The Brighton Hippodrome, Middle Street, Brighton
Formerly - The Hippodrome Theatre of Varieties
Also see: An Article by Peter Longman on Britain's Hippodrome Theatres
Above - A Google StreetView Image of the rather sorry looking exterior of the Brighton Hippodrome today - Click to Interact
The Grade II Listed Brighton Hippodrome in Middle Street, Brighton opened in 1901 and was a conversion of a former Skating Rink, originally built in 1897 by Ellis and Humphrey Brammell. The Ice Rink only lasted for three years however, before business started to decline, and so the Brammell brothers then enlisted the now renowned Theatre Architect Frank Matcham to alter the building into a Circus Building. It reopened on Wednesday the 26th of August 1901 as the Brighton Hippodrome.
The Programme shown right included some information about the Theatre in 1910 which I have transcribed below, and many images of the Theatre from the period, which can be seen enlarged further down this page.
Some Interesting Facts
Thinking that a few particulars about this popular house of entertainment would be of interest to our patrons, we have pleasure in printing the following. The present seating arrangement provides accommodation for over 3,000 people. This does not represent the holding capacity of the house, as the greatest number of people to witness one performance has been over 4,500.
In view of the alterations made by the present management, the Middle Street Hall is generally recognised as one of the finest houses of its kind in the country. A few figures given in support of this statement may prove interesting. The depth of the stage to the footlights is 30 feet, and to the tableau curtain 20 feet. Its width from proscenium to proscenium is 39 feet, and there are eight dressing rooms for the, use of artistes...
...The total number of lamps in the Theatre number 1,800, and no less than 12 miles of wire is used. The limelight gallery contains five arcs, each of 500 candle power, and the searchlight from the Barrascope is 2,000 candle power. There are two supplies of 230 volts for the incandescent lamps, and one of 115 volts for the arcs and the Barrascope. Steam radiators are fed by a high pressure boiler, and the sliding roof is the only one of its kind on the South Coast. The proprietors have agents throughout the world for the purpose of discovering new talent.
In 1916 the Theatre was altered by J. Emblin Walker, who would later be responsible for the auditorium rebuild of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1922. His alterations to the Brighton Hippodrome were very substantial and included the creation of a new stage, fly tower, and dressing room block to the building, along with major alterations and redecoration of the auditorium, and the fitting of a new Bioscope Box in the roof at the rear of the circle. Remarkably these major alterations were carried out without closing the Theatre for a single night. What it must have been like for the artists working the Theatre at the time is anyone's guess, but it couldn't have been very comfortable for them. The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on this major reconstruction of the Theatre in their November the 8th 1916 edition saying:- 'The new hippodrome at Brighton is nearing completion. It was originally a real-ice skating rink, afterwards a circus - hence its title "The Hippodrome." The late Mr. Thomas Barrasford transformed it into the present variety house, by erecting a stage across one end of the ring.
The peculiar construction of the roof, which is a concentric ring with sixteen steel rakers sloping from a top centre and held in place by an outer ring, standing upon steel stanchions bedded into the enclosure walls, made it impossible to erect a proper stage with a space high enough to carry a grid for the scenery to fly from, as the steel rakers ran over the top of the stage just above the proscenium opening 25 ft. above the level of the stage. For some years past the performances had to be carried on by rolling up the scenery, and other out-of-date methods.
The present owners, the Variety Theatre Controlling Company, have for some time past contemplated rebuilding this stage because of the rapid evolution of Revues, which carry such extensive scenery that the stage could not accommodate it. The chief difficulties were the steel rakers and tie rings above mentioned which supported the whole of the roof of 100 ft. span, which it was thought could not be removed with safety to the building.
Eventually a scheme was propounded by Mr. J. Emblin-Walker, a London architect, who has had great experience in theatre alterations and building, and whose schemes are constantly before, the L.C.C. in connection with well-known London theatres. This scheme has not only been successfully carried out, but has been executed without closing the theatre for one single moment, the two performances each night being carried on without the slightest interruption.
What in reality has been accomplished has been the construction of an entirely new stage building right round and over the old one, and the removal of the mass of steel work supports to the large roof and the girders carrying them, together with the old proscenium and enclosure walls, thus giving an added depth of 20 ft. and an extended width of 10 ft. each side, with a height of 50 ft. from the new stage to the new grid.
In the first place a new proscenium wall had to be built right over the heads of the members of the orchestra, with a mere slung scaffold from the roof rakers. Large brick piers had to be built of a thickness of 5 ft. at the base, all in cement, right up the sides of the proscenium opening, which is 39 ft. wide, through the existing stage boxes, up to 3 ft. above the proscenium opening. These piers are 2 ft. thick, and on these were bedded large stone templates to receive a large steel springer of some 2 ½ tons, and from these springers a 5-ring brick arch was turned on a wood centring of a span of 48 ft., with a rise of 16 ft. in the centre. This arch was reinforced with steel tie-rods with large steel plates over the crown of the arch, which picked up the steel channels which act as ties to the springers and so converted the arch into a combined brick and steel truss. This method was adopted because it was impossible to hoist up a large girder in between the performances and for want of space.
