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Electric slide back in time with Stephanie Cottle and take a look at one of Blackpool’s historic buildings.
Since the government announced further easing of COVID restrictions you may have noticed some curious creatures emerging from hibernation. No, I’m not talking about the return of the stag and hen parties, but rather a merry band of local thespians. Stretching out their long-rested legs, the colourful cohort have been taking to the streets of Blackpool and providing visitors to the town centre with some much needed fun and theatrics. But where are these captivating characters coming from? If you’ll allow me to explain, I’ll make a short story long, leading you down the rabbit hole and back in time.
This particular story begins on the 12th of December 1912. Since the implementation of the railways in the mid 1800s Blackpool has become an increasingly popular holiday destination and is playing host to all manner of tourists from across the UK. After a day of extravagant Christmas shopping on Queen Street the wealthier of these holidaymakers are now suited and booted. Looking to fill their evenings with entertainment their carriages are arriving at Blackpool’s latest attraction, the brand new Princess Electric Theatre.

Electric theatres, or cinemas as we now know them, offered an inventive and relatively cheap way of providing entertainment to the masses throughout the Victorian era, with moving film quickly becoming the most popular form of visual entertainment of the time. As the years moved on and cinematic experience evolved, for a fairly small fee the big screen provided a glimpse of the spectacular. Somewhat of a spectacle itself by 1912, it is only fitting that Blackpool does cinema in style.

Situated on Albert Terrace and seating 905 in total, the Princess Electric, in comparison to the two other picture houses already established in Blackpool (The Hippodrome on Church Street and the Imperial Picture Palace on Dickson Road), was certainly the most prestigious of the three. Red plush velvet seats, state of the art equipment and a programme of historical, dramatic and educational pictures saw a steady stream of spectators heading to the building.

Let’s move forward to 1920, after a successful opening and almost a decade of healthy operation, the freshly formed Blackpool Entertainments Ltd, purchased the Princess Electric Theatre alongside the adjacent Metropole Assembly building. The new organisation advertised shares in The Todmorden Advertiser on the 3rd of January 1920, with further advertisements appearing in Sheffield and Burnley newspapers. Looking to improve the experience of its patrons, Blackpool Entertainments Ltd employed the skills of prolific local architect Halstead Best. His designs saw the already grandiose Princess Electric enlarged and by the time the cinema reopened on the 10th of July 1922 the capacity reached 1,770-seats. In addition a new Brindley & Forster 2Manual/20Stops organ was also installed. However well laid the plans were, the ownership of The Princess Electric was not to stay in the hands of Blackpool Entertainments Ltd too long.

In 1929 the building was taken over by Associated British Cinema and renamed ABC North Shore. The Hippodrome on Church Street, which was bought by the same group, was largely demolished and replaced by a new ABC Theatre. As the Hippodrome did, the ABC Theatre continued to focus upon showing live theatre shows, leaving ABC North Shore the pick of the films.
On the 27th of June 1963, disaster struck the ABC North Shore as fire broke out. Luckily damage to the building was mainly smoke related and the cinema reopened several weeks later. After the fire, the ABC North Shore was equipped with a 70mm projector, yet despite the modernisation attendance numbers fell. In the 1970s the seating capacity of the cinema was decreased to 1,173. This, alongside the seating in the ABC Church Street being tripled in 1981, meant the ABC North Shore became surplus to requirements. One year before its 70th birthday the cinema was closed.
By this time the once elegant and refined Princess Electric looked more shabby than suave though that was of little consequence to the next crowd through its doors. Warmly adopting the weather-worn space, folks from the Blackpool punk scene occupied and rebranded it The Venue. With a now rough and ready aesthetic the music venue hosted alternative artists, most notably New Order, who played on the 30th of August 1981 with tickets sold at £2.50 each. Unfortunately The Venue also closed its doors after only 12 months.

After the reverberation of electric guitars fell silent, the building hosted an indoor market. The huge change in operation saw multiple amendments made to the interior of the building. The staggered seating was removed and the lower floors levelled. But again, the market operated for only a short amount of time.

The quick turnovers of ownership would be typical for businesses occupying the space in years to come. As the building passed through different hands, the attractive Hathernware faience tiled facade faded further and the grandeur of the building became merely a memory. Barely noticed, tucked just out of sight from the livelier parts of town, the building then stood unoccupied for some years.

 

Unlike some of the other historical buildings in Blackpool this one resisted the heavy hand of demolition and remained quietly confident that voices would fill its rooms again. In October 1992, The Bizness ‘pubarama’ opened its doors and flooded the building with individuals. In striking contrast to the heavily regulated behaviour of the earliest attendees to the building, the patrons of the 90s wanted booze, bouncing and belly laughs.

By the late-90s it became another club, The Waterfront, followed by Sanuk and then Club Domain. I’m not sandgrown, so unfortunately I never had the privilege of attending any of these establishments but I have heard numerous tales of late night frivolity going on within those four walls. Most of the people I’ve discussed these clubs with remember them fondly, dancing, laughing and attempting to traverse the building’s many steps in six-inch heels. There may be the odd shudder from person to person but I’m chalking that up to recollected hangovers. As BierKeller in 2017-18 it saw it’s last customer stagger outside at 6am and the building fell silent once more.

Hey look, we’re almost back to present day. In 2020, whilst we were all stuck indoors the team at The Electric Sunshine Project – a community theatre company formed in Blackpool and headed by Melanie Claire Whitehead – began to (Covid-securely) whittle away restoring the building. Uncovering original elements of our ‘princess of north shore’ by cleaning, painting, buffing and upholstering, the team worked hard throughout the pandemic year to revitalise the rich history embedded within the fabric of this once glorious building. Within 12 months a band of volunteers have filled the empty walls with art and renovated the abandoned dance floor whilst uncovering and preserving remnants of the past. Reborn as The Old Electric, the space is now safe and fit to use again.
In fact, it’s already providing a range of engaging activities both online and in person – the space is filled with voice, sound and light. Dancers once again groove across the floorboards and singers fill the air with good vibrations. What’s more is that recently the building has again hosted films with Bom Carrot’s Korean cinema nights giving Blackpool a taste of world culture.

After all their hard work getting the space ready to welcome audiences, the volunteers have turned their attention to the stage. Wonderland, the first full-scale production to be hosted at The Old Electric, is an immersive theatre experience full of topsy-turvy tales. So, if you spot a white rabbit or a parading dodo on the promenade, they have more than likely popped out of the rabbit hole on Springfield Road. The group is always welcoming new members, so why don’t you see where the rabbit hole leads for yourself?

Visit The Old Electric at Springfield Rd, Blackpool FY1 1QW
Or check out the website: theoldelectric.co.uk

A special and very big thank you to Anne Cameron for the archival information that I have used within this article.

Header image: aerial view of Princess Cinema, July 1932. Credit http://cinematreasures.org/

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  • Stephanie Cottle is currently a research student at UCLan working alongside the curatorial partnership In Certain Places. Her practice investigates place & the everyday experiences of the North West of England.

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