The burning down of Wolverhampton’s last variety theatre, the Hippodrome, in February 1956 was an event I particularly remember, for not only did I attend the last performance, but I am 99% certain that a friend and I bought the very last tickets. The theatre’s demise brought to an abrupt end an association with it that I had had since the early forties when I was still very young.
At the beginning of the war, the government, concerned that any devastation caused if a bomb fell on a crowd might affect public morale, closed all places of public entertainment. The first measure of this kind to have taken place since the time of Cromwell, the move proved extremely unpopular and within two weeks cinemas reopened their doors, and theatres cautiously followed. Sporting venues however were restricted to half capacity crowds.
By the time I first attended the Hippodrome, bombing raids had all but petered out and the threat of imminent invasion had diminished. Life suddenly changed for the better, people relaxed a little, and began to go out and enjoy themselves again. Mom was no exception.
At the time, the cinema was by far and away the most popular form of public entertainment - some forty percent of the population attended once a week and twenty-five percent returned for a second helping. The Variety Theatre was not quite as popular, but, unlike the cinema which had continuous showings, it opened at a particular time, was easier to get in and was cheaper. This suited mother better, for she could fit in a visit to the first house between the time my brother Alan and I arrived home from school, and the time Dad returned home from the aircraft factory.
Like the cinema, the Hipper provided the public with a convenient form of escape. Once the lights went down, all the frustration of waiting in long queues for meagre rations, of racking brains for ways to turn those rations into appetizing meals, of being woken at night by shrieking sirens and scuttling to cold damper shelters, receded. Patrons suddenly found themselves in another world, a fantasy world where dogs rode tricycles, musicians coaxed exquisite melodies out of carpenter’s saws, and attractive young women, cut in half, miraculously came together again. Dark and anonymous, the theatre provided a welcome antidote to the times.
On many occasions, my brother and I returned from school to find mother cutting sandwiches
‘Like to go out?’ she’d say.
Would we ever! ‘Oh yes, please,’ we chorused in unison.
‘Then get yourselves ready. If we hurry we will be in time for the first house at the Hipper.’
We needed no urging. Eager to be on our way, we gulped down beakers of milky tea, gobbled Nice biscuits, paid a precautionary need-to-or-not visit to the loo, swilled ourselves under the kitchen tap and donned our Sunday best. A quick note for Dad, should he arrive home early and we were off, catching the first available trolley bus to town.
Such surprise outings were not uncommon. On at least two occasions, Mom was waiting for us at the Junior school gates when we came out, ready to whisk us away to the theatre, our tea wrapped and packed in her raffia shopping basket. Such behaviour embarrassed us; other students were likely to label anyone met in this manner as a mommy’s boy or a sissy.
Planned outings, however, tended to be more complicated.
‘Hurry home tonight,’ Mom would exhort us as we left in the morning. ‘If you are home in time, we’ll go to the Hipper.’
Many times, however, we would rush home only to find she had changed her mind. She’d ‘had a busy day’; to get ready now would be ‘too much bother’; we would ‘never be ready in time’ and, besides, ‘it was going to rain’. ‘Going to rain!’ It was always going to rain.
‘But you promised,’ we pleaded.
‘There are other nights,’ she said. ‘Perhaps Thursday.’
‘But you promised . . . ’
Sometimes we won the long harangue that followed, but usually, if she had made up her mind, that was it; not even tears could change it.
The main entrance to the theatre was located on the corner of the Queen’s Square and North Street, but the entrance to the part of the theatre that we patronised, the Gallery or ‘Gods’ as it was more commonly known, was located in the aptly named Cheapside, a narrow, side street that ran between the rear of the theatre and the retail market hall
Despite Mom jollying us along, we always arrived well before the box office opened and joined the queue. In those days of rationing and shortages you had to queue for anything and everything. For Mom it was a way of life. To buy anything or enter any place of entertainment, she had to join the end of a long line and wait her turn, patiently hoping that by the time she reached the other end, whatever was up for sale would still be available. My brother and I, however, lacked her patience; we wanted to get inside as soon as possible. Growing ever more impatient, we read the playbill over and over again and plagued mother with unanswerable questions like ‘Who are ‘Smith and Jones?’ and ‘What do they do?’, ‘How long now?’ or ‘Can we have something to eat? I’m starving.’
