CELEBRATING A CENTURY OF BRISTOL HIPPODROME, 1912-2012

 

A bustling late 1920s Bristol tramway centre in front of a florally-decorated Hippodrome. Seen to the immediate left of the theatre are two                             shops that became increasingly derelict, allowing it to mount hoardings advertising shows on their frontages.

ARCHIE Leach perhaps never imagined as a 13-year-old backstage callboy at the Hippodrome during World War One that one day his face would shine down from the silver screen on its patrons.

  Dazzled by the theatrical world, he deliberately got himself expelled from his Bristol school so he could join Bob Pender’s troupe of acrobats, and together they performed in major cities across Europe, the Middle East, Russia and China.

  During a tour of the United States he left the group to take up a career in acting and went on to become a household name as debonair film star Cary Grant.

  As Archie, he never performed on the Hippodrome stage with Pender, although did so at Bristol’s Empire theatre in Old Market. However, he had a far more glamorous presence at the Hippodrome during its cinema years 1932 to 1938.

  Audiences at the very theatre where he once told variety performers “you’re on in five minutes” now saw him as a Hollywood icon in six of his films - Devil and the Deep, Blonde Venus, Hot Saturday, Alice in Wonderland, Born to be Bad and The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss.

  Grant did in fact appear live at the Hippodrome later in life - but as an audience member. Pantomime comedian Wyn Calvin said: “Cary Grant used to bring his mother to the pantomime and sit in the stalls. I saw him several times. One year he brought his mother to my dressing room.

  “Peter Noone, who was starring in the pantomime, was thrilled to meet him. We had scenery that looked like it was off at a slant. Peter Noone asked Cary Grant what he thought of the three-dimensional scenery. Cary Grant said ‘Everything’s three-dimensional!’ So Peter asked what he thought of the [scenery’s] bent picture.”

  Enigmatically Grant replied: “That’s the story of my life”!

 

Oswald Stoll

Prince Littler

Pictured three months after opening, the Hippodrome frontage is shown sandwiched between a chemist’s shop and Brightman’s shoe shop. It is the week of March 17, 1913, and top of the bill is the very talented American “mind reader” Anna Eva Fay. On the                         bioscope this week is “animated putty”!

The Stoll Herald was a four-page pamphlet with amusingly-written articles about every variety act appearing the following week at the Hippodrome. Photographs of the main stars were included. Heralds were published at Stoll’s London head office for all of the company’s theatres to keep regular patrons informed of forthcoming attractions. Those for the Hippodrome first appeared in 1920 and             continued beyond its conversion to a cinema in 1932.

The Story of Bristol Hippodrome

Compiled by Jonathan Shorney

This website charts the rich history of Bristol Hippodrome, listing every one of the 4,400 shows, and more than 30,000 artistes, seen on its stage in the last 100 years. What are your memories of                        visiting the Hippodrome? Please use the Comment page to let us know.  

Continued

In use from February, 1926.

The Sands o’ Dee programme cover.

BRISTOL Hippodrome is 100 years old and its remarkable history reads like a Who’s Who of the British theatre.

 

  Most of the famous stars have performed there - from the music hall generation of Little Tich, G H Elliott and Vesta Victoria, to the legendary Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers and Morecambe and Wise. From Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn to John Gielgud and Richard Attenborough, the theatre has seen them all.

 

 

 

 

  It began as a venue of early variety and revue, was for a time a cinema, became a wartime morale-booster, staged the best drama, opera and ballet, hosted pop music and comedy stand-up and today rivals the West End for grand musicals.

  That it has done so with little fanfare, behind a modest frontage onto St Augustine’s Parade, makes it one of theatreland’s best-kept secrets.

  The Hippodrome was the brainchild of Oswald Stoll, a renowned theatre developer who had built the London Coliseum and many other theatres around the country offering a new form of entertainment to replace the ribald humour of seedy music halls.

  He pioneered the concept of variety, to which a man could take his fiancée without fear of causing her embarrassment.

  Bristol already had the Empire and People’s Palace, but Stoll’s vision was for something more up-market that spared no luxury, and it was seen as his greatest triumph outside London.

 

   The ornate building in Baroque style was the last major work by Frank Matcham, a brilliant architect with a long list of prestigious theatres to his credit, and cost £32,000 (£3 million today). Externally it looked far more impressive than it does now, with a tapered tower topped by four apocryphal ladies supporting a large revolving globe bearing the word Hippodrome in electric lights.

