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”!
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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
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.