Aladdin and Christmas at the Hippodrome

This year’s (2015) Aladdin is the eighth time that the exotic story of the Genie of the Lamp, Abanazar and Wishee Washee has been told at the Hippodrome.

The theatre’s Heritage archives has an original programme for the first production in 1959/1960, which starred singers Dickie Valentine and Eve Boswell, and comedian Norman Evans as Widow Twankey. Dickie had become a huge star after beginning his show business career as a back-stage call-boy at the London Palladium; Norman had first appeared at the Hippodrome in the 1930s and had recently returned in his touring Road Show “Good Evans”. It is fascinating to browse through the original programme and to imagine the colourful spectacle of the story as it unfolded through its seventeen scenes. Equally interesting are the seat prices – ranging from the best stalls seats (Imperial Fauteuils) priced at 9/6 (just under 50p) to the Balcony which cost 3/6¬†(17.5p)!

There have been six other Aladdins since then:-

  • 1967 –¬†with¬†Harry Worth and Yana
  • 1974 – with Larry Grayson and Alfred Marks
  • 1981 – with Danny La Rue
  • 1992 – with Brian Conley, Danny La Rue and Britt Eckland
  • 2002 – with Bobby Davro, Amanda Barrie and Don Maclean
  • 2007 – with John Barrowman and Don Maclean

The 1959 Aladdin was only the Hippodrome’s third Pantomime. The first, in 1957/1958, was Jack and the Beanstalk, starring comedians Beryl Reid,¬†Coventry-born Reg Dixon, and Freddie Frinton as Dame Maggie Trot.¬†Beryl was loved at the Hippodrome for her Brummie character Marlene with her cheery greeting of “Good Evening, Each!” and her outrageous dangling earrings. Reg Dixon was known for his “confidential” style and for beginning his act by telling the audience that he had been “proper poorly!”.

Before 1957, Birmingham’s¬†Pantomimes had been staged at the Theatre Royal (New Street), Prince of Wales (Broad Street) – until it was destroyed in the Blitz in 1941 ‚Äď and Alexandra (John Bright Street). However, after providing the City with the best of British Theatre since 1774,¬†the Theatre Royal, like the Hippodrome then owned by Moss’ Empires, was closed in December, 1956 and the Hippodrome took over its role in staging Pantomimes.

The review of this first Hippodrome pantomime could have been written about today’s show –¬†“it is a crackerjack – brash and bright, and it bustles along in fine style” (Birmingham Evening Despatch). There was an ovation at the end of the first night’s¬†performance and “at the final curtain, Beryl Reid stood almost knee-high in bouquets. Reg Dixon was the ideal Pantomime comedian”.

The Hippodrome’s Pantomime tradition had got off to a great start and today it is seen as the biggest and best in the country. Stars regard it as an accolade to appear here and it plays an important part in Birmingham’s Christmas. However, it was not always so,¬†for Pantomime has¬†been on the Hippodrome stage only for the last 58¬†of its 115 Christmases.

Before Pantomime what was Christmas like at the Hippodrome?

At the time of the first Christmas, the theatre was known as the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties – it did not become the Hippodrome until October, 1903. On Christmas Eve, 1900 the programme for the Variety bill (a copy of which is in the Library of Birmingham) ran:-

1. Overture
2. Fatma and Smaun – the Indian Pygmies – the smallest coloured midgets living-born on the borders of the Burmese River Irawaddi
3. The Bohemians – musical comedy artistes
4. F. Cary – comedian
5. The Three Andys – acrobat, tumbling and double somersault act
6. Ida Evilo – in her daring and graceful performance on the balancing trapeze
7. J. Baller ‚Äď cyclist
8. Miss Dublin’s Performing Dogs
9. Williams and Brown – the very funny cross-talk comedians
10. Corporal Godfrey West RHA – swell comique, military, naval and character vocalist, author and composer
11. The Ottoways – the world’s greatest bone¬†soloists and speciality artistes
12. The Original American Bicycle Polo Team, direct from the Empire Theatre, London

Despite its politically incorrect references, that was pretty standard fare for the Hippodrome at that time. There were two shows each night at¬†19:00 and 21:00 –¬†the Tivoli / Hippodrome was the first theatre in Birmingham to stage twice nightly shows.

The Programme had a lovely bit of advertising –¬†“Let the Evening’s Entertainment Bear the Morning’s Reflection”.

At Christmas, 1902, the Variety bill included the Arthur Saxon Trio, who challenged any man in the audience to lift a sack of flour; if they succeeded, they won ¬£10. That was an original bit of audience participation! Also appearing were the Ross Combination with their¬†“screaming absurdity” that included singing, dancing, club swinging, ball punching, burlesque and scientific boxing. The Donatos performed as¬†“the original one-legged acrobatic clowns and champion one-legged jumpers of the world”.

This was typical of the¬†Christmas entertainment at the Hippodrome¬†for many years – a straightforward Variety bill, with no apparent topical references to the festive season. However,¬†a little unseasonably,¬†in March, 1901, the John Tiller Company (he formed the original Tiller Girls of precision dancing fame) performed a potted version of Cinderella. This included a host of artistes and was specially written for the theatre, with “special scenery and magnificent dresses under the personal supervision of Mrs. Thomas Barrington; thirty pretty girls – the pick of the London theatres”.