The stage door was just down the street from us and to amuse ourselves we tried to recognize performers as they arrived. It was a near impossible task. Dressed just like everyone else and without makeup they would have passed as ordinary people.
No seat allocation, it was devil take the hindmost. As soon as they entered, the crowd split into two groups. One, the older more appreciative, headed for front row centre, the other, younger, there not only for the entertainment, made a beeline for the back row. Latecomers filled in the space between.
By the time we had adjusted to our vertigo and scrambled along the deep rows and down the steep aisles, all the best seats had been taken. If we were lucky, we found a place at the far end of the front row.
Settled, we tucked voraciously into the remnants of Sunday’s roast, well seasoned dripping, shrimp paste or delicious home-made blackcurrant jam sandwiched between doorsteps of grey bread, a commodity loaded with chaff that became increasingly crumbly as the war progressed. This, we washed down with cold tea swigged straight from a bottle. The meal was one we enjoyed as much as any served up in a Lyons corner cafe or the best hotel in town.
Once that was out of the way, boredom returned. Half an hour is a long time for the young. Every few minutes, Alan and I asked ‘How long, now?’ Since Mom had never owned a watch and the theatre clock had stopped in 1939, we invariably got the same answer, ‘Won’t be long now. Just be patient!’
Our hindquarters began to go numb, but we dared not adjust our position in case we annoyed our neighbours. Trying our best to be seen and not heard, we looked around the theatre.
During the blitz, a bomb exploding near a London theatre had dislodged a crystal chandelier and sent it hurtling down on the audience, killing and injuring several people. Consequently, all other theatres immediately removed their chandeliers and replaced them with something less dangerous. In the case of the Hippodrome this was a single light bulb on a short length of cable. You can imagine how dim and dismal this made the place appear. Plush curtains grown heavy with dust and grimy stucco nymphs cherubs, their gilt long since tarnished, added to the general dinginess. A good spring clean and a coat of paint would have done wonders for the place, but we would have to wait till the war ended for that. Labour and material shortages: young men enlisted, older ones directed to do essential work, and paint used to camouflage ships, tanks equipment and buildings, theatres were low on the list of priorities.
Compulsive readers, Alan and I turned our attention to the fire curtain protecting the stage area. It was covered with adverts for local businesses, and with a little help from Mom, we read them over and over again.
Meanwhile, dinner suited members of the pit ‘orchestra’ struggled out from under the stage and took up their positions. The band consisted of a piano, two violins, a cello, a double bass, a clarinet, a trumpet, a trombone and a set of drums. The drummer doubled as a percussionist and provided special effects for the acts. His collection of special instruments fascinated us. It included an assortment of bells, wooden blocks for pantomime horse hooves, klaxons and whistles for punctuating comedian’s jokes, and a swanee whistle for trapeze acts.
The conductor appeared, bowed to the audience, raised his baton and led the ‘orchestra’ into a selection of tunes from the shows, a medley that changed only once in all the years I attended the theatre.
As they played, what little light there was dimmed, the fire curtain rose, and a small white screen descended from the flies. From the back of the gods, a magic lantern projected more advertising material onto this,. We were pleased to note that it was still ‘Lilac Time’ in the West End, Ivor Novello was ‘Perchancing to Dream’, Mr. Coward’s Blithe Spirit haunted the theatres, the Grand Theatre resounded to ‘The Student’, George Formby would be the next to star at the Hipper, and Mr. Dewhurst still sold ‘the best sausages in town’ — to select, registered customers only, of course.
