In the first of two Memory Lane specials we publish extracts from The Blackpool Hippodrome/ABC Story, a fascinating new book from showbusiness historian Barry Band which can be viewed in the Blackpool Local History Room at Central Library.
What’s in a name? One Blackpool venue, due to be demolished this year, can boast 11.
The name prior to opening … THE PRINCE’S
1898 … Opened as EMPIRE THEATRE of VARIETIES
1900 …. New owner changed name to HIPPODROME
1901 …. Lessee changed name to KING’S THEATRE
1902 …. Lessee quit, name reverted to HIPPODROME
1921 …. Refurbished as ROYAL HIPPODROME
1921 …. After six weeks reverted to HIPPODROME
1963 …. Rebuilt and opened as ABC THEARE
1986 … ABC circuit renamed CANNON CINEMAS
1992 …. Another buyout and new name MGM CINEMAS
1996 …. After another deal, back as ABC CINEMAS
2002... became SYNDICATE night spot
2013... bought by Blackpool Council
2014... to be demolished to create a car park
Of all Blackpool’s palaces of entertainment, none attracted as many negative headlines as the old Hippodrome in Church Street.
First it was refused a music, singing and dancing licence. It went bust twice and had three names in its first five years!
And for the next 10 years it was leased out to several companies who tried the whole gamut of popular entertainments – music hall, melodrama, circus, wild west shows and even bicycle polo matches...
The Hippodrome grew from Blackpool’s boom of the 1890s when the Opera House (1889) was followed in 1894 by the Tower and the Grand Theatre. The activity caught the attention of investors and a company called The Prince’s (Blackpool) Ltd was formed in Manchester.
The huge structure that rose on the corner of Church Street and King Street was to be called the Prince’s Theatre. But only three months before it opened in July, 1895, the directors changed its name to The Empire. A Gazette writer observed: ‘It has a better ring to it.’
Controversy hit The Empire before it even opened its doors. Plans showed it had an oblong, flat-floored auditorium with a gallery along each side, staircases at each corner and stage at one end. It was a ballroom and the owners planned to have dancing as well as stage shows.
When the management applied for a music, singing and dancing licence, it was refused. And the chairman of the Licensing Bench, Alderman FH Parkinson, wouldn’t say why. The Gazette speculated that the justices were showing disapproval of ‘promiscuous dancing’ that was catching on in the resort.”
After a delay The Empire was allowed to open on condition singing and dancing took place only on the stage and the bars were closed during performances. Under the banner of ‘Largest theatre of varieties in the kingdom’ The Empire booked some of the biggest stars of music hall, including Marie Lloyd. But the place went bust in November 1896, less than 18 months after it opened.
After failing to sell at auction, it was bought by a local group headed by Alderman W H Cocker, and they hired John R Huddlestone, former secretary of the Winter Gardens Company, as their general manager. For two years Huddlestone made a success before the Winter Gardens invited him back as their general manager, at Easter 1899.
Huddlestone’s move plunged The Empire back into trouble. It closed for a second time and in 1900 was leased to the directors of the Alhambra, the huge theatre, circus and ballroom venue on the promenade, next to the Tower. They relaunched The Empire as the Hippodrome, a name that meant simultaneous circus and variety, according to an advert in the local papers.
The Alhambra went bust in November 1902 and a new lessee of the Hippodrome brought success for a couple of years. He was Signor Rino Pepi, a former music hall artist who also ran a theatre at Barrow-in-Furness. His bookings included Fred Karno’s comedy company, American escapologist Houdini (June 1905) and Blackpool’s star vocalist Victoria Monks.
However, Signor Pepi gave up his lease at the end of 1905, when the Tower Company’s variety theatre, the Palace, began to offer tough competition. The Hippodrome was opened seasonally by other lessees until 1910 when Blackpool Alderman Robert Fenton bought the place, installed a proper raked floor and re-opened it as a cinema.
After 15 years of erratic existence, the Hippodrome had found stability and became one of Blackpool’s leading picture houses, 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.
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 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.
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.
In 1938 local producer Jack Taylor staged a big summer show, King Evel, starring Sandy Powell, Norman Evans and Nat Gonella.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
From 1954 Taylor and Arnold presented conventional summer shows at the Hippodrome.
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, comedian Albert Burdon 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.
The ABC is just one of several showbiz topics, including the Opera House, Palace, and Grand, in Barry Band’s popular talks. Ring him on (01253) 400908 for more details and bookings.