so much so that it caused great amusement, and he cultivated this image. He was very tall, wore a dark suit, always with a sombre tie with a gold pin, and homburg hat which he rarely took off. He and my Uncle Jack were great friends and legendary practical jokers. He ran his empire from offices in the Deansgate Cinema in Manchester which he owned and was there around four days a week. He spent the rest of his time in Blackpool.

Jack and myself would often sit on the little balcony at the back of the stalls in the Queen's and wait for Jimmy to come in. He would arrive and take a seat at the side of the theatre in the stalls from where he could count the number of people in the house. When he had completed this task, if the house was good, he would smoke a cigarette, if it was bad he did not light up.

He hired Alec Shanks the West End director and costume designer to produce the first summer show. Alec was not good at keeping to budgets and was always looking for an opportunity to put more of his costumes into the show and design more scenery. The show was in rehearsal and we were all at lunch in Hills. Jack asked him how things were going. Jimmy said the show was too expensive all that tar was costing too much money. Jack, puzzled, asked him what he meant. Jimmy replied that every morning Alec Shanks came into the theatre and wanted something else and when he was told it was too expensive, back would come the reply "Don't spoil the ship for a half penny worth of tar". Thus the extra tar was costing a fortune. That was a story that went around the theatres for many years.

A photograph of Ted Foreshaw in the prompt corner of the Queen's Theatre, Blackpool - Courtesy Dawn HughesJimmy put in his own manager Ted Foreshaw when he took over the theatre.

Right - A photograph of Ted Foreshaw in the prompt corner of the Queen's Theatre, Blackpool - Courtesy Dawn Hughes, whose grandmother Mrs. Edwards' second husband was Ted Foreshaw.

Many a night around 11.30 when Ted was leaving the theatre Jimmy would say to him come and have a walk with me Ted and they would walk all the way to St Annes to Jimmy's house discussing business.

Jimmy would then say good night and go into his home to bed leaving poor old Ted to find his own way back to Blackpool.

Ted Foreshaw began working at Feldman's Theatre as a 'Lime Boy' and remained there through its transformation into Bannister's Borough Bazaar, and later the Queen's Theatre. (Note: Feldman's and Bannister's are transposed in this text and should read the other way round.) In 1930 he became stage manager and maintenance man, and shortly before the Theatre was transformed into the Queen's at a cost of £71,800 by the Cinema Chain owner James Brennan, he became general manager of the Theatre.

Ted Foreshaw and his wife, the former Mrs. Edwards in a photograph from a newspaper clipping - Courtesy Dawn HughesTed's wife, the former Mrs. Edwards, and always known as Mrs. E, had also worked at the Theatre for 35 years, 15 as manager, during its previous incarnation as Feldman's Theatre and later when it was known as the Queen's Theatre. M.L.)

Left - Ted Foreshaw and his wife, the former Mrs. Edwards in a photograph from a newspaper clipping - Courtesy Dawn Hughes, whose grandmother Mrs. Edwards' second husband was Ted Foreshaw.

Jimmy was a staunch catholic and took over the South Pier Theatre from Jack Taylor when he had a stroke in the mid fifties. He booked Shirley Bassey to top the bill for summer 1958 when she was at the height of her early fame. She also featured in some very racy stories in the tabloid papers of the time and Jimmy decided that he was not going to have this woman in his theatre and canceled the contract. Which cost him a lot of money. It was late in the day so he replaced her with Norman Evans who was reaching the end of his career and business was not good. Norman left by mutual agreement half way through the season and was replaced by the comedian Ted Lune who was making his name in the T.V. series 'The Army Game' but business did not improve and the show staggered on to the end of the season and lost a great deal of money. If he had not sacked Shirley Bassey Jimmy would have packed the theatre all summer but that was Jimmy when he got a bee in his bonnet. I stage managed that season for him and it was dogged with bad luck. Dickie Hurran the great director was hired to stage the show. He made a first visit to the theatre and was accompanied by Jimmy and myself. The stage at the South pier Regal Theatre was very restricted and you could not fly anything. Dickie left his coat in number one dressing room whilst looking at the stage. His lip curled in scorn when he saw it and he exclaimed "My God it's like Collins Islington" which was a very tatty suburban London Music Hall. "Alright then Mr Hurran if you think that get your coat and bugger off" answered Jimmy and that was the last we saw of Dickie Hurran. I worked with Dickie a great many times later on in years but he never really forgave me for being present at this episode because he was a very arrogant man.