 

 

   

 

  In-keeping with Bristol’s maritime history, the interior entranceway took on a nautical theme, with rope mouldings, Elizabethan naval scenes and a ceiling depiction of Ariel from Shakespeare’s Tempest, calling up a storm. The auditorium, in white and gold, had rich pile velvet carpets, two huge ceiling murals of ocean nymphs and a roof dome on rails that could be hand-winched open for ventilation during hot summers.

 

  Today the theatre seats 1,951, impressively-raked, including 20 boxes; when it opened the figure was 1,870, but, with police regulations not strictly enforced, mass standing was allowed and the first press release claimed it could accommodate more than 3,000 people. If anyone found the standing room too crowded, they could get a refund. Separate box offices for the stalls, grand tier and balcony meant seats could be booked “without the mixing of the different classes”.  

  The pièce de résistance was a vast stage 80ft wide and 60ft deep with rear section that could be raised like a drawbridge and front part that slid back to reveal a central steel tank and side tanks that could be filled within a minute with 100,000 gallons of water.

 

  Four bridges spanning the full length of the central tank could be mechanically raised or lowered independently to create waves and a tank in the roof produced a waterfall effect. In front, a huge glass screen, 50ft long and 6ft deep, protected the orchestra and audience from spray.

 

  This was to be used for spectacular “aqua dramas” such as The Sands o’ Dee, the inaugural production on Monday, December 16, 1912, although “negro” singer impersonator Eugene Stratton topped the bill in the show, which began at 6.40pm after a champagne dinner on stage for invited guests. A front stalls seat cost two shillings, the equivalent of £8 today.

 

   

 

 

  The honour of being the Hippodrome’s first-ever turn fell to an artiste billed simply as Larola. He performed several difficult acrobatic feats and “plate manipulation” which drew the heartiest of applause, said one review.

 

   The evening’s highlight was The Sands o’ Dee, based on a poem by West Country clergyman Charles Kingsley, in which heroine Ruth Maitland, tied to a stake, was plucked from ever-rising waves by a hero who galloped into the tank of water on horseback. Quite what the horse made of this twice-nightly ritual is unknown, but Miss Maitland, up to her neck in cold water (when the heating equipment failed) every day for four weeks, caught a chill. Some time later a rumour went round that she had contracted double pneumonia and died, and she was amused to read her obituary notice in a newspaper. The horse was brought on at the end of each performance to share in the applause.

 

 

 

The main entrance steps in 1912.

  In the pit, the Hippodrome’s 24-piece orchestra was conducted by house musical director Howard W Galpin. Every show included several minutes’ viewing of flickering images on the bioscope, featuring such diverse subjects as major sporting events, rearing greyhounds and gathering rubber in Indo-China, and the evening rounded off with God Save the King. Stoll ensured theatregoers would not miss their last trams home once the entertainment was over, printing a timetable in every programme.

  For all its high standards, the early Hippodrome was not above bold inducements to fill seats. There were “novelty gift weeks” during which 1,500 gifts were given away at each performance, and Christmas payments of up to £100 for the most frequent patrons of different parts of the house. Free copies of the words and music of a popular song were sometimes handed out.

 

Musical director Howard Galpin.

  Within a year of opening, W C Fields headlined, but probably as “just” a juggler, one reviewer marvelling at his dexterity with hands and feet. Another early coup was the appearance of famous French tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt, and she appeared again in 1916, although this time was probably seated throughout because of disability.

 

  In World War One, the Hippodrome adopted a patriotic role, decorating the auditorium with grand tableaux of Britain and her Allies, serving as a platform for rallying speeches from civic leaders, raising funds for war charities and entertaining wounded soldiers and a beleaguered public.

 

  All the big stars filled the war-time repertoire: forces’ sweetheart Gertie Gitana, whose signature tune was Nellie Dean, male impersonator Ella Shields, who sang Burlington Bertie from Bow in top hat and tails, and equally-famous male impersonator Hetty King (who, in a rather odd clash, shared the bill with Shields in 1923).

 

  Lancashire comedian George Formby (as acclaimed as his ukulele-playing son would later become), Wilkie Bard, noted for a bald head and black spot above each eye, 4ft 6ins-tall Little Tich, with his absurdly-long shoes, midget comedian Wee Georgie Wood and intense character actor Bransby Williams played to packed houses.

 

  There were the sensational water dramas, an array of productions by impresario Fred Karno who had taught Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel their trade, and visits from leading actresses Lillie Langtry, billed deferentially as Mrs Langtry, Ellen Terry and Edith Evans. Despite reservations about her racy songs, queen of the music halls Marie Lloyd appeared three times, perhaps because of her enthusiastic support for recruitment into the army.

