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The Bristol Hippodrome Theatre, St Augustine's Parade, Bristol

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The Bristol Hippodrome during the run of South Pacific in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

Above - The Bristol Hippodrome during the run of South Pacific in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

 

The Bristol Hippodrome - From a Period PostcardThe Bristol Hippodrome was designed by the renowned Theatre architect, Frank Matcham, and opened on the 16th of December 1912 with a Variety Bill headed by Eugene Stratton and a melodrama called 'The Sands O' Dee' which was an amazing water spectacular featuring 100,000 gallons of water and diving horses, the production ran successfully until January 1913.

Right - The Bristol Hippodrome - From an early Period Postcard.

A plaque celebrating the architect of the Bristol Hippodrome by the Frank matcham Society - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

Above - A plaque celebrating the architect of the Bristol Hippodrome by the Frank Matcham Society - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

The Hippodrome was Matcham's last major Theatre build, and on an enormous scale. The stage was a massive 5,000 square feet and built in two sections, the rear part of which was 40' by 32' and could be raised up so that the front section could slide out from underneath to reveal a vast steel water tank beneath. The tank itself was formed of four sections, all of which could be independently raised or lowered to perform various effects such as tidal waves, rapids, and waterfalls. Added to this were ramps for horses on either side and a 50' wide by 6' deep glass screen in the stalls of the Theatre, which could be raised up with the use of a single lever, to protect the orchestra and audience from the spray. To make all this possible the stage was equipped with four large electric motors and seven hydraulic rams. Details of the workings of the stage machinery at the Bristol Hippodrome were published in the Stage Yearbook of 1916 and can be seen here.

 

The stage and water tank of the Bristol Hippodrome as it was first built - From the Stage Yearbook of 1916 - Courtesy Roger Fox. See more images from this article and its accompanying text here

Above - The stage and water tank of the Bristol Hippodrome as it was first built - From the Stage Yearbook of 1916 - Courtesy Roger Fox. See more images from this article and its accompanying text here.

 

The Bristol Hippodrome was built for Oswald Stoll, and was second only in size and grandeur to his London Coliseum, also designed by Frank Matcham in 1904. The Theatre's main entrance was constructed on the site of the former Smith & Co Furnishers shop (see image below) but this small facade was no indication of the vast Theatre that was constructed behind it.

Smith & Co House Furnishers can be seen to the left of the picture, this was the property previously on the site of what is now the Bristol Hippodrome Theatre's front entrance. - From a souvenir programme for 'Thanks for the Memories,' a show marking the Theatre's 75th anniversary on the 16th of December 1987.

Above - Smith & Co House Furnishers can be seen to the left of the picture, this was the property previously on the site of what is now the Bristol Hippodrome Theatre's front entrance. - From a souvenir programme for 'Thanks for the Memories,' a show marking the Theatre's 75th anniversary on the 16th of December 1987.

An expectant audience enters the foyer of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.The front of the Theatre facing onto St Augustine's Parade occupied a surprisingly small footprint for such a large Theatre but on entering the vestibule the public were greeted with a promise of the grandeur to come, comprising of a floor of black and white marble, walls of coloured glass panels, representing naval battles, which could be illuminated from within, and a ceiling formed of a circular panel portraying Shakespeare's 'The Tempest.'

Right - An expectant audience enters the foyer of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.

There was also one of Oswald Stoll's recent inventions; an Advance Booking Office, which comprised of three different sections for the three different classes of theatre going public, and designed so that they would not have to come into contact with each other.

 

The Stalls and Box entrance at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.

Above - The magnificent Stalls and Box entrance at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.

The Auditorium Stalls of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

Above - The Auditorium Stalls of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

 

An early postcard depicting the main entrance facade of the Bristol Hippodrome.The Auditorium, with its two large cantilevered balconies, could accommodate nearly 2,000 people and was decorated in the Italian Renaissance Style in white and gold, with 'Rose du Barr' upholstery and drapes.