Ted Foreshaw and two of his colleagues standing in the foyer of the Queen's Theatre, Blackpool - Courtesy Dawn Hughes

Above - Ted Foreshaw and two of his colleagues standing in the foyer of the Queen's Theatre, Blackpool - Courtesy Dawn Hughes whose grandmother, Mrs. Edwards' second husband was Ted Foreshaw.

During the fifties BBC television did a series of excerpts from the summer shows called Blackpool Night produced by Barney Coleman and our turn came up at the South Pier. The shows were done live and after the successful transmission Jimmy called me over and said uncharacteristically "Son I want you to take all these lovely BBC people the artistes, band and all the stage staff up to the bar and buy them all a drink with me". When this crowd of more than fifty people knew it was notoriously mean Jimmy Brennan who was buying they went mad. Non drinkers were on treble scotches and the bill came to around £20. Jimmy sent for me to go up to the Queen's the following morning and told me that I had not kept proper control of them all and he had expected the bill to be around a tenner. He made me pay the extra £10 deducting a £1 a week from my wages over the next ten weeks. When Jack Taylor died in 1964 Jimmy was distraught. He was given the sad news in offices at the Deansgate Cinema offices. "That is terrible news, my oldest friend" He then called his secretary "Send a wreath to Jack Taylor's funeral not more than £2 mind you".

The site of the Queen's Theatre in 2003 - D.A.Jimmy died in the early sixties when times were changing and holiday makers starting to go abroad for their holidays. Control of the theatres and Cinemas passed to a brother who was not really interested in them and he sold them off one by one. The Queen's was demolished.

Left - The site of the Queen's Theatre in 2003 - D.A.

Even though he was a very very mean man Jimmy Brennan is still remembered affectionately in Blackpool.

A photograph printed in a 1938 Programme shows Norman Newman and the Tower Radio Band at the Tower Ballroom probably taken a year or more earlier.

Above - A photograph printed in a 1938 Programme shows Norman Newman and the Tower Radio Band at the Tower Ballroom probably taken a year or more earlier.

Jack Taylor was my uncle. My father died when I was 11 years old and I went to Jack for all my school holidays because my mother had to go out to work. It was a wonderful world to enter after the drabness of Dewsbury where I was born. Jack was born in Morecambe and apprenticed to be an electrician. He took an interest in theatre lighting which was in its infancy before the first world war and soon began to work full time in theatres. During the twenties he decided to go into management because he realised early on in life that you do not make big money working for someone else.

The Opera House in 1938, the year this programme was produced. The theatre was rebuilt by by Charles MacKeith in a much simpler 30s cinema style.He based himself in Blackpool and took an office in Birley Street that he kept until the end of his life. He began with small touring revues and pantomimes around the number three theatres in Yorkshire and Lancashire in the late twenties and soon got himself a reputation for quality and innovative lighting that he did himself. He was almost wiped out with the advent of talking pictures but at this time managed to procure the summer show contract at the old Central pier theatre.

The stage was small but with minimal scenery good costumes and clever lighting he prospered, at the same time he mounted a spectacular revue with a revolving stage that played around the number one Moss and Stoll tour, and became established as a top class producer.

In 1936 he produced, at the Opera house (Shown Right), a spectacular revue called King Fun, which starred George Formby. He did a second season at the Opera House too but he and the Blackpool Tower Company then parted company acrimoniously.

Right - The Opera House in 1938, the year this programme was produced. The theatre was later rebuilt by by Charles MacKeith in a much simpler 30s cinema style.

He was well established by this time with four spectacular revues touring the number one and good number two theatres, and six pantomimes scattered around Lancashire and Yorkshire. In addition he obtained the contract to produce the summer seasons at the New Regal Theatre on the South Pier. He put a number of Northern artistes on the road to fame and discovered Jimmy Clitheroe and Frank Randle along with Josef Locke in later years.

He never forgave the Tower Company over the break up over the New Opera house that he established for them and this disagreement was instrumental in him setting up and producing summer shows at the Hippodrome, which was originally built as a Cinema, and was 100 yards up the road from the Opera House. This house had been an ABC cinema for many years but thankfully the stage was intact so they were in business. There was no orchestra pit though and the band were placed on a kind of shelf near the stage at the side of the auditorium. He produced some very spectacular shows over a period of almost twenty years with some very big names and took away a lot of business from the Opera House.

