Steve Denyer, Heart FM’s popular drivetime presenter was among the hundreds of people who came to our Hippodrome Heritage Open Day on Saturday 12 September. Here he writes about his experience.
From massive sell out productions like Disney’s The Lion King, to hosting Ken Dodd driving himself to the theatre and parking his Volvo Estate round the back before a one man show, Birmingham Hippodrome has seen it all!
I was lucky enough to enjoy a behind the scenes tour at one of the biggest theatres in the UK as part of it’s Hippodrome Heritage Open Day … and it didn’t disappoint. Here are just some of the things I learnt.
Birmingham Hippodrome opened in 1899 and was known then as the Tower of Varieties and Circus and used to be home to amazing and bizarrely risky animal shows, including elephants, baboons, lions, bears and horses (I’m not making this up!). It has a Royal Box that was used by The Queen and Prince Phillip for The Royal Variety Performance in 1999. And because the box is at the side of the stage, the whole show was performed on a giant ramp facing The Queen so she had a good view!
Being one of the largest theatres in the UK (the safety curtain alone is the biggest piece of artwork in a theatre in Britain), we regularly get to see massive ground-breaking West End shows such as Wicked, The National Theatre’s War Horse and the UK’s biggest pantomimes which have brought in well over 600,000 visitors and that was in just one year!
The backstage area is huge and literally left me speechless. My first question to the technical team who deal with all the show sets was what’s the biggest thing that’s ever gone wrong?. A member of the technical team replied “Apart from Joan Collins stopping half way through Panto and demanding a glass of water, it has to be when the helicopter from Miss Saigon refused to fly onto the stage. It got stuck and we couldn’t shift it on time – thankfully one quick thinking actor ad-libbed: “come on guys the helicopter’s parked round the back.”
I’ve always thought the whole theatre has an air of grandeur, and that was before I knew legends such as Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin had appeared there. I was privileged enough to get a picture in one of the dressing rooms used by the likes of Lily Savage, the late Cilla Black, Kenneth Branagh and Ken Dodd (now that is variety) having spent hours rehearsing lines, getting made up and generally being fabulous.
In theatreland there’s plenty of superstitions too including don’t knit in the wings and don’t whistle anywhere in the venue – it brings bad luck. Then there’s the story of Des O’Connor and Harold from Neighbours and their fellow actors seeing a ghostly figure dressed in an eerie black cloak from one of the boxes in the early 90’s – again I’m not making any of this up – and I’m not telling you where the box is!
Birmingham Hippodrome has seen two world wars, five monarchs, had four facelifts and created a million memories – and long may it continue!
If you’re reading this blog and have memories or memorabilia you would like to share then get in touch with the Hippodrome Heritage Project team archive@birminghamHippodrome.com or telephone 0121 689 1085.
You can see images from the day on our gallery