After the screen was taken away, the orchestra broke into a lively dance tune, the curtains opened. The theatre came alive, and the show began immediately dissolving all our frustrations. It transported us to another world, a brightly lit world where acts like gifts in brightly coloured paper unwrapped themselves one by one.
Once the most popular form of popular entertainment, in the struggle for survival, the Musical Hall had had to compete against silent movies and the talkies, both of which had struck it crippling blows. By the time I began to visit it, it had evolved into the Variety Theatre. With the new mediums putting many performers out of work, a performer could no longer stick to his speciality. To survive, he had to diversify, to be multi-talented. To gain a billing or be heard on the radio, singers punctuated their singing with jokes, played a musical instrument and/or finished with a little tap dance routine; musicians and dancers employed similar tactics. It was not uncommon to see performers ride a unicycle rider, juggle balls and tell jokes, all at the same time.
As a result, the Variety Theatre embraced everything from instrumentalists to orchestras, singers to choirs and comedians to tumblers. In my association with the theatre, I saw acts as diverse as knife throwers, acrobats, contortionists, roller skaters, tap dancers, performing animals like dogs, chimpanzees and horses — even the world’s only performing cat — impersonators, ventriloquists, whistlers, dance bands, magicians and Egyptian sand dancers.
Ten-a-penny comedians seemed to diversify the most. If their act were dying the death (and they often did), they resorted to a bit of a dance, sang a comic song, or played unusual instruments like spoons or bones. It often took an impersonation of Hitler or Churchill, stock in trade for all second rate comedians, to save an act. Some did have genuine musical talent, but most carried a violin or other prop merely to stimulate the audience's expectations. Such performers enraged me. I loved music, and if someone wandered on stage with an instrument in his hand, I expected him to play it, not stop and crack a silly joke every time he was in a position to do so.
When the curtain rose, a group of scantily clad, physically mismatched chorus girls with thick, pink thighs rushed on stage and tapped out a routine.
‘They'll catch their death of cold,’ mother whispered.
Too young to appreciate their physical attributes, I couldn't wait for them to finish. Some people liked them though, for many ended up married to rich and important men, or, like the very talented and sophisticated Audrey Hepburn, ended up as stars.
An attractive but inexperienced singer followed the chorus girls; probably an ex-chorus girl given the opportunity to display her talent. Nice but nervous, she sang two or three popular ditties to warm up the audience.
A novelty act came next. Perhaps a juggler whose dexterity, and quick minded ability to recover from pretended errors fascinated me; one who could juggle four things at once, and switch routines with consummate ease.
A bits and pieces comedian followed, one who could do everything except make the audience laugh.
If a comedian topped the bill, the first half ended with a well known singer or ‘operatic’ duet; if a singer then a comedian. Romantic ballads, the kind of romantic nonsense Alan and I hissed and hooted at Saturday morning matinees, were very much in fashion. When the curtain fell, there was no call for encores.
The only refreshments available during the interval beer and other alcoholic drinks in the bar; we finished off the last of the cold tea, and waited patiently for the show to recommence.
The second half of the program saw the chorus return. The girls had changed their costumes, but not their ability.
‘How does he do it?’ we asked Mom.
Unwilling to admit she didn't know, ‘He keeps them up his sleeve,’ she said. ‘Either that or uses mirrors.’
However the ‘stars’ we got were not always the top ranking ones.
The Crazy Gang was a group of three double acts, Nervo and Nox, Naughton and Gold, and Flanagan and Allen who performed at the Victoria Theatre in London for many years. Unfortunately, when they came they came to town, they didn’t bring the most popular pair, Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen.
Jimmy Jewel once appeared, as he sometimes did, without his cousin Ben Warriss. He revived a slapstick routine with a ladder that he had developed with his famous father.
Many of the old music hall acts were still around. Performing was not a reserved occupation. Unlike sport which suffered greatly from enlistment, the variety theatre which had ageing personnel that had grown up with its audience was relatively unaffected. However, many performers did do their bit with ENSA, putting on shows at force's camps and armament's factories, and visiting hospitals where wounded service men were billeted. During the Blitz they carried on even when bombs were falling around the theatre.