After the war the auditorium of the Hippodrome, which was originally built as a Cinema, was looking very old fashioned and shabby and Jack hit on the idea of covering the interior with lavish drapes and calling it the Coconut Grove after the New York Night Club of the same name. It was a marathon job hanging the drapes and Jewel and Warris were topping the bill. I remember the night before the show opened we were up all night still hanging the drapes, even Jimmy Jewel was helping, complaining loudly about how late everything was running, but that was Jimmy he got involved in everything to do with productions that they were appearing in and always complained, but he was a great artiste and stage struck to the end.

Ben Warris was the exact opposite he was a happy fellow and just sailed in and out of the theatres and lived a very lavish life style. In addition a rumba band played on a gallery in the foyer as the audience came in and it was a great success for a number of years. Many stars topped the bill for Jack Taylor here including Tessie O'Shea. Jimmy James, George Formby, Frank Randle, Nat Jackley and Robert Wilson. Jack had a stroke in the late fifties and relinquished control of the Hippodrome shows to Tom Arnold.

The Regal Theatre on the South pier was Jack's first big Blackpool theatre and was his pet. The stage was inadequate but he made up for it with costumes and his lighting. He would take up to three days to light the show. He discovered Jimmy Clitheroe during the early war years and he appeared in many of Jack's shows. Jimmy was a miniature not a dwarf and although his brain grew up his body did not and he used to get very tired. I worked with him in later days of the sixties when his boyish facial features were starting to drop and he was very worried about it. In addition he followed a punishing work schedule with summer shows pantomimes, Spring and Autumn Shows at the Coventry Hippodrome and on the Moss Empire circuit, in addition to his radio series the Clitheroe Kid. He was accompanied everywhere by his mother. He did have a girl friend but she was tragically killed in a motor accident. When his mother died Jimmy mistakenly took an overdose of pills that he had been prescribed and died on the day of her funeral.

Site of the Regal Theatre South Pier Blackpool 2003 - D.A.

Above - Site of the Regal Theatre, South Pier Blackpool in 2003 - D.A.

Donald Peers was another regular bill topper at the South Pier as was Frank Randle, the enfant terrible of the Northern Variety Theatre. Jack First discovered Frank in the middle thirties when he was doing a comic strong man double act. He booked him as a single comedy act and gave him his big break in 'King Fun' at the Opera House where he was proving to be more popular than George Formby. This did not go down well with George or Beryl his wife and manager and the Tower Company did not want to offend George who was at his height as a star of stage and screen at this time. In fact Randle's treatment from these quarters helped to form his rebellious attitude to managements in his later life. Jack did his best for Frank but was out gunned from all sides and Frank Randle never did another summer season at the Opera House. This did not matter over much because there were plenty of venues only too happy to welcome him with open arms.

But Frank was mentally unstable a very sick man and could probably have received successful treatment in these present times but back in the forties and fifties there was nothing. He became unreliable and would stand at the back of the stalls and watch his understudy go on for him. His drinking became a great problem and he would smash up dressing rooms in drunken rages. He swore at the audience at the Shepherds Bush Empire and was banned from the Moss and Stoll tour. He was prosecuted many times in the Blackpool Magistrates Courts for breaking the Sunday observance laws and using material that was not licensed by the Lord Chamberlain and Jack Taylor was prosecuted along with him, being producer of the shows, and they both had to pay hefty fines a number of times.

He drove his car down the tram tracks after staying in his dressing room drinking until three o'clock in the morning at the Central Pier and collided with a tram that ran during the night sweeping the tracks. Jack had to finally let him go when Frank plucked a fire axe from the wall at the back of the stalls at the Hippodrome and chased him round the theatre shouting "I'll fettle thee Jack Taylor". In the mid fifties Randle was made bankrupt by the income tax authorities for non payment of tax for many years and was more or less unemployable but Jack Taylor kept an eye open for him right to the end.

Josef Locke was almost as much trouble and would go missing for days on end. One Christmas Jack had both of them in pantomime at the Hulme Hippodrome in Manchester. There were only four performances throughout the season when they were both on stage for a full show.

