The life of the Empire

Blackpool Empire programme from 1899.  The theatre later became the Hippodrome, then the ABC and, after re-opening as the Syndicate nightclub, is now under Blackpool Council ownership,  and facing demolition to create a car park.
Blackpool Empire programme from 1899. The theatre later became the Hippodrome, then the ABC and, after re-opening as the Syndicate nightclub, is now under Blackpool Council ownership, and facing demolition to create a car park.
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Of all Blackpool’s palaces of entertainment, none attracted as many negative headlines as the old Hippodrome.

First it was refused a music, singing and dancing licence. It went bust twice and had three names in its first five years!

Blackpool Empire programme from 1899.' The theatre later became the Hippodrome, then the ABC and, after re-opening as the Syndicate nightclub, is now under Blackpool Council ownership,  and facing demolition to create a car park.

Blackpool Empire programme from 1899.' The theatre later became the Hippodrome, then the ABC and, after re-opening as the Syndicate nightclub, is now under Blackpool Council ownership, and facing demolition to create a car park.

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...

In the first of a short series for Memory Lane, showbusiness historian Barry Band looks back at the earliest days of the controversial Church Street building now facing demolition.

Barry says: “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. The 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.”

Barry asks: “But was the real reason that the Winter Gardens Company and the Tower Company were planning to build their own ballrooms? Directors of those two companies were also magistrates and councillors.

“After a delay The Empire was allowed to open on condition that 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 of The Empire. Then, in a surprise move, 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.

Barry points out: “Contrary to previous writings, the Hippodrome didn’t become a full-time circus. The flat floor was also ideal for other attractions like equestrian shows – and bicycle polo! A spectacular Wild West show was presented by SF Cody – billed king of the cowboys – and it was wrongly assumed he was Buffalo Bill, of Wild West legend.

“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 an 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,” says Barry, who next week looks back at Blackpool’s first “talkies” and bare-breasted beauties on the Hippodrome stage!

Meanwhile, Frank and Yvonne Johnston, of Marlhill Road, Grange Park, treasure two 1899 Empire programmes, one containing details of a fund raising concert in aid of Marton Working Men’s Institute on April 14, the other for the twice-nightly entertainment for the week starting August 28.

Yvonne says: “For many years we’ve enjoyed collecting ephemera and advertising items. About 25 years ago in Manchester’s Royal Exchange we enquired about Blackpool items and the shop assistant brought out a leather folder containing old theatre programmes and, to our delight, these included two Empire programmes which we bought.”

Frank says: “On our return to Blackpool that night we walked down Church Street passing what was then the ABC Theatre, but previously The Empire, with our newly-purchased Empire programmes in a carrier bag. It gave us both an overwhelming sense of nostalgia of days gone by.”

Acts listed included “musical marvels” Cyrus and Maude, who appeared with their live performing donkey Bess.

The Astor Belmont Trio was billed as a burlesque bicycle act, while the finale featured 11 “Living Pictures”, covering an area of 720sq ft, including “A Peep in the Workhouse”, where “The matron makes love to Mr Bumble”, and “Rough Seas at Dover”, featuring “Waves 80ft high breaking over the new pier works, the most splendid wave effect ever reproduced in animated photography”.