How Norwich Hippodrome fought back from the Blitz to attract big names such as Gracie Fields and Morecambe and Wise
17:14 13 February 2014
Half a century ago a palace of dreams in the heart of Norwich was being destroyed – people would watch in dismay as the theatre which played such a leading role in the life of the city was smashed to pieces.
It opened as the Grand Opera House in 1903, went on to attract some of the biggest stars around, survived the 1942 Norwich Blitz by the skin of its teeth, only to be closed and then demolished in the 1960s. Ten years after the appearance of Laurel and Hardy in 1954, the planners decided that the Hippodrome – by now boarded up and vandalised – had no future.
What was needed was a multi-storey car park so one was built – in St Giles along with some council offices.
A classic example of another majestic Norwich building which, according to those in power, stood in the way of progress.
The theatre had been built on the site of the Norfolk Hotel and within a year or so of opening it was renamed the Hippodrome.
At times it could be a boisterous theatre for the people attracting variety acts which packed the place out. It attracted some of the biggest names in the business from a young Charlie Chaplin to Marie Lloyd, Grace Fields – plus some weird and wonderful offerings from around the world.
Often the variety acts would end with a performance of the “The Hippodrome Bioscope” – an early description of film.
The theatre did become a cinema in the 1930s and one of the most controversial films it screened was the German-made Morgenrot. The subject was naval warfare of the Great War and it was described as “a picture to abolish war.”
The film had been banned in various places and was not allowed to be shown in this country for a time. The Hippodrome’s management was praised for securing the film soon after the English ban was lifted.
The theatre went back to showing live acts and during the Blitz it received a direct hit. The manager, his wife and the trainer of a group of sea lions were killed. Photographer George Swain said later he had been haunted by the wailing of a sea lion amid the ruins which later died – some said of a broken heart.
The Hippodrome was rebuilt after the war and went from strength to strength – apart from Laurel and Hardy, The Goons (Peter Sellers got star billing), Max Miller, Morecambe and Wise, Billy Cotton... and so many more.
For early rock‘n’roll shows people were warned to stay in their seats and not to dance in the aisles or on the stage!
The last variety shows were staged in 1958, the Hippodrome became the home of The Norfolk Playhouse Repertory Company for a couple of years but then old building was allowed to rot and decay before the demolition men moved in half a century ago. This time there was no comeback.
• Who did you see at the Hippodrome?
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