Bristol Hippodrome opened in 1912. It began as a venue of early variety and revue, and was for a time a cinema. It became a wartime moral booster. Theatre manager Oswald Stoll and a theatre architect called Frank Matcham worked together to build the Bristol Hippodrome as well as other theatres such as the London Coliseum and Hackney Empire. Stoll has been credited as the pioneer of the concept of variety “to which a man could take his fiancée without fear of causing her embarrassment.”
He had a vision of something upmarket and something that spared no luxury and it was seen as his greatest triumph outside of London. The interior of the place had a nautical theme, which was in keeping with Bristol’s maritime history. Today the theatre seats 1,951; when it opened the figure was 1,870, but, with police regulations not strictly enforced, mass standing was allowed. The frist press release claimed that it could hold up to 3,000 people. If anyone found the standing room too crowded, they could get a refund. “The Hippodrome considered itself a cut above tawdry music hall. It prided itself on refined entertainment.”
When The Four Marx Brothers (a team of sibling comedians, who performed in vaudeville, stage plays, film and television.) made their first visit to Britain they only performed in Bristol, London and Manchester. It was one of the centuries’ biggest “coups”. The 1920s were the Hippodrome’s golden decade with loads of famous artists and actors coming to perform, (from Robb Wilton to Gracie Fields) But across the country there was a change in entertainment that started to occur. This was a result of emergence of sound film (aka the talkies). Even though Bristol had cinemas,the Hippodrome chose to dabble in this new medium, mixing the variety with the showing of films in 1929 (the first was a comedy short called Miss Information). The first pantomime was staged three years later with: Dick Whittington and his Cat. They also showed educational films for young people. But the demand was irresistible and a complete conversion to cinema came in October 1932.
Approval was not unanimous. The Empire had made the switch the year before, leaving Bristol without a variety house, and at the end of the Hippodrome’s last night of live entertainment a near-riot broke out. A crowd surged towards the stage demanding a speech from the manager, who emerged amid a shower of programmes to hold out hope that one day variety might return. People were even writing protest letters to the local press!
After showing films for six years, and with 29 cinemas in the Bristol area now competing for a decreasing number of new releases and forced to screen countless re-runs, the demand for variety was rekindled. The Hippodrome reopened in 1938 as a variety theatre. The Hippodrome survived the war unscathed, but it was partly destroyed by a fire which completely obliterated the stage area, including the famous water tank. Luckily the auditorium was largely saved by fire fighters. “The Hippodrome was seen as a jewel in the crown and would not be allowed to fail.”
In the 70’s there was a resurgence of interest in live entertainment, spurred by popular musicals such as Hair and Godspell. Portacabins were installed on the roof to relieve overcrowded dressing rooms, to improve the theatre’s appeal to artists. In 1984 the Hippodrome was sold for just under £1 million to Apollo Leisure, a group that specialised in transforming the fortunes of loss-making theatres, they slashed running costs but also funded repairs and improvements, including new star dressing rooms, and aggressively marketed the Hippodrome. The public no longer had to travel to London to see the very best shows because they were coming to Bristol, sometimes even before appearing in the capital, earning the Hippodrome the reputation of being Bristol’s West End Theatre.
In 1996 it had a £1.2 million facelift which acknowledged the theatre’s roots. Auditorium seating and dressing rooms were upgraded and Apollo bought back the lease from the burger bar next door and turned it into a bistro called Grant’s, after the theatre’s most famous son, Cary Grant. In 2012 it was restyled as the Piano Bar- a cocktail bar complete with grand piano.. A new box office was also opened with direct street access.
Today the theatre’s offering a range from singers Shirley Bassey and Van Morrison to acts such as the Dreamboys and children’s shows during the daytime. The ageing of Britain’s population has produced more pensioners, leisure time and disposable income, which have boosted the industry. The year 2009 was a record-breaker for the Hippodrome, with more than 80 productions, 478,000 customers through the door and a box office turnover of £11 million. Despite hard times its owners spared it the fate of so many other variety theatres, replaced with multi-storey car parks or wider roads.