Next month sees West End leading lady and vocal powerhouse Ria Jones join forces with Strictly Come Dancing sensation Danny Mac in the new UK touring production of Sunset Boulevard; a compelling story of romance, obsession and betrayal set against the bustling backdrop of Hollywood’s golden era.
Ahead of the show’s arrival, Hippodrome Heritage volunteer Ivan Heard takes a closer look at film’s role in the history of Birmingham Hippodrome across the years….from the early days of war-time cine-variety to the golden age of the Hollywood blockbuster and beyond.
Film has played a part in the Hippodrome’s story right from the start. Pictures were shown on the Viagraph in October, 1900 as part of the Variety programme and later, the theatre’s proprietor, Thomas Barrasford, introduced his Barrascope, showing the latest moving pictures of entertainment, news and sporting events.
For ten months in 1917, cine-variety was tried, mixing short films with live acts, but this was not successful.The last film to be shown at the Hipppodrome, in April, 1919, was ” The Greatest Fight on Record” between Jimmy Wilde and Joe Lynch for the Boxing Championship of the World. Between 1917 and 1919 a Pathe News newsreel was shown in the Variety programme.
From the 1920s, under the ownership of Moss Empires, the Hippodrome presented the big stars of the day and these were soon to include the new celebrities of the silver screen.
First to arrive on 13 August, 1928 was Sophie Tucker, billed as “the Famous American Queen of Jazz” and later known as ” the Last of the Red Hot Mamas”. Sophie had worked her way up through American vaudeville and in 1911 had recorded her signature song “One of These Days”. Known for her brassy and bawdy delivery of risque songs, laced with innuendo, she wowed the Hippodrome audiences. In 1929, she made her first film in Hollywood and returned to the Hippodrome in March,1931. The Birmingham Mail hailed her appearance as ” a personal triumph” and ” an inimitable performance”. While Sophie was in Birmingham for that week she distributed packages of Australian butter to Mums in the Women’s Hospital- well, the Empire Marketing Board shop in Birmingham was promoting Australian butter!
Next to come was Tallulah Bankhead at the end of December, 1929. Famous for her deep voice, flamboyant personality and outrageous behaviour, the Birmingham Mail said she was “a fascinating and gifted actress with a flair for attractive gowns” in her one-act play “The Snob”, performed as part of the Variety programme. She made two further visits here in 1930 and 1934, by which time she had made her mark in Hollywood. Her impression of us must have been good, because she later told a reporter “Birmingham audiences never laugh where they shouldn’t and the subtle bits are speedily recognised. Above all,their warm-hearted sympathy is a thing to be remembered with gratitude”.
In June, 1930, scampering on stage were Max, Muntz and Akka, “the famous Hollywood Apes”- animal acts were always popular at the Hippodrome.
The first Hollywood cowboy at the Hippodrome was Tom Mix and his Wonder Horse Tony in September, 1938. After over 290 films, Tom had defined the screen image of the cowboy with clean-cut features, upholding all that was good. Even more popular with later audiences was screen cowboy Roy Rogers with his horse Trigger and wife Dale Evans, who rode onto our stage for a week in March, 1954. The theatre was sold out and full of eager little boys with their toy guns and caps to fire them when the ” baddie” appeared on stage. The Birmingham Mail had printed a photograph of Roy leading Trigger down the main stairs of the Queens Hotel next to New Street Station, where he and Dale were staying and it was claimed that Trigger, with a pencil between his teeth, had signed-in at the hotel reception. In fact, Trigger was stabled at M and B Brewery in Cape Hill and every morning queues formed to see him. A happy week at the Hippodrome, still fondly remembered by many of today’s Granddads.
Laurel and Hardy were the world’s most famous Hollywood comedy duo in the 1930s and they appeared live at the Hippodrome in the bitterly cold week of 3 March, 1947; they were to herald an invasion of American stars through the 1950s. Such was the demand for tickets that when the boss of Moss Empires, Lew Grade, called at the theatre to check the bookings, he saw long queues at the Box Office. Straightaway, he took off his jacket and opened up one of the windows and began selling tickets himself- it was said that he broke the then record for taking the most cash over the counter. For a detailed account of Laurel and Hardy’s three appearances at the Hippodrome, see my blog on www.birminghamhippodrome.com/news-and-updates/
An even bigger clamour for tickets occurred when film and stage star Danny Kaye appeared here for a week from 20 June, 1949.The theatre’s Manager, Bertie Adams, recalled that the Box Office opened, unusually, on a Sunday six weeks before Danny arrived. Queues of fans had started to form from the Friday evening and by Sunday, over 8,000 people encircled the street block around the Hippodrome, even stretching towards the old Market Hall. A Mail reader, Mr. F. Plant, told how he and his wife and her two sisters queued all night and “most of the usherettes stayed on duty and we were able to get a cup of tea and biscuits.. the artist himself was superb and held the audience captivated”.
