Royal Hippodrome Theatre

West Derby Road and Walker Street,
Liverpool, L6

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Royal Hippodrome Theatre

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Located on the extreme eastern edge of Liverpool city centre and Everton, at the junction of West Derby Road and Walker Street, facing Everton Road. The building began life as a 4,000-seat circus, operated by Charles Hengler, it opened as Hengler’s Grand Cirque on 13th November 1876. The circus was designed by well known theatre architect Jethro T. Robinson. A feature of the show was a water spectacular, in which the circus ring could be flooded with 23,000 gallons of water in 35 seconds! Hengler’s Liverpool circus was such a success, that he went on to build other such circus’s in Glasgow, Hull, Dublin, Manchester and London (today the London Palladium Theatre).

Hengler’s Grand Cirque in Liverpool was closed on 9th February 1901, and was sold to northern theatre owner Thomas Barrasford. It was re-modeled into a huge variety theatre by noted theatre architect Bertie Crewe, in a Louis XV style. The auditorium ceiling had a circular central feature, which contained painted panels by the London artist Walter Sicard. Externally, there was very little alteration, with the narrow central entrance to the main seating sections in the stalls and dress circle protruding forward of the main bulk of the building by 40 feet, with a separate entrance to the balcony on Walker Street.

The old circus ring was covered over to become the theatre’s stage (the largest ever in Liverpool at 40 feet deep and 90 feet wide). The total seating capacity for 3,500 was provided in stalls, dress circle and balcony levels (the balcony capacity was for 1,000, all seated on long wooden benches). There was standing room for 500 persons. The proscenium was 40 feet wide with a marble base, and on top, five painted panels depicting the Five Senses. There were four pairs of boxes on each side adjacent to the proscenium. At the rear of the dress circle was a small fire-proof projection box. The small dress circle foyer had a mosaic floor, retained from the circus days, which depicted the heads of two clowns. Over the narrow entrance at dress circle level was the dress circle bar. At the rear of the building, the animal enclosures were retained, as were the original twelve artistes dressing rooms.

The newly re-modeled theatre was opened on 4th August 1902 as the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, with 10 acts of variety, headed by the Six Sisters Daindoff, plus the ‘Barrascope’ projecting films onto the screen on the safety curtain. Many famous stars appeared on the stage of the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, including Houdini, Charlie Chaplin and Gracie Fields. The Royal Hippodrome Theatre was so so successful, that rival Moss Empires Theatres chain commissioned noted theatre architect Frank Matcham to build the huge 3,750-seat Olympia Theatre in 1905. Located just a few hundred yards away on West Derby Road, it too was equipped with a huge water tank under the stage, but the Olympia Theatre proved to be not as successful as the Royal Hippodrome Theatre.

The Royal Hippodrome Theatre passed onto Variety Theatres Controling Company, headed by Walter de Freece, husband of music hall star Vesta Tilly. In 1919, it was under Charles Gulliver’s London Theatres of Variety chain until March 1928, when it was sold to the Gaumont British Theatres chain. The final live show at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre was on 20th June 1931, when a ‘standing room only’ crowd of 4,000 saw a variety show headed by Harry Champion and Vesta Tilley.

The theatre was closed for a month while it was wired for sound, and a new projection box built at the rear of the balcony. Due to re-spacing, the seating capacity was reduced to 2,100. The new Kalee projectors were set at an angle of 26 degrees, due to the steep angle, and the screen on the stage was also angled backwards.

The Royal Hippodrome Theatre was opened as a cinema on 20th July 1931 with Bella Lugosi in “Dracula” and Herbert Mundin in “We Dine at Seven”. It was a huge success, with over 30,000 admissions in the first week.

The Royal Hippodrome Theatre served its locality well for many years. In 1966, the cinema was given a much needed restoration, with the beautiful interior re-painted and decorative details enriched with gold paint (although sadly, the painted panels had been painted over). There was talk of live shows (possibly one night stand pop concerts) and even a Christmas pantomime being staged, but this never happened. In 1968, when the Rank Organisation’s city centre cinemas, the Odeon (former Paramount Theatre) was closed for conversion into a twin, and the Gaumont was tied-up playing hard ticket long running ‘roadshow’ films, the Royal Hippodrome Theatre became the 1st-run Rank release cinema in the city for over six months. It was here that The Beatles “Yellow Submarine” had its Liverpool premier run. Sadly, due to mass redevelopment in the area in the mid to late-1960’s, the local audience for this huge cinema disappeared. It was closed on 16th May 1970 with Paul Newman in “Winning” and “The Pipeliners”.

The building stood empty and becoming more derelict and vandalised as the years passed by, it was demolished in 1984. A builders timber-yard took up the site for a few years, but this has now closed, and in 2012, the site remains an empty plot of land. (The rival magnificent Olympia Theatre along West Derby Road survives today as a special events and concert venue).

Contributed by Ken Roe
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