Billy Russell a local comedian who came from Gornal became one of my favourite performers. Billy posed as the ‘Champion of the Working Classes’, and to create the part wore a traditional workman’s outfit: moleskin trousers tied below the knee, a striped shirt without a collar, and a red handkerchief tied a round his neck; his favourite prop was a clay pipe which he lit halfway through the act and puffed on merrily until the end of his act. Unlike all the other comedians I knew, he didn’t tell jokes, play a musical instrument or indulge in funny antics. Instead, he brought the evening newspaper on stage with him, and made cutting observations and comments on the current political situation. This drew as many murmurs of approval and ripples of applause as it did laughs. A topical comedian, many of his remarks were above my young head, but his quiet laconic manner and the way he carried the audience along with him greatly impressed me.
Peter Cook acknowledged that he owed a debt to him. When Peter opened the Establishment Night Club in London in the swinging sixties, the first thing he did was to bring Billy out of retirement and install him as top of the bill. The BBC also provided Billy with several supporting roles in TV plays.
The last act brought everything to a climax and before we realised it, the show was over. Performers trooped down a wooden staircase to take their final bows, the curtain fell for the last time, and the orchestra played God Save the King, with everyone standing to attention. As the lights came up and restored the theatre to its former gloom, we trooped sadly down the narrow stairs that we had ascended so eagerly and went out into a wartime world as drab as it was when we went in. Outside, a queue for the second house was already forming. ‘Is it good?’ someone shouted. ‘Yes,’ we replied. It always was.
By then, it was pitch black, but we were accustomed to going home in the blackout, to groping our way across the market square and riding home on dimly lit 9A buses, their headlights hooded, and dipped. It may sound very depressing, but it wasn’t. Our faces glowed from the pleasure we had just experienced, and we chatted excitedly.
Once home, we revived the fire, put dad’s food in the oven, and wait for him to arrive. As soon as he came through the door, tired and hungry, we regaled him with details of our experience, scarcely giving him time to ingest his food. A cup of Ovaltine, then it was off to bed, our day nicely rounded off.
For the next five years or so, we were regulars at the Hippodrome.
After the war, it finally got its much needed facelift. Demobilised servicemen restored the chandelier to its proper place, and gave the old place a coat of paint. The cherubs shone again.
But then things changed. Like many other woman, Mom fell pregnant in the long cold winter of forty-six / forty-seven when power blackouts were frequent (what else was there to do?), and in the following December presented me with a brother eleven years my junior. Occupied with the new baby, she could no longer take us to the Hippodrome.
Not that that worried me too much. By then, I had moved on to grammar school, and to reveal to classmates who were aping Spencer Tracey's Mr. Hyde or Charles Laughton's Quasimodo that I had been to the ‘Hipper’ to see Ronnie Ronalde would have been social suicide. The theatre became old hat. I developed a passion for the cinema, and all but forgot about its existence.
It was not until I was an uncouth youth in my late teens, that I renewed my acquaintance with the place — and then only on a very casual basis. By then, the form of entertainment had changed, almost beyond recognition.
Although transmissions had begun in 1936, it wasn't until the Fifties that television really arrived on the scene. Then, when people were more ‘affluent’, and cheap rental and purchase on the never-never was readily available, it first became accessible to the general public.
As its popularity increased, all forms of town centre entertainment declined in popularity. Many public houses shut their doors for lack of support. Even cinemas closed. The switch to 3D, Cinemascope, VistaVision and stereophonic saved only the bigger ones. The Queen’s became first a dance hall, and then a bingo hall; suburban ones ended up as bowling alleys or supermarkets. I bought the last ticket for the Scala, a cinema with which I had personal connections. The time of local live entertainment seemed to be passing, perhaps for ever.
