James and Henry Draysey leased a plot of land bordering Inge Street and Hurst Street to build a theatre. There were to be concerts, theatrical and animal entertainment! The wealthy brothers made their money from horses, bookmaking and property. The new Tower of Varieties and Circus opened on 9 October 1899, the design of local architect Mr. F. W. Lloyd. It had a tall tower with an onion shaped top, and the whole theatre was lit by electric light. Despite some good reviews the venture closed only five weeks after opening.
The first performer at the Tower of Varieties and Circus was Alfred Clark: a juggler.
On 20 August 1900 the theatre reopened with a brand new name The Tivoli Theatre of Varieties under the management of Mr. Thomas Barrasford who already owned a number of successful theatres in Hull and Leeds.
The building looked the same from the outside but inside the stage had been enlarged and transformed from a circus ring to a proscenium arch theatre. The interior was crimson and gold.
By 1903 the theatre was renamed Birmingham Hippodrome. It was the first Birmingham music hall to present twice nightly shows.
Some of the first moving pictures shown in Birmingham were part of the variety programme in October 1900.
In 1910 the theatre closed and then reopened in the same year with a show that featured Fred Karno and his company, which included Charlie Chaplin. It closed again in 1914 (when further building changes were drawn up) until 1917, re-opening under the management of J. and W. Draysey, sons of the original builders. In 1919 the theatre closed again!
This decade saw the first appearance of artists who returned regularly up to the 1950s, including Robb Wilton, Dorothy Ward and Georgie Wood.
In 1924 the theatre was eventually bought by Moss Empires. The group already had 27 other theatres under their control.
Birmingham Hippodrome was given a new identity, inside there was a steeply raked fan shaped circle and twelve boxes. The colour scheme was two shades of grey, rose-pink with gold relief.
The newly refurbished theatre opened on 24 February 1925.
The first appearance of local dancer Betty Fox was 10 March 1926. Her ‘Babes’ performed in many future pantomimes.
As Moss Empires grew they were able to book famous names and spectacular shows, Birmingham Hippodrome was given a new lease of life. The adjoining City Assembly Rooms, became part of Birmingham Hippodrome. The rooms could be hired for private functions but their main use was for dancing in Tony’s Ballroom. It was a decade where big band music, radio and cinema performers were all popular.
The first ice show was staged for four weeks at Christmas in 1937. The first full length musical ‘Me and My Girl’ opened on 23 January 1939.
Throughout the war and into peacetime the top stars of stage and screen continued to entertain audiences with a diverse range of shows. When tickets went on sale for Hollywood comedians Laurel & Hardy there was a near riot! Even during air-raids the theatre stayed open, live entertainment became important to keep up people’s sprits. During the night of 23 October 1940 neighbouring theatre The Empire was badly damaged by a German bombing raid. Birmingham Hippodrome was hit too but remained open.
Staging of the theatre’s first play on 04 January 1943, the thriller ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’.
The rock and roll fifties was a time of change for variety theatre. Twice nightly variety had run its course and new stars were born through TV and popular music. The decade saw the staging of popular musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Carousel’ and in 1957 the first pantomime ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Birmingham Hippodrome audiences saw Ol’ Blue Eyes himself – Frank Sinatra!
The first pop star to appear at the theatre was Tony Crombie and his rock ‘n’ roll Rockets on 24 September 1956.
Reflecting changing times the familiar onion shaped tower, which had become dangerous, was pulled down. There were extensive alterations to the front of house and the Hurst Street facade was rebuilt. The orchestra pit was lowered and a new scenery dock installed. To draw in a younger audience the theatre hosted many ‘package shows’ consisting of chart toppers alongside a variety bill. The programme was no longer weekly, but part of a ‘season’ of performances. In 1965 Moss Empires tried to rename the Hippodrome to ‘Birmingham Theatre’ but it didn’t stick for long!
The first full length Shakespearean production ‘Twelfth Night’ was performed on 25 May 1964. In 1917 Shakespearean extracts were performed as part of a variety bill.
This was a decade of big hits as well as uncertainty and change. Productions included nudism on stage with the show ‘Hair!’, a Danny La Rue extravaganza and Sid James and Barbara Windsor in ‘Carry on London’. The Welsh National Opera made its debut at the theatre in 1971 and set up residence in 1977. In 1979, 80 years after the theatre opened Birmingham City Council purchased the freehold for the Hippodrome for £50,000 from Moss Empires and leased it to Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust Ltd, a new charitable trust.
Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ of operas was first presented by Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1974.
A huge restoration project was launched spending more than £2million backstage and on an improved auditorium. Capacity was transformed enabling the biggest and best shows to be staged. In 1986 the sixties style concrete frontage was torn down and replaced by a new pink and white plastic façade. At the end of the 1980s work began on building the best dance facilities in Europe following the purchase of adjacent property in Thorp Street. This became the new home of Birmingham Royal Ballet.
The first show to open the newly refurbished building in 1984 was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Song and Dance’ with Marti Webb.
The theatre became a centre of excellence hosting regular opera and ballet seasons, and expanding the range of family productions. In 1994 Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber took up residence with ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ starring Phillip Schofield, and broke box office records. In the theatre’s centenary year Birmingham Hippodrome hosted the Royal Variety Performance attended by Her Majesty the Queen. It was the first time the event had taken place outside London.
Birmingham Royal Ballet performed ‘The Nutcracker’ for the first time on the 29 December 1990.
At the end of 1999 the theatre closed its doors for a £35million redevelopment, reopening on 11 November 2001. Improvements included a 206 seat studio theatre, new bars, dressing rooms and improved disabled access. Welcoming audiences averaging around 550,000 each year, Birmingham Hippodrome can lay claim to the highest regular annual attendance of any single theatre in the UK.
In 2013 625,732 tickets were sold, the most in 50 years!