Birmingham Hippodrome has survived a string of owners, more than one makeover and even a German bomb. Nick Smurthwaite looks back at the theatre’s history and the famous faces that have graced its stage
One of the busiest theatres in the country, Birmingham Hippodrome regularly exceeds the 600,000 mark in annual attendance.
But it wasn’t always so popular. More than a century ago, when local brothers James and Henry Draysey (successful bookies and property developers) built a 3,000-seat theatre in Hurst Street – then known as the Tower of Varieties and Circus – adjoining the Assembly Rooms, it lasted just five weeks.
The Draysey brothers modelled their theatre on the Tower Circus in Blackpool, intending to produce circus as well as variety and concerts, with a circular floor that could be lowered and filled with water for aquatic-themed shows.
The most eye-catching architectural feature of the original theatre was an onion-shaped, Moorish-style tower, illuminated by electricity to draw attention to this new place of entertainment.
The existing 11 theatres and music halls in Birmingham already boasted loyal patrons, and after a bright start the Tower experienced a box office slump so catastrophic that it was forced to close.
Nine months later it reopened as the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, under the management of Thomas Barrasford, who owned a number of other regional venues in Leeds and Hull. The building looked the same from the outside, but inside the auditorium had been transformed from circus-style in-the-round to the more traditional proscenium arch.
It wasn’t until 1903 that it became the Birmingham Hippodrome, presenting twice-nightly music hall.
One of the best-loved attractions in the early days was Fred Karno and his company, which featured the talented newcomers Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Some four decades later, Laurel and Hardy headlined the Hippodrome bill on three separate occasions.
In 1924, the theatre was sold to the mighty Moss Empires, the leading theatre owners of the time, and underwent further refurbishments and improvements, including a steep, fan-shaped circle, and a reduction in seating capacity to 1,900. A ballroom with a live band operated where the circle restaurant is now.
A German incendiary bomb shattered the roof in 1940, but the Hippodrome’s in-house firefighter was able to extinguish the fire that followed and limit the damage. The neighbouring Empire theatre was less fortunate and went up in smoke the same night.
Miraculously the onion-shaped tower survived the Nazi onslaught, but it was taken down in 1960 for safety reasons. There have been numerous changes and upgrades to the exterior over the years, including a pink and white fibre glass façade in the 1980s, and a decade later, the glass frontage that exists today.
The rise of pop and rock in the 1950s and 1960s caused a big shift away from the pre-war, twice-nightly mixed variety programmes to shows headlined by the likes of Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde.
Pantomime also became one of the Hippodrome’s most lucrative attractions and has remained so – a run usually lasts until the end of February, as with this season’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Moss Empires sold the freehold to the City of Birmingham for £50,000 in 1979, and the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust was established to safeguard its future. Yet another major programme of work began, with improvements to the stage, the flytower, dressing rooms, orchestra pit, auditorium, front of house, heating and ventilation systems.
By this time, the Welsh National Opera had established a residency, bringing its world-class productions to the Hippodrome twice a year – in March and November – usually performing three shows in repertory.
‘We have one of the biggest and best pantos outside the Palladium’ – Sophie Lewis
Equally prestigious is the presence of the Birmingham Royal Ballet – an offshoot of the London-based Royal Ballet – which has been based at the Hippodrome since 1990. As well as staging three productions there a year, including perennial crowd favourite The Nutcracker, the BRB offers public workshops and pre-show discussions.
In the late 1990s, the Hippodrome, the BRB and the charity DanceXchange brought about an overhaul of the theatre’s public and backstage areas, as well as the addition of a 200-seat studio theatre, dance studios and offices, and a centre for the treatment of dance injuries. The project won a Royal Institute of British Architects award in 2002.
Though he is a Londoner, actor and comedian Brian Conley has a great fondness for the Hippodrome and its audience, describing it as his favourite theatre outside the capital. In 2015, while playing the lead in the musical Barnum, he celebrated his 600th performance at the venue, having previously appeared in Jolson, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Oliver!, Hairspray, and six pantomimes.
Archivist Sophie Lewis, attempting to define what makes the Hippodrome such an ongoing success, says: “We’re open all year round, with no dark days, we have one of the biggest and best pantos outside the [London] Palladium, we have two world-class residencies, and we have a wonderful, loyal audience.”
The Draysey brothers would probably have been astonished and delighted by their legacy.
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