The new 14-in. proscenium wall was then built upon this arch to a height of 70 ft. from the base right through the existing sloping dome roof. This demanded no little skill in keeping the rain from deluging the orchestra, and there were some severe storms during the work, of the force for which Brighton is noted. After this wall was finished the tympanum was bricked in solid, picking up the rakers, which had later to be cut away.
While this was in progress the new back and side walls were growing apace. The back wall is some 20 ft. behind the old wall, and is carried up to the same height as the proscenium wall. The side wall had to be built up through old dressing-room floors, ceilings, and roof, and some parts carried upon girders on stanchion supports. Large portions of the existing walls had to be removed and various girder cut, and other obstacles overcome, and due provision made for the electric wiring, the main switchboard, and for fire and water mains and heating pipes.
This being accomplished, the next item was the construction of the grid and roof. To carry this, four large plate girders, one over 50 ft. in length, had to be fixed right over the old corrugated iron roof of the existing stage, the girders being approximately 2 tons, 2 ¼ tons, 4 ½ tons, and 7 ¼ tons respectively. The grid timbering is 4 by 9 and 3 by 9 throughout, with a 2 by 3 slat floor all over, and is capable of carrying some 86 tons of scenic effects. The wooden flats are covered with a thin section of vulcanite roofing covered with ½ in. of B.B. asphalte, the combination of these two specialities being ideal for the particular work involved.
The asphalte employed is a speciality of Messrs. Vulcanite, Ltd., containing a very large percentage of bitumen, and of a flexible nature, and at the same time a hard wearing asphalte surface is obtained, and as there is a thin section of vulcanite roofing on the boarding, and the asphalte is in intimate contact with the vulcanite roofing, an absolutely watertight roof covering is secured. The sloping sides are Poilite slates, laid on 1-in. boarding on felt.
This being done, the next item was the removal of the old roof and grid and the temporary transference of the scenery to the new grid. Then followed the removal of the old proscenium wall and the mass of steelwork over the old stage, including the steel rakers, tie rings, and proscenium girders. This was accomplished by burning them off close to the new proscenium wall by the oxy-acetylene process. Before this could be done, an elaborate system of tieing up the rakers had to be embarked upon between the roof and the fibrous plastic ceiling to take the thrust of the steel rakers in lieu of the steel ring, which also had to be removed to get a clear passage for the scenery to fly.
After this the flies had to be tackled. As these old flies had all the lines of the scenery of a large London revue, together with the stock scenery and electric battens, it was quite evident that the new flies would have to be erected and finished, with all the cleats and lines transferred to them ready for use, between the performances. This was successfully accomplished...
Above - Two Posters for the Brighton Hippodrome - Courtesy David Garratt
...Then followed the removal of all the old enclosure walls with all their attendant dust and rubbish and cartage; this was done with a minimum of discomfort. The next trouble was the removal of the old stage and the laying down an entirely new stage with traps, bridges, cuts and all supports; after which came the removal of the apron and orchestra and the extension of the auditorium floor, which will enable three rows of additional fauteuils to be put in. All this was accomplished between the Saturday and Monday performances.
During the progress of the work the old stage boxes were scrapped and rebuilt at a lower level, and two new boxes were erected on each side, on top, with large Moorish domes in fibrous plaster. An entirely new plaster panel front, with heavy enrichments, covers the new proscenium wall, and two large shells were worked and modelled in situ at each corner.
A new block of dressing-rooms, sixteen in number, has been built with washbasins, with hot and cold water supply to each, and all the rooms heated with hot-water radiators. Ample lavatory accommodation has been provided on each floor. A large room for the chorus ladies has also been built, with due lavatory accommodation.
A new stage entrance has been put in, all in Pudlo cement concrete. The large mezzanine floor has been excavated to a much lower level, the whole surface being in cement concrete, intermixed with Pudlo. A large sump has been sunk and fitted with pumps to provide for any aquatic shows. A room has been provided for the band, and electricians' stores and workshops installed. A large store for surplus properties has been provided in this mezzanine with traps in the property room for access.
Spiral staircases are provided at each side of the stage to the mezzanine. A dock for scenery has also been provided at one side, of the stage...
...The auditorium has been transformed beyond recognition, the floor being reconstructed upon what may be termed a saucer shape, thus allowing the seats at the side to obtain an uninterrupted view of the stage. New seating, carpets, pelinets, and tabs are being installed. The whole of the auditorium has been re-decorated throughout with Matone, a beautiful flat paint with a velvet-like surface. The colour scheme is a deep cream and gold, with a dun background, the relief being in pastel blue, which has a charming appearance. The ceiling is a masterpiece of fibrous plaster work of 80 ft. diameter, the enrichments being exceptionally heavy and brilliant, etched up by the application of Matone stencils, having panels of oil paintings of a soft hazy horizon views, giving a most restful feeling to the eye. The decorative scheme is Italian in character, while Moorish domes and caskets surmount the boxes by way of contrast.