The proscenium was unusual in that it included a concealed section above for Limelights to light the stage below, which must have been very uncomfortable and hot for the operators.

Right - An early postcard depicting the main entrance facade of the Bristol Hippodrome.

The ceiling of the auditorium was decorated with two vast murals which were painted by Belgian Artists and depicted nymphs frolicking in the ocean, and a large dome which could be slid back to ventilate the Theatre, and open the auditorium to the sky above, a feature which was built into several Theatres in London, but sadly few remain in working condition today.

During the first year of operation at the newly built Bristol Hippodrome, Oswald Stoll managed something of a coup when he engaged the talents of the famous French Actress Sarah Bernhardt and her company to perform the fifth act of 'La Dame aux Camellias.' Click to see the entire Programme.Left - During the first year of operation at the newly built Bristol Hippodrome, Oswald Stoll managed something of a coup when he engaged the talents of the famous French Actress Sarah Bernhardt and her company to perform the fifth act of 'La Dame aux Camellias.' Click to see the entire Programme.

The Hippodrome, having opened in 1912, was soon to be faced with the prospect of war but despite a shaky beginning the Theatre did manage to carry on regardless with weekly Variety Bills and Bioscope pictures showing news from the front.

Shortly after the end of the war a young Carry Grant, then working under his real name of Archibald Leach, began his career at the Hippodrome as a Call Boy. Later he performed there with an acrobatic troup who eventually toured to the USA. They came back but he remained to become one of Hollywood's greatest stars.

 

The Auditorium of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

Above - The Auditorium of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

The Auditorium and safety curtain at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.In 1932 the Bristol Hippodrome, like so many Theatres all over the country, succumbed to the new kid on the block; Cinema. The last live performance at the Theatre in October that year was a Cabaret fronted by Jan Ralfini and his band which culminated in a virtual riot at the Theatre when the audience demanded speeches from the management to explain themselves. But it was to no avail. The Theatre reopened a week later as a Cinema with the film 'Congorilla.'

Right - The Auditorium and safety curtain at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.

However, popular as Cinema was at that time, the Hippodrome reopened 6 years later, after some decoration and repairs, as a variety Theatre again on the 1st of August 1938, and went on successfully in this vain until the outbreak of war closed the Theatre in 1939. The closure was short-lived however and on October the 2nd the Theatre reopened with 'Sandy Powell's 1939 Road Show.' The Theatre once more carried on despite the war but another of Bristol's famous Theatres wasn't so lucky, the Prince's Theatre, which had been Bristol's number one touring date for many a year, was destroyed by enemy aircraft on the 24th of November 1940. The Hippodrome took on this role for the rest of the war and emerged mostly intact apart from some slight damage to the front entrance of the Theatre.

 

The Auditorium and domed ceiling of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.Having gone through two world wars mostly unscathed the Hippodrome was to have its most trying time just two years later in 1948 when a major fire broke out backstage on the afternoon of February the 19th 1948. The fire quickly engulfed the stage and spread up the fly tower to eventually destroy the whole of the rear of the Theatre. The fire brigade were able to bring it under control however and miraculously the auditorium was saved from destruction, suffering only smoke and water damage.

Left - The Auditorium and domed ceiling of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.

Remarkably, considering the urgency of repairing and rebuilding Bristol's war torn infrastructure, the Theatre's stage and backstage areas were soon rebuilt, and the auditorium redecorated enabling the Hippodrome to reopen on December the 24th that year with a production of the Pantomime 'Cinderella.'

 

The stage of the Bristol Hippodrome after the disastrous fire on February the 19th 1948 - From a souvenir programme for 'Thanks for the Memories,' a show marking the Theatre's 75th anniversary on the 16th of December 1987.

Above - The stage of the Bristol Hippodrome after the disastrous fire on February the 19th 1948 - From a souvenir programme for 'Thanks for the Memories,' a show marking the Theatre's 75th anniversary on the 16th of December 1987.