During the years after the war Roy Barbour had presented a concert party style entertainment along with a well loved local artiste Terry Wilson at the Central Pier. By 1950 names were needed in order to compete with the many other theatres in the town. Jack took the place over and decked it out with drapes like the Hippodrome. The theatre was small with a tiny stage but Jack produced a full blown production show starring Frankie Howard in conjunction with Henry Hall the well known band leader that played to capacity business for 16 weeks.

The next season he presented 'Thanks For The Memory', a co production with Don Ross. It starred legendary names from the Music Hall, such as Ella Sheils, Talbot O'Farrell, Gertie Gitana, G. H. Elliott and Randoph Sutton. This was my first season in Blackpool and I was given the job of call boy backstage. It was a wonderful introduction to the business for a twelve year old and they all spoilt me terribly. The next season was the final one for Jack both at the Central Pier and with a show starring Frank Randle. There was just too much trouble that summer and they finally parted company after the Hippodrome incident. The next year the Pier presented its own show and a new young comedian called Ken Dodd did his first starring role in a Blackpool Summer Season.

The down turn in touring variety and revue caused by the advent of television and many other factors took its toll on Jack. He refused to let the quality of the shows go down and would not introduce nudes as many other managers did into is shows. During the years 1954 to 1956 he lost a great deal of money. In 1955 he went on a final holiday with Jimmy Brennan and they decided to go to Hong Kong. Jack decided to have a suit made at one of the twenty four hour tailors but decided to give the tailor three days to make it in order to get a better fit. He went in to be measured in the morning and the first fitting was due in the afternoon. He and Jimmy - who was tall and thin, and Jack, short and fat, were sitting in a restaurant opposite the tailors shop - noticed that the staff changed shifts at lunchtime. So Jimmy went in to have Jack's fitting in the afternoon and the Tailor was to say the least perplexed. This continued over a period of three days by which time the poor tailors were suicidal. I understand the suit was never completed.

Jack had a stroke in 1958 from which he never recovered. He died a financially ruined man a year later. He is still remembered by many older people as Mr Blackpool including me.

George and Alfred Black were big London Producers and were responsible for the Tower Companies' shows for a period of twenty years after the war. They were brothers and wonderful men who knew the theatre backwards. The Opera house was one of the best equipped theatres in the country at the time with a large stage that had lifts in it . They are still there today. Spectacle and big names were the fare twice nightly for seventeen weeks. Ship wrecks, train crashes bursting dams and the San Francisco earth quake were all staged there. They were the most spectacular shows in the country and usually transferred to the London Palladium at the End of the season with star names such as Terry Thomas, Jewell and Warris and George Formby. The production budget in 1950 was £17,000 a fortune in those days.

They also presented the shows at the Winter Gardens Pavilion that were a little less spectacular because the stage was big and not quite so well equipped, with names such as Hylda Baker and Vic Oliver.

They had problems at the Grand Theatre for a few years in the late forties. Spectacular revues were presented there with names such as Jack Radcliffe, but the theatre is a Matcham built intimate house and the spectacle did not sit in there comfortably and audiences were sparse.

The Grand Theatre, Blackpool - From 1938 Programme

Above - The Grand Theatre, Blackpool - From 1938 Programme

They then hit on a formula that was a success for almost twenty years. North Country comedy plays such as 'The Love Match' with stars like Arthur Askey, Wilfred Pickles, Thora Hird, Freddie Frinton and Danny Ross packed the place for sixteen weeks twice nightly and the problem was solved.

The Palace complex housed a theatre, a cinema and a dance hall and was owned by the Tower Company. The Palace Theatre presented top twice nightly variety 52 weeks in the year and was very popular with the locals along with its cheerful manager Harold Mellors and musical director Charles Tovey.

For the price of admission to the theatre or the cinema you could then go along to the dance hall for the rest of the evening after the show had finished without paying a penny more.

The same conditions applied at the Opera House and Winter Gardens in Winter when number one tours of West End musicals used to visit alternating with films. When the film was showed you were still treated to twenty minutes of the resident ten piece orchestra under the direction of Eric Ogden during the interval.

The Palace Ballroom / Dance Hall - From a 1938 programme.

Above - The Palace Ballroom / Dance Hall - From a 1938 programme.

Francis Collins at the Palace Ballroom, Blackpool - Click for more on Francis CollinsThe Palace complex was the first to go and was completely demolished in the late fifties to make way for a super new Lewis's store, later to become a Woolworth's.

