The day Cary Grant came to Norwich
15:25 14 February 2014
A legendary leading man, he was what every man aspired to be and every woman desired, one of the Hollywood’s greatest stars but also a man with a much darker side.
His name was Cary Grant but in Norwich during the First World War he was young Archie – a Nippy Nine.
The Hippodrome on St Giles opened in 1903 as the Grand Opera House and was demolished half a century ago but during its glorious life it attracted some of the biggest names in show business – including some who were just embarking on a career which would make them world famous.
They included a certain Archibald Leach, a young man with a troubled childhood, who had been born in Bristol of 1904.
An only child he watched his parents’ marriage disintegrate. His mother, Elsie was not well. She and Archie moved in with her mother. Archie was left to cook his own meals and put himself to bed. There weren’t many laughs for young Archie when he was growing up.
He had few friends but he then struck up a friendship with a group of acrobatic dancers and stilt walkers called the Penders. The troupe was run by Robert Lomas and his wife Margaret who adopted the name Pender.
David Guy of Hethersett recalled a few years ago how Archie acted as a baggage boy for his mother Winifred Beatrice Williams who was a dancer with the troupe.
Many years later when Archie had become Cary Grant he looked back on his early life and described Winifred as one of the kindest ladies he had ever met.
A century or so ago Archie started helping backstage at the Bristol Hippodrome and wanted to go on tour with them but he was still at school. He had to return.
The story goes that he ran away and somehow managed to reach Norwich on the other side of the country but had to be sent back to school.
He was then expelled in 1918 for stealing from a church and he returned to Norwich where the Nippy Nine were appearing at the grand theatre in St Giles.
It was the start of an extraordinary career during which he re-invented himself to become a Hollywood heart-throb.
Back in Norwich of 1918 the Evening News described the performance of the Nippy Nine as “a party of the liveliest comedians and acrobatic dancers.”
The show, with Archie on board, then nipped off to Ipswich before travelling the country. It was a tough life but Archie loved it and was learning his trade as an entertainer.
In the summer of 1920, with the war finally over, he and the troupe sailed to New York. The Penders returned to England three years later but Archie stayed, travelled to Los Angeles to try his hand in the movies.
He changed his name to Cary Grant, was signed by Paramount Studios and his first big break came a year later when he played opposite Mae West in She Done Him Wrong. Mae described him as “warm, dark and handsome.”
He went on to become of a household name making many classic films... not bad for a Nippy Nine.
A few years ago Martin Sterling, then living in Norfolk and now working on Coronation Street, co-wrote a book with Gary Morecambe, his dad Eric also played the Hippodrome, called Cary Grant: In Name Only.
He didn’t know of his Norwich links before writing the book but did he think Cary ever returned to take a look at the city where he launched his career.
“Cary used to spend a lot of time just driving around on his own when he returned to this country. I am sure he would have found the time to come and take a look at Norwich,” said Martin.
I hope he made it before the Hippodrome was pulled down in the middle of the 1960s. Still, he could have parked his car in the multi-storey which now stands on the site.
• THE VARIETY ACTS AT THE HIPPODROME IN NORWICH OF 1918
“Bob Pender’s funny” Nippy Nine were “in a Burlesque Rehearsal.”
Also on the bill were:
Marcelle Caron (pleasing vocalist).
Ida Long (comedienne and dancer.
Atlas and Collins (The English comedy duo).
F V St Clair (The up-to-date artiste. Mr St Clair has raised £3,500 for War Charities by the sale of his songs).
Athelda (Britain’s Muscular Daughter).
Alfred Wellesley (in great comedy burlesque The Mad Emperor).
Shows were at 6.30pm and 8.30pm nightly – plus a Saturday matinee.
Were any of these acts from Norwich or Norfolk? If you know anything about them then I would love to hear from you. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org