 

 

 

 

   George Robey, dubbed the Prime Minister of Mirth, was an early post-war favourite and went on to take the lead in the pantomime Robinson Crusoe during the next world war. Some acts became real stalwarts, including Hetty King’s husband Ernie Lotinga, an enormously popular singer-comedian who appeared no fewer than 15 times, usually as unlikely war hero Jimmy Josser in full-length sketches.

   “Never work with children or animals” seems yet to have become a showbusiness maxim, for many performers did just that, to great acclaim. Performing sea lions, pigeons, cats, dogs and rats were regularly on the bill, quite apart from when a week’s programme was given over entirely to a circus, with elephants, lions, bears, horses, ponies, zebras - and often an unrideable mule - traipsing where perhaps an opera singer or ballerina had been the week before. One extraordinary animal act, The Hollywood Monkeys Max, Moritz and Akka, amazed everyone by roller-skating, boxing, trick cycling and wire and stilt walking.

 

   One of the century’s biggest coups was the appearance in 1922 of The Four Marx Brothers on their first visit to Britain, where they performed in only Bristol, London and Manchester. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo (appearing at that time under their real names Julius H, Arthur, Leonard and Herbert) sang and danced in a two-scene comedy sketch called Home Again, about an Atlantic voyage, with Harpo’s harp playing a delight and at the end the brothers being re-called.

 

  The 1920s was a golden decade for the Hippodrome, with Gracie Fields, Robb Wilton, Cicely Courtneidge, Gertrude Lawrence and the Tiller Girls among the many star attractions. Singers Gladdy Sewell, Whit Cunliffe, Talbot O’Farrell and Albert Whelan featured, as did comedians Harry Tate, Sandy Powell and Ernie Mayne. Comedy duos Nervo and Knox and Naughton and Gold, who later went on to form the Crazy Gang, appeared, as would Flanagan and Allen and “Monsewer” Eddie Gray, who completed the Gang, in the next decade.

 

  One of America’s enduring comic partnerships, husband-and-wife team George Burns and Gracie Allen, turned up in 1929 “with neat cross-talk and delightful dances”.

 

 

 

 

  But a change in entertainment tastes was sweeping the country with the arrival of “talkies”. Although Bristol was awash with cinemas, the Hippodrome began to dabble in the new medium, mixing variety with the showing of films in September 1929.

 

   Initially this was a comedy short called Miss Information with Edward Everett Horton, but was followed two weeks later by This is Heaven, a full-length 90-minute feature starring Vilma Banky, which, while mostly silent, did include talking sequences. Meanwhile the bioscope, with updated projector, began featuring the new British Movietone News, an early clip showing George Bernard Shaw speaking at Malvern.

 

  The Hippodrome persisted with variety for the next three years and staged its first pantomime, Dick Whittington and his Cat, in 1931, although with a later-than-traditional start, on January 19.

 

  Educational films aimed at youngsters were shown on Saturday mornings, admission 6d. But the demand was irresistible and a complete conversion to cinema came in October 1932.

  Approval was not unanimous. The Empire had made the switch the year before, leaving Bristol without a variety house, and at the end of the Hippodrome’s last night of live entertainment a near-riot broke out.

 

  Every act had been received with tumultuous cheering and a waving of programmes, hats and sticks, and when the final curtain fell no one was in a mood to go home.

 

  A crowd surged towards the stage demanding a speech from the manager, who emerged amid a shower of programmes to hold out hope that one day variety might return. Everyone linked hands to sing Auld Lang Syne before finally departing, but an unruly core had to be frogmarched from the building.

 

 

 

  

  Protest letters flooded into the local press and an Evening Post editorial deeply regretted the change-over and offered sympathy to Hippodrome staff facing redundancy. These included the large orchestra and stagehands, although Mr Galpin had retired as conductor two years earlier and there was hope the orchestra would stay together.

 

  After the physical conversion, which took a week, the Hippodrome re-opened showing African jungle film Congorilla, described as an exploration documentary “replete with thrills, adventures and laughs”. The switch proved successful, with crowds drawn to the “Super Talkie Cinema” for all the big films of the day, such as King Kong, Top Hat, It Happened One Night and Scarface, supported by Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Mickey Mouse shorts and newsreel.

  George VI’s Coronation Day speech was relayed to the Hippodrome at 8pm on May 12, 1937, and front-of-house staff wore Coronation pinnies. For the next two weeks the main feature was Technicolor newsreel of the event, with, in the first week, 20 minutes of the Westminster Abbey service in black and white. Two months earlier the Hippodrome had declared a West Country first in upgrading to Mirrophonic Sound, said to be the last word in film sound equipment.