Right - Francis Collins at the Palace Ballroom, Blackpool - Click for more informaion on Francis Collins.

It was announced that the complex would close at the end of summer 1958 but George and Alfred Black would stage a last spectacular show there for that summer. Mike and Bernie Winters were low on the bill with their names about the same size as that of the printer. They did not go down well and only had ten minutes to establish themselves very early in the show. Many managements would have sacked them but George and Alf did not and they completed the season. But George and Alf would cruelly take their friends to the Palace saying come and watch these boys die.

The Blacks packed in the business when they were on top in 1966. Ken Dodd and the Bluebell Girls topped the last season for them. They could see the red light flashing for them when First Leisure were about to take over the Tower Company and got out whilst the going was good. They were a sad loss to the business.

The Blacks packed in the business when they were on top in 1966. Ken Dodd and the Bluebell Girls topped the last season for them. They could see the red light flashing for them when First Leisure were about to take over the Tower Company and got out whilst the going was good. They were a sad loss to the business.

The Tower Circus was a top attraction with a matinee and evening show Monday to Saturday for more than twenty weeks. Top Aerial acts acrobats and jugglers were there but the animals, who were very well looked after, reigned supreme.

There were Lions, Tigers, Bears, Horses and the elephants, who were taken for a long walk along the sands early every morning. Two fabulous Clowns, Charlie Carrioli and Paul were resident there for many years. The circus ring was able to be lowered and replaced with a water tank and a water ballet always finished the first half of the show. When First leisure took over they refused to come up with the money to have the filters regularly cleaned and for a number of years the ringmaster Norman Barrett undertook the job without payment but it was the end of the water spectacles, although the tank is still there. (Thankfully the Tower Circus water tank is back in operation nowadays and used regularly during performances, and is one of only two such working examples in the Country, the other being the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome - M. L. 2012)

The Tower Circus - From a 1938 Programme for the Blackpool Winter Gardens and Tower Complex

Above - The Tower Circus - From a 1938 Programme for the Blackpool Winter Gardens and Tower Complex

Lawrence Wright who was also a music publisher and popular song writer presented 'On With The Show' at the North Pier. This was a sophisticated Concert party type of entertainment in the style of the 'Fol De Rols' but had a full orchestra, a large company, and a star name, and was extremely popular. In addition Toni and the North Pier Light Orchestra played in the Sun Lounge twice a day and Jack Taylor presented a children's entertainment in the little theatre at the Pier entrance starring Charlie Parsons until the very end of his life.

Uncle Peter Webster who became an integral part of Blackpool did his first summer on the Central Pier in 1951 playing to an audience of 1,000 twice a day in the open air and in the theatre if wet. I used to stooge for him in the children's talent contest.

Up on the North Shore were the Derby Baths, an international size event swimming pool. For a number of years they produced an aqua spectacular here with thirty bathing beauties and Johny Weismuller, the star of many Tarzan Films.

There was the Ice show at the pleasure beach that still runs to this day and a repertory season at the Royal Pavilion Theatre across Lytham Road from the Manchester Hotel. This was presented by Jack Rose with hard working jobbing actors such as John Irvine and Herbert Ramskell. The fare was Northern comedies such as 'My Wife's Lodger' and thrillers like 'The Shop at Sly Corner'. Every season a terrible pot boiler called 'Reefer Girl' popped up and played to packed houses. The theatre is still there but is now an amusement arcade.

Finally up in Cleveleys, Mildred Crossly presented a concert party called 'Happiness Ahead' at the little Queen's Theatre, one of the young performers there in 1953 was called Roy Castle.

Blackpool was 'Wonderful Blackpool' indeed to a teenager in the early fifties, training to work in the profession that he loved.

The above article on Blackpool Theatres was written, and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site, by Donald Auty in 2003. Other articles by Donald Auty on this site are: A Stage Struck Man - A profile of Donald Auty - Those Variety days - Pantomime in the 1940s 1950s - Pantomime economics of 50 years ago - Summer at the Winter Gardens and Pavilion Bournemouth 1961- 67 - Working Newcastle's Palace Theatre in the 1950s - Bridlington Summer 1963 - Twighlight of the Touring Review - Moss Empires' Theatres in the Fifties.

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