By 1910 motion pictures were the new entertainment and the latest owners of the Hippodrome switched from Variety to cater for the craze, as showbusiness historian Barry Band reveals in the second part of his short series about the Church Street complex.
Yet for the peak summer weeks bosses advertised ‘Grand Varieties and Living Pictures’.
Cine-Variety had arrived and Blackpool’s Hippodrome set the pace by booking one of the top music hall acts, comedian George Robey, for a September week.
Barry says: “In the summer of 1911 the star music hall acts included Marie Loftus, George Mozart, George Leyton and Dr Walford Bodie. Cine-Variety consisted of three or four variety acts working between short films. Out of season the venue proudly used the slogan ‘Perfection Pictures’.
“But within months the Hippodrome had five competitors within 250 yards – the Palace, the Clifton Palace, the Princess, the Tivoli and even the big Empress Ballroom of the Winter Gardens was showing films on non-dance days.
“In 1912 the Hippodrome was struggling. Its small press ads suggested a shortage of money. By 1913 the venue was specialising in dramatic films. The greatest Hamlet of his day, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, starred in the film version in September.
“In the next few years the most frequent summer Variety star was George Lashwood, known as the Beau Brummell of the halls. On his last appearance there, in August 1919, sartorial George found himself warming up the audience before the screening of Charlie Chaplin in his film Sunnyside.
“In 1920 the Hippodrome and the Princess were bought by a new company, Blackpool Entertainments Ltd. The size of the two cinemas enabled them to book the best silent films and in 1929 they were snapped up by the expanding ABC circuit.”
Barry says: “Within a month the Hippodrome was Blackpool’s number one cinema – the first in the resort to present a talking picture, Al Jolson starring in The Singing Fool. It opened on March 29 and caused a sensation. Hundreds queued for every performance. More than 60,000 saw the film in six weeks.
“As an ABC house the Hippodrome had first runs of Warner and MGM films and top British product. But Associated British Cinemas were not averse to renting the theatre out. In 1938 local producer Jack Taylor staged a big summer show, King Evel, starring Sandy Powell, Norman Evans and Nat Gonella.
“It was a one-off because Taylor had fallen out with the Opera House management, where he had presented four summer shows.
“Fast forward 10 years and Taylor was back at the Hippodrome with a racy revue backed by his new business partner, London impresario Tom Arnold.
“Taylor had been on a three-month ‘beano’ to America and came home buzzing with the idea of recreating Hollywood’s famous Cocoanut Grove night spot in Blackpool. At the somewhat gloomy old Hippodrome! He avoided copyright issues by naming his spectacular 1948 show Coconut Grove – without the letter ‘a’. It starred comedy duo Jewel and Warriss, singer Joseph Locke, some good speciality acts and a bevy of showgirls who posed semi-nude in several exotic tableaux.”
Barry stresses: “Bare breasts were allowed on British stages as long as the owners did not move. But the girls often had beautiful head-dresses, a la Folies Bergere. Nude tableaux were features of two more seasons of Coconut Grove, the racy Moulin Rouge season of 1951 and Latin Quarter of 1953.”
A cautious Barry adds: “I suppose we should have a note here that the 1949 show also starred the properly-attired Julie Andrews early in her musical career, while 1953’s Latin Quarter had fully-clothed Max Bygraves, Winifred Attwell and Hylda Baker.”
The amazing story of how Taylor and Arnold converted the old Hippodrome into a swish pink palace will be told in Barry’s Hippodrome/ABC book later this year.
He recalls: “From 1954 Taylor and Arnold presented conventional summer shows at the Hippodrome. The stars included George Formby, Jimmy James, Dickie Valentine, Tessie O’Shea, Ken Dodd and Michael Holliday.
“After Jack Taylor’s death, Bernard Delfont presented the 1959 Hippodrome show, a staging of ITV’s sitcom The Army Game; the 1960 show starring Adam Faith and Emile Ford; and the musical Rose Marie in 1961, with David Whitfield, Albert Budron and, in her first big role, the unknown 19-year-old Julia McKenzie.
“The last entertainment seen at the Hippodrome was the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn. It closed on Saturday, October 28, 1961. The ABC group had big plans for the site. They were going to build Britain’s most modern, most comfortable theatre from which they could transmit TV shows - live.”
In the final part of this series, Barry recalls The ABC story, with the likes of The Beatles, Cliff and the Shadows, Tarbey, Cilla, Engelbert and others...but definitely NOT Jimi Hendrix!