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Herald History: What a Grand old place it was

By Tamworth Herald  |  Posted: January 04, 2012

  • IMPOSING BUILDING: Tamworth's Grand Theatre in George Street was used mostly as a cinema.

  • LAST FILM: In 1958 the classic Hammer horror film 'Dracula', starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, ended 43 years of celluloid escapism at the Grand.

  • TERRACOTTA BEAUTY: The Grand Goddess, which once stood on top of the old theatre, is now on display at Tamworth Castle Museum.

  • IT'S REPLACEMENT: A row of three nondescript shop premises with flats above was built on the site of the old theatre.

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WHEN the late celebrated British movie actor Peter Cushing plunged a sharpened stake into the evil heart of Christopher Lee in the classic Hammer horror film Dracula, a treasured piece of old Tamworth also bit the dust.

For as the Grand Theatre's moth-eaten red velvet curtain closed, signalling culmination of the evening performance of Saturday, October 4, 1958, patrons knew they had witnessed the end of screen entertainment at the imposing George Street building

No longer would great Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, John Wayne, James Stewart, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davies and Errol Flynn light up the screen with their dazzling performances.

And no longer would the long queue, often stretching as far as College Lane, shuffle forward towards the impressive marble steps.

Sometimes affectionately referred to as the 'Flea Pit', older readers may recall the aged 'keen on his job' commissionaire, Mr Cotterill, who, dressed in a mulberry-coloured uniform with gold trim, lined up patrons in strict military order.

Nobody dared to take a false step – but most enjoyed it.

It had all been so different when the Grand opened in a blaze of glory just 43 years earlier.

The First World War was nine months old when the theatre – beautifully constructed of pressed red brick with Gibbs and Canning terra-cotta facings – was opened by Mr F A Newdegate, MP for Tamworth Division.

For that special occasion on Wednesday, May 19, 1915, a matinee in aid of Serbian sick and wounded, a film was taken of the ceremony and shown on the screen a few days later.

What a priceless piece of local history this would be if the film had survived.

Projected by American equipment, the first black and white movies to flicker through the darkness were For The Empire, His New Profession, and a Graphic newsreel taken from 'the seat of the war'.

Built and originally owned by local businessman Charles Dent, the Grand stood opposite what is today Ankerside's wrought-iron canopy entrance in George Street.

It was crowned by a Gibbs and Canning 7ft statue of a classical muse representing 'the Arts'. She stood with her arms raised, originally supporting a spherical lamp.

The statue is today on show in the Castle Museum.

The price of seats for the new cinema were 9d in the balcony and 3d, 4d and 6d in the hall. A reserved seat cost 1s.

Meanwhile up the street at the Palace the lowest price was 2d, and soldiers in uniform were admitted for half price.

Within the Grand's sturdy walls the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Laurel and Hardy and Douglas Fairbanks Snr made audiences laugh and cry in a magical celluloid world of thrills and adventure.

Transport being what it was, both the Grand and the Palace were proud of their boast of splendid accommodation for cycles and prams, and at the Grand tea and refreshments were served by request during the performance.

Previously rented from Mr Dent, the Grand was acquired by the Thornburn family in 1946. They already owned the nearby Palace Cinema.

Local youngsters spent many pleasant hours cheering the heroes and booing the villains in popular serials – the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy and Flash Gordon being particularly popular.

The cacophony of noise could be deafening.

And such was the great suspense and excitement that youngsters were invariably on the edge of their seats – even tearing the buttons from clothing as tension mounted.

Then, just when some hapless young girl was tied to the railway track and the train was fast approaching; or was clinging by her fingertips to the edge of a crumbling cliff; or our hero was facing hundreds of merciless, bloodthirsty Apaches with no means of escape – on the screen would flash 'do not fail to see next week's exciting episode!'

Running the Grand efficiently took 15-20 people, but capacity seating was only 644, nearly 200 of which were accommodated in a large balcony.

Often, the boys hadn't paid to get in – a mate had let them in via the gent's toilet situated along a side entry.

This great landmark building was demolished in 1958 and replaced by a row of three anonymous shops of little architectural quality.

Precious few photographs of Tamworth's Grand Theatre have survived, but the few grainy images that have made it down the years are a reminder of one of Tamworth's most imposing landmarks – an irreplaceable building that well deserved its Grand name.

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