Matthew Bourne has placed his production of the ballet “Cinderella” in London during WW2, with a romance set in the horrors of the Blitz.
When war was declared on 3 September, 1939, by Government edict all places of public entertainment were forced to close down, including the Hippodrome. However, it was quickly realised that it would be better to have theatres, cinemas and ballrooms open to keep up the morale of the people. Within two weeks, the Hippodrome had opened its doors again with a big Variety show to keep audiences laughing. Thereafter, apart from three months between November, 1940 and February, 1941, when the Birmingham Blitz was at its worst, we kept going, mostly twice daily, entertaining the city.
Of course, concessions had to be made in the light of the perils to daily life, especially the blackout, when no lights were permitted to shine and the streets were pitch black. At first, the times of the shows were changed from the usual 6.40 and 8.50 pm to 5.35 and 7.45 pm and patrons were asked to bring their gas masks with them, as there were initial fears of gas attacks. As the air-raids intensified, the times of shows were made even earlier until by the autumn of 1940 the risks to people being out in public places saw shows starting at 1.30, with a second house at 3.30 pm. The emergency, single-sheet programmes, patriotically displaying the Union Jack and V for Victory sign, informed audiences that “the second house terminates at 5.30 and our new times ensure 100% enjoyment and comfort in getting home”.
The programmes also informed the audience that “alerts and all-clear signals will be advised to patrons by means of illuminated signs, which are placed at each side of the stage.Those desiring to leave may do so but the performance will continue”. It was safer to remain in the theatre and, of course, the audience had already paid to see the show. If the raid was prolonged, you could be in the Hippodrome for hours and often the artists would continue to entertain the audience with impromptu performances and community singing to keep up morale.
The Hippodrome itself came under incendiary bomb attacks on the night of 29 October, 1940,
when enemy air raids on the city centre knocked out large parts of the Bull Ring, High Street and New Street. The raids severely damaged the Hippodrome’s main Variety competitor, the Empire Theatre on Smallbrook Street, and it never re-opened. Fires spread across the roof tops to the Hippodrome, but, through the quick action of then Manager, Bert Batchelor, and three of his staff, using buckets of water, the blaze was put out. Bear in mind, the air raid was still continuing and so these men were very brave indeed and saved the Hippodrome. Among them was our popular commissionaire, Andrew Ford, who used to stand in the foyer, welcoming the audience as they came into the theatre. He was an ex-Grenadier Guard Sergeant and was well-known for his 18 inch waxed moustache; he died in 1952.
One of the brave men that night soiled his suit on the burning roof and, because the Hippodrome management refused to pay for a new suit for him, his mother refused to let him come back to work at the theatre!
It had been James and Henry Draysey who had built the City Assemby Rooms on the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street in 1895, followed by the Tower of Varieties and Circus in 1899, thus beginning the Hippodrome’s colourful 120-year history. By the 1920s, the Assembly Rooms, whose entrance was right next to the Hippodrome’s entrance, had become Tony’s Ballroom, where today’s Restaurant is located. During WW2, on Sunday nights, the ballroom became the Queensberry All-Services Club, where special shows were staged for service personnel.
Apart from weekly Variety shows, there were war-time revues with uplifting titles like “Keep Smiling”, “Roll Out the Barrel”, “Happidrome” and “Clap Hands and Smile”. There were also Sunday charity shows.
On 17 March, 1940, pantomime and radio stars appeared in support of the Birmingham Auxiliary Fire Service. On 25 May, 1941, there was a concert to raise money for the Lord Mayor’s War Fund and towards the end of the war there was a show on 19 November, 1944 in aid of National Savings, which the programme described as “The Home Guard of the financial front in the fight against Germany”.
In 1940, as part of a recruitment campaign for the Pioneer Corps, WW1 veterans marched through the city centre to a meeting at the Hippodrome, where the Lord Mayor and senior officers addressed the audience.
A very special sell-out show was “This Is the Army”, which ran from 20 to 24 December, 1943 and starred American songwriter Irving Berlin, together with 150 American soldiers. Jacob L. Devers, Lieut-General, US Army, wrote in the programme that “the soldiers of the Allies, as well as American enlisted men, should see this Army show free of cost; and all monies realised from the tour of the UK should go to British Service charities”.
The show “Salute the Soldier” in June, 1944 (just after the D-Day landings in France) brought “a Cavalcade of the British Army” and was presented by the War Office during Birmingham’s Week to support the British soldiers.
Birmingham’s other theatres also did their bit. The Alexandra Theatre, besides staging its usual plays and annual pantomime (although at 10.30 in the morning), put on Sunday Variety shows at 2.30 and 4.30. The Repertory Theatre, then in its original premises in Station Street, had lunch-time and tea-time Variety for an hour from 12.45 and 3.15- “see a show and eat!” Important at a time of severe food rationing.
The Hippodrome sometimes staged very different attractions. At the end of September, 1940, “A Programme of Accepted Classics” was played for the week by the London Philharmonic Orchestra- the second half of the week it was conducted by Dr. (later Sir) Malcolm Sargent. In July, 1940, during a Variety show, a Noel Coward one-act play, “Fumed Oak”. was performed, starring actors Faye Compton and Edward Chapman- a rare oddity indeed!
“The play sensation ‘ No Orchids For Miss Blandish ‘”was staged in January, 1943, and an Adults Only French play, “Damaged Goods”, was performed in May, 1943. This was set in a VD Clinic and showed the dangers of contracting the disease- the programme stated that “the play is licensed by the Lord Chamberlain in the interests of propaganda”. It never returned!
On a lighter note, during a visit of Rosaire’s Circus just before Christmas, 1942, two lion cubs were born back-stage. They were named Winston and Corney and their father had escaped from his cage to visit the lioness, “Jubilee”. Having assured himself that was all was well, he calmly returned to his cage. The naming ceremony took place on the stage and was celebrated with champagne – hopefully not bought on the black market!
The Hippodrome was vital in entertaining the people of Birmingham during these very anxious times. We kept them cheerful, laughing and singing, as well as optimistic and motivated for victory. Perhaps the theatre was never more needed.
Hippodrome Heritage Volunteer