A very happy birthday to two Grand -in name and design – theatres which, thanks to the support of local audiences and the efforts of staunch supporters, have both withstood the ravages of time to survive and emerge as much-loved venues for the 21st century.
Swansea Grand Theatre turns 123
On 26th July, Swansea Grand Theatre celebrated its 123rd birthday.
The theatre opened in 1897 – the year Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published, the word ‘computer’ was first used, the first Boston Marathon was held, Enid Blyton was born, Brahms died, the Klondike gold rush started, the pencil sharpener was patented, the Tate Gallery opened and Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee!
Erected on the site of the former Drill Hall it was designed for proprietors H H Morell and F Mouillot by architect William Hope of Newcastle, built by D Jenkins and opened by Madame Adelina Patti – a locally resident operatic diva.
In 1968, the Swansea Grand was threatened with closure but, following a campaign led by its manager and artistic director John Chilvers, the theatre was saved. The Swansea Corporation (City Council) leased the building in May 1969 and bought it outright in 1979. The theatre was then refurbished and updated between 1983 and 1987 at a cost of £6.5m. A further £1m was spent on an Arts Wing which opened in 1999, and the opening ceremony was performed by Catherine Zeta Jones. The City and County of Swansea continues to own, manage and fund the building today.
Its opening ceremony on 26th July 1897 was certainly grand. Baroness Adelina Nicolini (Patti) travelled down by train from her home at Craig Y Nos to open the theatre. She arrived at Midland Railway Station, and was then taken by horse drawn carriage through the city, passing the then Star Theatre and the empty Theatre Royal, finally arriving at the Grand. The streets were lined with hundreds of well-wishers hungry for a look at the Opera Diva.
Blackpool Grand Theatre is 126
The Grand was designed on a prime site by Victorian master theatre architect Frank Matcham and was opened on 23rd July 1894. Hailed as ‘Matcham’s masterpiece’, it was reported to have been built in just nine months at a cost of £20,000 to a brief by owner Thomas Sorgensen to build him “the prettiest theatre in the land”. It is believed to be the first design in which Matcham used his cantilevered approach to the tiers , enabling a column-free wide spanning auditorium and an unrestricted view from every seat.
The theatre opened with a production of Hamlet with Wilson Barrett in the starring role. The programme was printed on pure silk and perfumed with ‘Tower Bouquet’ by a chemist in Church Street.
The opening of Blackpool Grand catapulted it into the number one circuit , able to attract famous actors, spectacular musicals and high-class opera. Stars such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtree, Beerbohm Tree, Seymour Hicks and Mrs Patrick Campbell all appeared here before Sergenson sold out to the Tower Company for £47,500 in 1909. The Tower Company then owned the Theatre until 1968.
In the twenties the Blackpool Grand became famous for staging operetta and big American musicals like Rose Marie, The Desert Song and No No Nanette. Great stars, including Evelyn Laye, Carl Brisson, Tallulah Bankhead, Matheson Lang, Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert, appeared at The Grand in this decade and many were to continue to tour throughout the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.
The sixties saw a serious decline in the theatre’s fortunes and had it not been for achieving listed status- thanks to members of the Friends Group and the Victorian Society, would certainly have been lost. Thankfully now listed Grade II* and beautifully restored, the venue continues to delight audiences well into its second century.