A new stage with old memories…

Robert Anchor has been coming to Birmingham Hippodrome since the 1930’s. After donating many opera programmes to our archives a few weeks back, Robert took the time to share some of his memories of the theatre…

Robert Anchor

Robert Anchor

I was born back in 1925 when Birmingham Hippodrome was a “twice nightly” variety theatre. At this time there were a number of theatres in Birmingham city centre; at the corner of Hurst Street and Smallbrook Street (now Smallbrook ringway) there was the Empire Theatre which also had twice nightly variety of somewhat less quality than the Hippodrome. There were also the Royal in New Street, which was demolished after the war and replaced with new office/shop buildings, and The Prince of Wales Theatre in Broad Street which was demolished by a bomb in 1940. There was also another theatre along Corporation Street which closed sometime in the 1930’s and the building has since been demolished to make way for a new road.

When I was young, we lived at Birchwood Crescent, Moseley.  I was often taken to the city (actually referred to then as “town”). We took the number 4 which made its way along Stoney Lane all the way to up Hurst Street; the great excitement for me was to see the tower above the front of the Hippodrome building, it had the name (Hippodrome) vertically on the side made of metal letters with electric lights inside the letters. The complete name was illuminated followed by each of the letters being separately lit up in sequence and so on for the whole late afternoon and into the evening. Needless to say, for a 5 year old, this was the most interesting part of the trip.

The old Birmingham Hippodrome Moorish Tower

The old Birmingham Hippodrome Moorish Tower

My father took our family to the pantomime at the Hippodrome at Christmas, usually to a matinee. The theatre was always full and shows went on from just before Christmas until early March. We would also go to one or two variety shows – I remember hearing Sir Harry Lauder, the famous Scottish Singer and Entertainer, and also Arthur Askey in his early days.

After the war started in Sep 1939 the Government introduced various regulations to reduce the likelihood of causalities during air raids. The Hippodrome had performances in the morning and the afternoon to avoid possible bombing in the dark evenings.

I was called up into the Army on leaving school and returned to Birmingham in 1947; theatres were then trying to become what they had been before the war. The Covent Garden Opera Company was being set up in London and each year it travelled to the major cities. In Birmingham, it played at the Theatre Royal; however, when Welsh National Opera was formed it also travelled to the provinces and came to Birmingham Hippodrome. It has now been coming for many years and I have often been to their performances; their repertoire has changed over the years, performing popular and rarely seen works, but I always find the quality to be very good. Sadlers Wells Ballet Company then came to theatre under the new name of Birmingham Royal Ballet where it is now based and plays several seasons per year.

Some of the programmes donated by Robert

Some of the programmes donated by Robert

Although I have enjoyed plays, ballet and other productions over the years, my favourite has always been opera, perhaps because I cannot sing a note myself! I have been able to attend Welsh National Opera at the Hippodrome many times over the years as well as Opera across the world including Salzburg, St. Petersburg, Prague and Paris to name a few. It is difficult to decide on a favourite work but I think that Beethoven’s Fidelio is near the top together with all Mozart’s later works.

Birmingham Hippodrome has provided the facilities to stage large works over the years and has an auditorium and stage which were, and are the best in Birmingham and have been improved in the post-war years. I always prefer seats in the Circle which have a splendid view of the stage. The renovation ten years ago made for an attractive entrance and now more work gets underway as the theatre prepares for a brand new stage…

You can find out more about the current building work and Stage Appeal HERE.

To find out more about our upcoming Opera programme CLICK HERE.

If you have programmes or collectables that you wish to donate to our archive please contact Caroline Davis on carolinedavis@birminghamhippodrome.com or 0121 689 3044.

Birmingham Hippodrome archives and how you can help.

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Caroline and her favourite show programme from May 8 1939 - published just before the outbreak of war.

Caroline Davis, Birmingham Hippodrome’s Strategic Projects Manager, writes about archiving the theatre’s long and eventful history…

Did you know that we started life as a circus in 1899?   We’ve certainly come a long way since then! We’re  currently  organising our archives, cataloguing the theatre’s long history of entertainment – it’s an exciting project that has thrown up some really interesting finds. Although we are a receiving theatre, meaning productions visit us already developed and produced elsewhere, we have a variety of interesting theatrical memorabilia including programmes, posters, photos and artwork dating back as far as the early 20th Century.   The majority of our material is from the 1980’s onwards, following the theatre’s renovation. Birmingham Central Library collection also houses some fabulous bill posters and programmes from the very early days which has helped us a great deal in collating  parts of our past.

The oldest show programme in the collection, dating back to 1926.

Variety has always been a key part of  Birmingham Hippodrome’s programming and, as we start cataloguing all of the pieces we hold,  it is clear to see what a colourful history the Birmingham Hippodrome has had. One of my favourite things about the project is seeing how the styling of programmes has changed over the decades, studying the rise in the cost of programmes and productions advertised, reflecting the social life that developed around the theatre.  One of the earliest programmes we have is from August 1926, when we were doing our twice nightly performances; boxes then cost 12/6! Some of the programme covers from the 50’s are also my personal favourites, the artwork is beautiful and they used to cost threepence!

Deep in the archives...

Another interesting development has been the acquisition of some old archive footage – particularly from ATV (now Central ITV News). The Midland Archive for Central England  has helped us in digitialising the clips that they held in storage in Leicester, allowing us to tell some more of the history of the building through old video footage that we will be using as part of our education programme.  It’s fantastic to see how the building has changed along with the programme over the decades.

Eventually, the BIG plan is to possibly digitalise our records so that they are able to be viewed by our patrons – although there is still a big way to go at this moment in time!

Look out for more information as this project develops.   In the meantime we are particularly searching for posters and programmes from the 1970s or before that.     If you have any information or wish to donate old programmes please get in touch with or mark for the attention of Caroline Davis, Strategic Projects Manager, Birmingham Hippodrome, carolinedavis@birminghamhippodrome.com, 0121 689 3044. We have had some wonderful donations from some of our long standing patrons already and we are very grateful for their generosity.

 
We look forward to keeping you up to date as this develops and, in time, collecting some of the wonderful memories that I am sure many of you have of the theatre over the years!