Alan Hodkinson spent a life
time in entertainment and appeared in the last show at the
Hippodrome under his stage name, Alan Clark.
|The show I was with at the
Hippodrome in the theatre’s last week was Virgil and
Julie's "Magicana", a very big, full evening, magic
show, starring the American illusionist, Virgil.
The show was on a year’s
tour of the U.K.. Wolverhampton was only our fourth week
into the tour.
It was freezing cold when
we got there on the Sunday, 12 February 1956. I think
there was snow about on the ground. The lads
in the show had all come by road, with all the props,
from York. The rest of the company went by rail.
We had played the York Empire the week before and, as it
was a short trip, we had moved the show out on the
Sunday morning into furniture wagons and then straight
off to Wolverhampton.
|Wolverhampton was the
first week I started going out with my future wife,
Jackie. I can remember when we arrived at
Wolverhampton on the Sunday, after settling in to my
digs, I had arranged to meet the girls outside the
theatre front of house. From there we went to the
cinema (the usual thing when we got to a new town on a
Sunday). And that was the start of getting to know
Jackie.Jackie’s stage name was Jackie Medlock. She
had started with Florence Whiteley's Zio Angels, a very
famous dance troupe, then was with a Sherman Fisher
troupe, then was Head Girl for Herbert De Vere.
It was to Herbert De Vere
that Virgil (or rather his Manager Jack Phillips) went
to for a troupe for the British tour and so Jackie
became part of Magicana. Jack Phillips had
contacted me some time before to join the tour. I
had already worked with Jack with the Great Levante, an
|I can remember the week
being bitter cold, and on the Thursday (or it may have
been Friday) we had just started the second half of the
first house, when all the power went off. I think it
was a substation failure nearby. The only lights left in
the theatre were the emergency exit lights that were lit
was done around the theatre to find as many candles as
we could. These were put in jam jars or beer
glasses and were placed along the front of the stage and
in the orchestra pit. The orchestra struck up and
we led the audience in community singing. After
some considerable time the power came back on. We
finished the first house and started the second house
very late and I think we cut a bit of the show to try
and catch the last buses.
|It was always a thing to
get the curtain down in time for the last buses from the
town centres. You always asked the resident stage
manager on Monday morning what time he wanted the show
down, and you would adjust your show to fit it in; you
knew how long the show normally ran so you would speed
some things up or you would cut something.
|It was normal to load the
show out on Saturday nights if there was a long trip to
the next venue.
We had opened the British
tour at Halifax, then moved on to Huddersfield, then to
York, the fourth week being Wolverhampton. They were all
short trips so we could load out on Sunday mornings and
straight on to the next venue. The week after
Wolverhampton we were booked for Nottingham Empire,
another short trip; but, the week after Nottingham we
were booked for the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.
That would have to be done by rail and so we would have
to load out Saturday night to the railway station.
So we decided to have a practice get out on Saturday
night at Wolverhampton.
As it turned out it was a
decision that would save the show.
Me and my mime
act which I performed in the
early 60s. I
did a mime comedy act using sound effects instead of the
actual props; all I had on stage was a chair - and the
imagination of the audience.
The cannon routine which would
have appeared in the Hippodrome show. Jackie is
I didn't leave
the theatre until about 2 a.m. on the Sunday morning
as we were getting the show out. We had the fire
curtain down all the while we were packing up.
Then we took the load to the railway goods yard,
loaded the goods wagon, and then went back to our
digs, by now it was about 3.30am.
The first we
knew about the fire was when the taxi picked us up
from our digs about 8.30 a.m. to take us to catch
our train. Our taxi driver said, "You left the
theatre in a bit of a mess last night didn't you?"
I could only think
about the animals we had; I thought Percy, who
looked after the ducks, had not cleared up the mess that
they made - but he was usually very scrupulous in his
But then the taxi driver
told us about the fire. The fire must have been
burning in the auditorium whilst we were still
When we got to the station
Vigil and Julie were on the platform. Virgil was
holding some feathers he had picked up from the stage on
Saturday night. They had come off the girls’
African costumes. He said “If we had lost the show
in the fire, this is all I would have left of the show.”
Opening of Jungle scene. Jackie is second from left. It's the feathers from these
costumes that Virgil had with him at the station on
and Julie were wonderful people to work with. We
stayed in touch by letter and audio tapes after they
left these shores in November 1956, right through until
Julie died in 1998. Virgil had died in October
1989. Julie decided after a while to write a book
called “The Great Virgil”. She kindly sent Jackie
and me a copy. This extract from Julie’s book
shows that Virgil found out about the fire in much the
same way as I did.
“From York, we moved on to
Wolverhampton, [where] a strange thing happened to
us. We loaded out on the Saturday night and the next
morning when our taxi arrived to drive us to the
train, the driver asked us if we had left anything
in the theatre. When we asked why he was asking, he
said the theatre had burned to the ground! When we
checked we found that just fifteen minutes after our
last load of equipment left the theatre was when it
happened. All week we had been noticing an odour
that we associated with hot electrical wiring, but
since our dressing room was right under the
switchboard we thought that might be the reason for
it. A bobby was passing the theatre just
fifteen minutes after our last load left and noticed
smoke coming under the door. The fire was well
under way at that time, so they figured it must have
started in the walls before we ever left the
theatre. The theatre was about one hundred years old
and once the fire started it was impossible to
The Big Cat routine that opened
the Magic Circus finale. Jackie is the first
elevated girl on the left.
|If we had lost the show
the company would have broken up, we would have gone our
separate ways and I would not have continued going out
with Jackie - we may not have come across one another
again in the business. But as it
was, and thanks to the chance of practising getting the
show out on the Saturday night,
we went on to the end of the year and Jackie and I got
married when the show closed. It will be our
Golden Wedding anniversary on November 24th
2006. We had toured for 39 weeks with that show.
Webmaster's note: I have heard from Mike Halpenny that his
mother, Val Halpenny (nee Epps) was one of the dancers in the show.
She is the girl with the whip in the photo of the Big Cat routine
and is one of the girls in the front of the photo with the feathers.