In desperation, Variety theatres tried new ways to win back their audiences. Actors mimed to top twenty tunes piped through stereophonic speakers, Sunday night shows featured top dance bands or jazz groups, West End revues and controversial plays that had shocked audiences toured, and Windmill Theatre type nude shows became widespread.
The last of these attracted a new clientele expecting to see something salacious. But the Lord Chamberlain, whose roles included public censor and classifier of films, only permitted stage nudity on the strict condition that the models did not move. The result was a series of supposedly artistic stage poses and tableaux, the models often obscured by veils of flimsy chiffon. Such presentations were not in the least sexy. Needless to say, they did little to revive the theatre's flagging fortunes.
The only previous show of that kind that I can recall seeing at the theatre was that of Jane, the heroine of a popular cartoon strip in the Daily Mirror. The artist’s model, she did a tour topping the bill telling a few jokes, and singing a few songs. For a finale she posed nude in dim light, draped in gauze, the curtain dropping as quickly as it had risen.
When in the theatre’s decline a young performer Sabrina (real name Norma Sykes) tried to cement her new found fame by touring the halls, I was reminded of that act. An attractive young woman with a big bust and a small voice, she had come to prominence (no pun intended) playing a dumb blonde on Arthur Askey’s TV show. In an age when dumb blondes were very much in vogue, such was her notoriety that when the famous Audrey Hepburn film of the same name was shown in Britain, it had to be renamed Sabrina Fair. Whatever her talents, I don't think that it was her voice that attracted the mostly male audience. She wore a low cut dress, and this was one occasion when the view from the upper circle beat that from the stalls.
When a friend and I arrived late at the theatre that fatal February night in 1956, we had no idea that we were attending the final performance or that we were purchasing the very last tickets. At a loose end, nothing too exciting on at the cinema, we finally decided to attend and arrived when the first half was well under way. For the first and only time in my life, I sat in the stalls.
I am told that the final show was called Magicana, but rather surprisingly I have absolutely no recollection of what it was about. The last show I can remember was the night shortly before when Peter Sellers topped the bill. Both of his parents stage performers, he had virtually grown up in the theatre, and begun his own career at London's Windmill Theatre during the war. Famous for his roles in the Goon Show, and just beginning to make top selling records and star in films, he had, against all advice, embarked on a tour of the country's halls. Maybe it was something he had always wanted to do, and if he were going to do it, now, before all the theatres closed down, was the best time.
Despite his popularity, the theatre was no more than half full, the place, going through hard times, just as dreary as it had been in the war years. Rousing the audience was a daunting task, and even the great man himself had difficulties. At first, he seemed uncomfortable, and his jokes fell flat. It wasn't until he put on a shabby raincoat and a punched out hat, got down on his knees, and played Bluebottle and the famous Eccles that the audience really responded. To complete his act he sang a few smutty songs, accompanying himself with a monotonously strummed ukulele . And that is the last I remember of the theatre.
Surprisingly my association with it didn't end when the place burned down. The front of the theatre had not been damaged, and the theatre manager and his wife took over the Hippodrome Bar, a small bar which had never been accessible from inside the theatre. For a time, after attending evening classes at the then Technical College, I met friends there for a drink.
To rebuild the theatre would have been a very expensive and, with popularity as low as it was, a risky venture. The site was sold, and developers built a new commercial building on the ruins. Ironically, the new structure housed a furniture store. Now people no longer went out in the evening, they needed something comfortable to sit on as they watched the flickering box. The sales of three piece suites soared; people rushed out to buy them — on the never-never, of course.
The manager of the bar opened a nightclub in Temple Street where the Rollerdrome, another victim of TV, had stood.
The demise of Hipper didn’t upset me too much. For some time, I had been moving in the direction of the Grand Theatre and the Civic Hall. I was becoming a serious theatregoer, and apart from odd visits to the Bilston, Birmingham and Dudley Hippodromes would have no further associations with Variety.
However, things were never quite the same again. Those after school visits to the Hipper, wartime evenings sharing shrimp paste sandwiches and cold tea with the gods, will always remain among my fondest of memories.