 

 

 

 

  However, after showing films for six years, and with 29 cinemas in the Bristol area now competing for a decreasing number of new releases and forced to screen countless re-runs, the demand for variety was rekindled. With the advent of ice shows adding to the attraction, Stoll decided the Hippodrome would revert to its former use.

 

  And so after Manhattan Melodrama, a four-year-old film starring Clark Gable, as its cinematic swan song in July 1938, the Hippodrome closed for a week of renovations before re-opening on August Bank Holiday Monday as a variety theatre.

 

  Before the curtain rose on the first night the new orchestra heralded in the change with Happy Days are Here Again. Scottish comedy actress Renee Houston, a Hippodrome regular with her sister Billie, headed the line-up with new partner and husband-to-be Donald Stewart, an accomplished American singer.

 

  A good stalls seat now cost 2/6d, equivalent to £6 today - effectively cheaper than when the Hippodrome opened in 1912, the result of cinema price competition.

 

  Variety was back in business and over the next year bookings included firm favourites George Robey, Stanley Holloway, Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, and black singing star Leslie A Hutchinson, affectionately known as Hutch.

 

   A new attraction that would carry on throughout World War Two was a type of early X-Factor, in which talent scout and broadcaster Carroll Levis introduced his “BBC Discoveries” - amateur performers who had passed auditions. When Levis returned in 1957 the best of the locally-recruited talent who appeared at the Hippodrome had the bonus of being selected for his ITV series.

  Two other junior performers destined for the television big-time appeared during this run-up to war - singer Ernie Wise, two years before partnering Eric Morecambe, and Hughie Green, already a radio star at 19 and future host of popular quiz Double Your Money. And 1939 saw the Hippodrome debut of 18-year-old singer Betty Driver, who was barmaid Betty Williams in Coronation Street until her death at 91 in 2011.

 

  A temporary move back to cinema was made for the holiday season in June and July 1939, but variety returned in August. Unlike in 1914, the theatre in common with others closed by Government decree at the start of World War Two, but the authorities soon relented and allowed them to re-open.

  Once again the Hippodrome rose to the challenge of boosting morale with some of the richest entertainment Bristol had seen. Noel Coward starred in a triple bill of Present Laughter, This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit before London got to see them. Robertson Hare featured in the farce Aren’t Men Beasts, and a top cast headed by John Gielgud, Yvonne Arnaud and Leslie Banks appeared in the period comedy Love for Love.

 

  The Hippodrome had staged pantomimes before, but it was not until the Prince’s Theatre, venue of perhaps the best, was destroyed in an air raid in 1940 that it took over the role in earnest. Mother Goose, with George Lacy, Robinson Crusoe, with George Robey, record-breaking Cinderella, with Duggie Wakefield, and Wakefield’s return the next year in Aladdin, kept families entertained throughout war-time Christmases and were the big money-spinners.

 

 

 

 

  Sir Adrian Boult conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Covent Garden Opera performed Hansel and Gretel and Margot Fonteyn danced with Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Violinist Stephane Grappelly and pianist George Shearing made a formidable jazz double, and there were visits from comedy legends Sid Field, Flanagan and Allen, Tommy Trinder and Arthur Askey.

 

  The great Sir Oswald Stoll, who had been knighted in 1919, died in 1942 and his empire was bought by another theatre impresario, Prince Littler, who kept the Stoll name and became chairman.

 

 

 

  Several plays were produced by Littler’s talented, “hands-on” brother Emile, including the operetta Song of Norway, which had its European premiere at the Hippodrome in 1945, The Belle of New York, which he co-wrote, Maid of the Mountains and The Quaker Girl.

 

  By 1947 Prince had also become chairman of the rival Moss Empires chain of theatres, and in 1960 he merged the two and created Stoll Moss Theatres Ltd, which then ran the theatre. There was no finer pedigree than Stoll Moss - it was the number one theatrical circuit which artistes strove to enter.

  Shortly after the war ended, the Hippodrome received its only visit from forces’ sweetheart Vera Lynn and the first of two from Laurel and Hardy, whose 25-minute act had audiences rolling in the aisles. Big band fans were spoilt for choice, with offerings from Primo Scala and Henry Hall and the novelty of Sunday evening concerts with the likes of Oscar Rabin, Nat Gonella and Sid Millward and a string of ex-forces’ dance orchestras.

  From the outset the Hippodrome had elegant tea rooms but repeated applications for a bar licence were turned down after objections from local publicans. It was finally granted permission to serve alcohol in 1946. But this good news was soon followed by tragedy.