One of Hollywood’s early sex symbols, Mae West, steamed into the Hippodrome for two weeks in December, 1947. Actress, singer, comedienne and playwright, Mae had written a comedy melodrama in 1928 called ” Diamond Lil”, about a racy, easy-going lady of the ” Gay Nineties” (1890s), which fitted her own personality of a star who had bucked the system and the moral conventions of the day with her bawdy and very witty inuendoes. Hippodrome audiences had no hesitation in responding to Mae’s request to “come up and see me sometime!” In a pre-show interview, Miss West typically declared she had put on 5 lbs before braving the British post-war rationing- ” but” (with both eyes and one hand on her hips and her mind’s eye on the Box Office) “they are all properly distributed!” Rather ungallantly, the Birmingham Gazette review of the play said Mae was “plump and extravagantly curved like a roller coaster. Essentially, Miss West’s animated statuary is an apparatus for the pointed quip and rotund jest…her opulent hips move at roughly two sways a second”. Also in the cast of “Diamond Lil” was Noele Gordon, musical comedy and pantomime star, soon to become ” Queen of ATV”.
July, 1951 brought the great Judy Garland to the Hippodrome. She had risen through American vaudeville and had become a massive film star after “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939. It’s strange to look at the programme for her week here and see that she was supported by a bill that included acrobats, jugglers, Morton Fraser’s Harmonica Gang and Duncan’s Collies, who had first appeared at the Hippodrome in its opening year of 1900!
During her sell-out week, Judy visited the Aston Hippodrome for an afternoon matinee of an Irish Variety show. She was spotted sitting in the stalls and was encouraged on stage to join in “It’s a Great Day For the Irish” with the cast.
Completely unaccompanied, she then sang “Danny Boy” and brought the house down. What an unexpected experience for that unsuspecting matinee audience in Aston!
By the time Judy reached Birmingham on her tour she had been parted from her husband Vincent Minnelli and their five-year old daughter Liza for three months.
Happily re-united at the Hippodrome, they visited the Corporation Street store of Crane’s, the piano and music shop, where they bought Liza a small Mickey Mouse wind-up record player.
Judy’s reception from the Hippodrome audience was ecstatic and Liza watched from the wings as they stood and sang “Auld Lang Syne” to her mother.
Frank Sinatra, when he sang on our stage at the end of June, 1953, did not receive such a reception. Problems in his personal life and singing career had dented his popularity and, would you believe, he played to half-empty houses interviewed Mrs. Pat Thompson of Solihull, who, after work one evening, strolled with her friends into the Box Office and easily got tickets in the stalls to see her idol. When Frank came on, backed by Billy Ternent’s Orchestra, he was greeted by a sea of empty seats and he said “Welcome to the Ice Palace”. Halfway through his act, somebody walked on stage with a cup of tea for Frank and he chatted to the band and the audience. Not long after this, Frank scored a huge hit in the film “From Here To Eternity” and his subsequent career soared- but he never returned to the Hippodrome!
Another Hollywood siren arrived at the Hippodrome for a week on 9 August, 1965. Marlene Dietrich had appeared in Berlin cabaret in the 1920s and had shot to international fame in the 1930 film “The Blue Angel”. Her glamorous persona and sultry looks made her one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses. After her film career waned, she took to the cabaret stage and developed a husky, understated style of singing, very much defined by her musical director Burt Bacharach. Of limited vocal range, she performed her material with stunning dramatic effect.
Marlene’s Hippodrome appearance was carefully stage-managed. She insisted on straight lines in her stage setting-drapes would make her look fat! She had one of the best lighting engineers, Joe Davis,who softened her looks and she was “engineered” into her tight-fitting dress. Backed by an 18-piece orchestra, Marlene wowed the sell-out audience. Her performance of course won a standing ovation and she concluded with a graceful slow bow, wrapped in the stage curtain. A unique and inimitable artist.
Another Hollywood star famous for her sultry looks and distinctive voice, Lauren Becall, visited us for a week in June, 1985 in the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth”, about a gigolo who befriends a faded movie star – echoes of “Sunset Boulevard”.
Which is where we came in – Cue the Lights!
Ivan Heard- Hippodrome Heritage Volunteer