 

During the rebuild a number of improvements were added to the building, including new emergency exits for the stalls and circle, new stage flying equipment, a new electrically operated asbestos fire curtain, and the installation of a Grand Master Lighting board which was to remain in operation at the Theatre until 1980.

An expectant audience awaits the start of a production at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.The opening night performance of 'Cinderella' didn't quite go to plan though because when the curtain was supposed to rise on act two of the performance it failed to do so. Ted Ray, who was playing Buttons, was forced to go out in front of the curtain and ad lib for almost a half hour whilst the Theatre's crew, and even some recruited members of the audience, battled with the equipment in order to raise it out of the way.

Right - An expectant audience awaits the start of a production at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins.

The Bristol Hippodrome's vast stage was soon to be staging vast musicals. Although the Theatre did carry on with Variety for a while, it was the big Broadway and West End musicals that soon took on the dominant role. Shows such as 'White Horse Inn' and 'King's Rhapsody,' were very popular, and in the 1950s 'Annie Get Your Gun,' Brigadoon,' 'Carousel,' 'South Pacific,' and the 'King And I' all played there. 'Guys and Dolls' even had its European Premier at the Hippodrome, and 'My Fair Lady' became the longest running show in the Theatre's history in 1964.

 

Souvenir programme for 'Thanks for the Memories,' a show marking the Theatre's 75th anniversary on the 16th of December 1987.Despite its earlier successes by the 1970s the Theatre's future was looking less than rosy and a number of take over bids were tried, all of which were turned down by the then Theatre's owners, Stoll Moss Theatres. But by he 1980s things were looking up again. New dressing rooms were added at roof level and a new computerised lighting board was installed so as to be able to facilitate the growing needs of touring productions. The Welsh National Opera began having huge successes at the Theatre and the musicals 'Annie' and 'Windy City,' the latter produced at the Hippodrome, were both extremely popular with Bristol's audiences.

Left - A Souvenir programme for 'Thanks for the Memories,' a show marking the Theatre's 75th anniversary on the 16th of December 1987.

A Programme for Richard Eyre's original National Theatre production of 'Guys and Dolls' which was brought to the Bristol Hippodrome in 1982.The National Theatre brought its highly acclaimed production of 'Guys and Dolls' to the Hippodrome in 1982, a production I worked on myself, 'Getting in' on a Saturday night and working non stop until the Tuesday evening when the show opened to a delighted audience and a crew which had worked 72 hours and were almost dead! I'm sure that the working time directive would have something to say about that nowadays but in the 1980s theatre production was still very much working to the spirit of "The Show must go on."

Right - A Programme for Richard Eyre's original National Theatre production of 'Guys and Dolls' which was brought to the Bristol Hippodrome in 1982.

In 1984 the Hippodrome changed hands and was taken over by Apollo Leisure. Since then all the major West End productions have toured there, and the Welsh National Opera, Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, and the London Festival Ballet have all continued to enjoy successful seasons.

In 1987, the Theatre's 75th year, new bars and a new box office were added to the Theatre by incorporating adjoining buildings, and in 1988 the stage was restructured to remove the very steep rake, something which was a major headache for many touring productions over the years, and the orchestra pit was enlarged.

The Auditorium of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

Above - The Auditorium of the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011 - Courtesy Charles S. P. Jenkins

In 2007 the Bristol Hippodrome was being run by 'Live Nation' and continued to stage productions of the Welsh National Opera, and the English National Ballet, and all the large West End, and Broadway musicals.

The Theatre was bought by The Ambassador Theatre Group in November 2009 and you may like to visit their own Website for the Theatre here.

The information on this page was gleaned from various sources, including the Theatre's Trust Guide to British Theatre and an excellent article by Christopher Robinson in the Souvenir programme which marked the Theatre's 75th anniversary in 1987.