The theatre is heated throughout by a new system of hot water radiators, all being controlled from a beautifully fitted boiler-house, the gravity system being accelerated by electric pumps, which, together with the sliding roof, makes the control of the house perfect in all atmospheres.
The whole of the work has been carried out under the supervision of Mr. Charles Hyde, who has had great experience in theatrical alterations, and adds greatly to his reputation. When finished the theatre will be equipped with a fireproof curtain of the latest pattern. The stalls floor will be entirely reseated and upholstered throughout. The theatre has also been entirely rewired in steel tubes, and a new switchboard and electrical apparatus have been installed on up-to-date principles...
...A bioscope box has been erected on the roof at the back of the circle, four projector cabins have been provided for stage lighting effects, and the whole of the dome roof recovered. Four new boxes have been added at the back of the stalls floor. The gangways have been replanned for easy exit; additional fire hydrants, etc., have been installed. Altogether the scheme has worked out most perfectly, and is probably the prelude to many more theatre alterations being carried out without closing. The architect is Mr. J. Emblin Walker, of 2, Ilchester House, Uxbridge Road Station, Shepherd's Bush, W., who is to be congratulated upon the complete success of his design. The builder is Mr. John Sinnott, Plough Road, Battersea. The electrical work is by Messrs. Thomas Digby and Co., London. The Matone decoration was supplied by Messrs. Lewis Berger and Sons, Limited, of Homerton. The upholstering and new seating and carpets are by Messrs. Beck and Windibank, Ltd. The roofing by Messrs. Vulcanite, Ltd., 118, Cannon Street, E.C., and the "Pointe" slates by Bell's United Asbestos Co., Ltd., Southwark Street, London, S.E.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, November the 8th 1916.
Above - The Brighton Hippodrome - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure of 1949
For many decades after the 1916 alterations the Hippodrome was in use as Brighton's major Variety Theatre but in its later years it was relegated to use as a Bingo Hall. However, if you stepped into its foyer you were still greeted with much the same sight as you would have seen a hundred years before. The management of the building were still clearly proud of the building's heritage as there was a large Scrapbook on display in the foyer detailing the Theatre's history with many fascinating pictures and articles. They would also let you peer into the vast and lavish auditorium which was little changed from its former use.
Right - A Programme for 'Let's Have a Laugh' at the Brighton Hippodrome in November 1945.
In 2014 the Hippodrome was under threat of redevelopment and conversion into an eight-screen cinema. The plans involved demolishing the stage, the fly-tower, all the back-stage facilities, the stalls and the orchestra pit. However, this proposal has since been abandoned but the Theatre's future is still uncertain.
Left - A 1945 war time Variety Programme for the Brighton Hippodrome.
Today, sadly, the Theatre is closed and 'Dark' and looks very sorry for itself externally, but it is readily convertible back to theatrical use on a large scale and one can only hope that sometime in the near future this will happen. The Theatres Trust Guide says that the Hippodrome today 'is now probably the best surviving example of a circus - variety Theatre in Britain.' There is more information and images for the Brighton Hippodrome in an article by Donald Auty below.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
The Brighton Hippodrome - By Donald Auty
Above - The Brighton Hippodrome during the run of Can-Can on the 24th of September 1956 - Courtesy Gerry Atkins
This was a wonderful date with an amphitheatre type of auditorium. There was a very rakish atmosphere about the place and you could still buy a promenade ticket until the very end. Angus Franklin was the manager for many years and lived in a flat above the Theatre that had originally been built for Tom Barrasford the first owner.
George Rainburn was the stage manager and ran a constant war with Stan the chief electrician. There were two electrical day men and only one stage dayman and George resented this. George Black who was managing director in the thirties and early forties came down to Brighton one morning and found the then four stage daymen drinking in the Seven Stars pub at ll.30 a.m. so he sacked them and decreed that from then on there would only be one stage dayman at Brighton and this situation still existed to the end.
Right - A Programme for 'Strike A New Note' at The Brighton Hippodrome, undated but the show was in the West End in 1943 starring Sid Field.
There was a circus at the Theatre one week and the dock doors that led straight out into the car park were left open one morning to let in some air...
Above - A Seating Plan for the Hippodrome Theatre, Brighton from Kelley's Directory of 1934 - Courtesy Stephen Wischhusen
...An elephant got loose from its tethering rope and decided to have a look around Brighton. It walked out of the dock doors past the stage door and a large window in the stage doorkeeper's cubby hole.
George panicked when he found the elephant gone and asked the stage door keeper if he had seen it pass by.
Left - a Variety Programme for the Brighton Hippodrome - Click see the entire Programme.
The stage door keeper said he had not noticed it. George screamed at him that he must have noticed it because the animal must have blocked out the f****** day light as it passed his window. The Elephant was eventually found taking a stroll around the lanes and accepting buns from passers by.
Right - A Programme for 'Light Up The Town' at the Brighton Hippodrome - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The pit orchestra was excellent fourteen in number and was under the direction of Sid Sharpe. He had a baton with u.v. paint on the end of it that he used to conduct with when the stage was in a blackout. It is still there as a bingo hall and could come back one day, let's hope that it Does.