  It was sadly ironic for the Hippodrome to have survived the war almost unscathed only to be partly destroyed by a massive fire during the pantomime run of Babes in the Wood in 1948. The blaze began at 1pm on Monday, February 16 after stagehands had left for lunch, and completely obliterated the stage area, including the famous water tank, and what one critic considered the best scenery he had seen.

 

 

 

 

  Miraculously, the auditorium was largely saved, thanks to swift action by the fire service, and no one was seriously injured, but it threw nearly 100 employees out of work and put the theatre beyond use for the next ten months. An investigation concluded that a discarded cigarette or match had probably caused the fire.

 

  A Herculean effort was mounted to re-open the theatre in time for the next pantomime season, involving re-building and improvements and a re-decoration of the auditorium in orange and gold. Those efforts paid off and comedian Ted Ray topped the bill in Cinderella on Christmas Eve, 1948, but it would be the most serious interruption in a century of the theatre’s history.

 

  Despite post-war austerity and ration books, the Hippodrome prospered, variety being mixed with tried-and-tested Broadway hits such as Carousel, Can-Can and the British premiere of Guys and Dolls, which saw Stubby Kaye bring the house down as Nicely-Nicely Johnson.

 

  Tony Britton emulated Rex Harrison in the lead role of My Fair Lady, which ran for a record 19 weeks, Jack Buchanan headlined in The King’s Rhapsody, and different plays featured stage greats Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Tyrone Power and Anna Neagle.     

 

  Long-run water shows became the rage and The Sands o’ Dee was closely followed by six more within three years. Their originality and daring could only be admired: The Flood saw horses and cattle dive into the water, intrepid canoeists braved the rapids from a great height in The Redskin, water burst in from the back of the stage bringing down houses in Very Soft, and in Say When a submarine surfaced to disgorge a singing sailor.

 

  The Hippodrome considered itself a cut above tawdry music hall. It prided itself on refined entertainment and in programmes quoted English poet Joseph Addison: “Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more - deserve it.”

 

 

  The mainstay was twice-nightly variety, in which up to ten acts came on in turn without compère or announcement, their programme number showing on indicators at the wings. Now and again revues were staged, which comprised topical sketches and chorus girls, based around one loose theme for the entire performance.

  Unusually, “call balconies” were provided beneath the number indicators - coves in the shape of a ship’s prow, with Britannia holding dolphins as figurehead. Artistes received applause there rather than on stage, saving time in setting scenery for the next turn. The topless Britannias would become the butt of many a comedian’s jokes.

  When glamorous film star Margaret Lockwood appeared in a record-breaking national tour of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, crowds besieged the stage door afterwards for a closer look. In 1958 celebrated crime writer Agatha Christie sat in the front row of the dress circle to see the world premiere of her latest play The Unexpected Guest, which received a rapturous reception.

 

  Audiences enjoyed ice revues, top opera and ballet and there were the stirrings of a new generation of popular singers, such as Dickie Valentine, Lena Horne, Frankie Vaughan and Ruby Murray. A hundred teenage fans smashed the glass in the stage door to get a glimpse of American pop star Guy Mitchell, pictured right.

 

  But such hysteria wasn’t confined to youngsters. At the end of a show starring singer Donald Peers, an army of middle-aged housewives hammered for him on the door, leaving one reviewer baffled by the appeal of hardly a glamour boy at the ripe age of 42.

When Britain went to war on August 4, 100 years ago, a farcical musical comedy, Do it Now, was being staged at the Hippodrome as the main attraction. Among other stars that week was singer J H Scotland, who by chance would also be at the theatre in the week of the 1918 Armistice.

 

From the Bristol Times and Mirror:

 

  There were crowded houses last night and the excellent programme should prove a very attractive one, judging by the hearty reception which it received. Do it Now is a highly diverting story of a young spendthrift who loses his fortune in gambling and resolves to commit suicide, but is too timid. He therefore enters into a compact with a friend to kill him and attribute his death to an accident. The friend takes the thing as a joke, but after his fortune mends the spendthrift goes in horrible dread that the friend will at an unexpected moment carry out his undertaking. This leads to screamingly funny business, as the spendthrift (a part taken with conspicuous success by Mr Geoffrey Saville) suspects everyone is the disguised friend, and suspects traps for his death in food and drink.

 

 Maud Rochez, with her Monkey Music Hall, provides a capital turn. Her monkeys do a lot of clever things, and the conductor of the band is very amusing. Les Videos do some astonishingly clever things on skates. J H Scotland sang old songs well, and his Up from Somerset dialect song was especially popular, the patriotic verse with reference to the “codger boys” going to help the King naturally evoking loud applause owing to its special appropriateness at this time.

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