PHOTOS: Step behind the curtain for Hippodrome's Centenary Year
As the Hippodrome prepares to mark its centenary, David Clensy takes a step back through the theatre's extraordinary history
STANDING at the entrance of the Bristol Hippodrome, I get a sudden sense of the history of the place – a feeling of the 40 million theatregoers who have walked through this grand lobby in the past 100 years, to see some of the 3,500 different stars who have performed here.Looking up through the lobby, at the original hardwood doors at the top of the first flight of stairs, I fancy for a moment I can glimpse back to the evening of December 16, 1912, when the theatre opened its doors for the first time.
There at the top of the stairs stands Oswold Stoll, the impresario who had the theatre built. Stoll's own mother is taking tickets on the door, and somewhere lost in the sea of people heading excitedly towards the new auditorium, is Frank Matcham, the extraordinary architect who designed the theatre.
A self-taught architect Matcham had made theatre design a speciality – building everything from the London Palladium to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom in his portfolio of 80 theatres. But the Bristol Hippodrome would be his final theatre, and he made it particularly special.
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Beautifully ornate and elegant, he based his design on the city's maritime heritage – you can still see the rope-shaped cornicing and stucco shells in the lobby today, while fish and lighthouses glow out of the stained glass windows.
Even the boxes that stand either side of the auditorium were designed to look like the sterns of galleons, while at the rear of the stalls you will still find the eight "Hippodrome angels" – elaborate busts that hint at ships' mastheads.
As it prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of that opening night, I decide to explore the less well-known corners of the historic theatre.
My guide for the day is Martin Williamson, the Bristol actor best-known as a former "Mr Brunel" at the ss Great Britain, whose main job is working front of house here at the Hippodrome.
He invests his passion for the theatre into the occasional Saturday backstage tours he gives to members of the public between shows.
"I just think it's the most wonderful place," he says. "Everyone who was anyone in the last century performed at the theatre. Whenever you spend time here, you can't help but feel the energy that has built up in the auditorium over all those years and all those wonderful performances.
"Everyone from Sarah Bernhardt, WC Fields and the Marx brothers, through to Laurel and Hardy, Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich have trodden the boards here.
"Max Wall, Stanley Holloway. Tom Jones, Rudolph Nureyev, Sir John Gielgud, Arthur Lowe, Mickey Rooney – the list is just endless.
"Back in 1917 there was a young Bristol lad called Archibald Leach who got his first job here as a call boy – that is, knocking on the stars' dressing room doors to tell them to make their way to the stage to take their cue.
"Those same dressing room doors are still here, and Leach went on to become one of the biggest film stars of all time of course, Cary Grant."
When it was built in 1912, the theatre was revolutionary – with a 5,000 sq ft stage, then the largest outside London, and space for 2,001 "bums on seats", the building had been built on a budget of £30,000, in a record-breaking 18 months.
"Bristol was then a city filled with great theatres," Martin says. "There was the Princes Theatre in Park Row, the Empire Theatre in Old Market and the Bedminster Hippodrome, as well as the Theatre Royal. But Stoll reassured his competitors that his new theatre wouldn't take away any of their custom – pompously adding that his theatre would attract a "better class of theatregoer"."
The opening show, a "water spectacular" called The Sands of Dee, was written to take advantage of the theatre's greatest novelty – a 60,000-gallon steel water tank embedded beneath the stage, complete with a hydraulically controlled moving base, designed to create real waves.
"From what I can gather, the climax of the show saw a local actress from Totterdown – chosen because she was an expert swimmer – tied to a post in the middle of the tank by the villain, while the hero swims across the stage to rescue her," Martin says as he leads the way on to the historic stage – pointing out the decades of cast graffiti that mark the back of the safety curtain – featuring everyone from Jerry Springer to The Tweenies.
It wasn't just the spectacular water tank that made the building an engineering marvel in its day. Even its most mundane functions were state-of-the-art – it was even built with a revolutionary central vacuum cleaning system. The enormous machine, located beneath the stage, connected via hidden tubes to sockets on the walls of each room in the building.
"Cleaners would just come along and plug their tube into the sockets and start cleaning," Martin says. "It continued to be used until 1993, when the raked stage was levelled, so the vacuum machine had to be removed to make space below the stage."
The building was nearly lost when a fire ravaged backstage during an early panto season in 1948.
"The historic auditorium was saved partly because the safety curtain was down, and partly because the auditorium is built with a retractable disc in the centre of the dome, which was often removed for summer ventilation.
"The Pyronaut fireboat was moored close enough in the harbour to be able to direct a hose on to the roof, showering the auditorium with water and saving it.
"The theatre was nearly lost for a second time in the late 1970s, when plans were afoot to either turn it into a bingo hall or a supermarket. But a wonderful local lady, Marjorie Bleasdale started a petition and successfully campaigned for the Hippodrome to be kept.
"Except for the 10 months it took to rebuild the fire-damaged stage in 1948, and a short period from 1931 to 1938 when it was used only as a cinema, the theatre has been in constant use throughout its 100 years – even through the war years, when during air raids the audience were sent beneath the stage."
Backstage we wander through the corridors of dressing rooms, past the steaming laundry room, and up successive flights of stairs until we finally enter the "fly floor"– the platform high above the stage from where a team of five "flymen" manually operate the stage rigging.
"Historically the job tended to be done by retired sailors, who were already used to working with ropes," Martin says.
"That's why whistling is still considered unlucky backstage in a theatre – the sailors used whistles to warn they were lowering the counterweights on the rigging."
The theatre is a hotbed of superstitions, and there are lots of stories among staff about ghosts in the building – with the auditorium toilets proving the most common place to sight the theatre's ghouls.
"Staff see people go in to the toilets and never come out," Martin says. "On another occasion one young lad working here walked down one of the fire escapes and saw a man sitting on the steps below. He knew it was locked at the bottom, and had been locked at the top, so he was spooked.
"He ran back to the top and locked the doors again. When he returned with other staff members, the man was gone – although there was no way he could have got out of the staircase.
"But this old theatre is alive with those sorts of stories."