Christmas, 1904 brought a new attraction – “Staig’s Motor Sensation – looping the aerial circle – motor racing in mid-air on the bottomless track”.¬†In Christmas week, 1909, an act that was to return again and again¬†was featured – Barnold’s Dog and Monkey Actors in a one-act pantomime entitled “A¬†Hot Time In Dogville”.

In 1924, the Hippodrome¬†became part of the great Moss’ Empires group of leading theatres and the huge number of artistes on their circuit meant that at Christmas an extra effort could be made to bring the top stars to the theatre. The first Christmas bill under the new regime, in 1925, was claimed to be “one of the strongest Variety programmes ever seen in Birmingham” and included the “world-famous film star Beautiful Betty Blythe in song and story with the Kansas City Band”.

The show that opened on Boxing Day, 1927 featured the first ever Hippodrome appearance of the famous “Cheeky Chappie” comedian Max Miller. The cold temperature outside the theatre at Christmas, 1930 may have been tempered by the show inside – “Une Nuit Excitante! – La Revue de Paris” with 24 wonderful scenes and the Famous Kursaal Girls.

Christmas week, 1931 brought the Hippodrome’s¬†first “Crazy Week” with a strong bill that featured practical jokes – on the audience as well as between the artistes – and many surprises. The audience was encouraged to visit more¬†than once, because it was claimed every night would be different.¬†The following Christmas there was another Crazy Week – “madderer ‚Äď merrier – than ever! – if you saw the first, you must see this one – it’s entirely different and even crazier!”. The cast included comedian Jimmy James – a frequent visitor to the Hippodrome until the 1960s.

Christmas, 1936 brought to Hurst Street, the famous American Street Singer, Arthur Tracy, with popular British band Syd Seymour and His Mad Hatters, and comedian Billy Russell (“on behalf of the Working Class”). The Hippodrome’s Archives have a programme for this show.

This was to mark an end, at least temporarily, to the run of Variety at Christmas, because the following year there was an exciting and very popular new attraction coming to the Hippodrome.

During the three weeks leading up to Christmas, 1937, technicians were working in the Hippodrome preparing for the opening on¬†21¬†December of the theatre’s, and Birmingham’s, first Ice Show. This was “Switzerland”, set in a fictional Alpine village and billed as “a musical extravaganza on real ice”. The Hippodrome stage was turned into an ice rink and special electrical cables had to be laid and the stage rake levelled. Crushed ice was packed down over 1,200 square feet to form the rink. There was a cast of 72, including champion skaters and speciality acts, and the show proved to be a huge box office hit. It was presented for four weeks, making it the Hippodrome’s first long-running show – no show had previously been staged for more than two weeks.¬†By public demand, the ice show returned for a further week from 17 October, 1938.

The following Christmas, it was back to Variety, with Sandy Powell’s 1939 Road Show having¬†a¬†preliminary run from Boxing Day, with the Great Garcias, Danny Lipton and His Liptonettes, Nellie Arnaut and Brothers, and Kit-Kat and His Saxophone Six. The first war-time Christmas brought for two weeks the Hippodrome’s first all-women show, aptly called “The Women”, with a cast of forty. By the time of Christmas, 1940, the Blitz was taking its toll on Birmingham and the Hippodrome, like other theatres in the city, remained closed from November until the following February, when shows were resumed but staged at 13:30 and 15:45 in order to keep within black-out times.

At Christmas, 1942, the Hippodrome reverted to its origins. The building had opened on Monday, 9 October, 1899 as the Tower of Varieties and Circus and¬†had presented circus-type shows¬†in a circular auditorium. Unfortunately, this venture proved unsuccessful and the building had been reconstructed as a traditional theatre, opening on 20 August, 1900 as the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties. In 1942, Rosaire’s Circus brought back to the Hippodrome’s stage lions, elephants, monkeys, dogs, horses, ponies and clowns, with¬†“twenty thrilling acts”, now presented at 17:15¬†and 19:30.

On 20 December, 1943, a very special show opened – Irving Berlin’s “This Is the Army” – the all-American¬†show¬†with over 160 soldiers. The Birmingham Mail said¬†“nothing quite like it has ever been seen on the Birmingham Hippodrome or any other Birmingham stage before…with Irving Berlin at the helm, music automatically prevails” but there were also comedians, acrobats, jugglers, a magician and¬†“a spoon specialist”. Proceeds from this spectacular show went to Service Charities and the Lord Mayor of Birmingham’s War Relief Fund, and one-third of the seats at each performance were allocated free to the Services.

At Christmas, 1944, there was an optimistically titled revue called “Bye Bye Blackout”, with comediennes Elsie and Doris Waters heading a strong bill. There was more Variety in 1945 and the Circus returned at Christmas, 1946.

By Christmas, 1947, there was a big change of policy at the Hippodrome and that year, for five weeks, the Ivor Novello musical “The Dancing Years” was staged, which was followed for four weeks¬†from the end of January by Tom Arnold’s presentation of his “Ice Revue”. Christmas, 1949 brought a nine-week season of the Irving Berlin musical “Annie Get Your Gun” but Variety returned the following Christmas, with singer and dancer Betty Driver (of “Coronation Street” hot pot fame).

Opening on Christmas Eve, 1950 was the musical “Brigadoon” for five weeks and the next year came¬†Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”, starring Emund Hockridge.¬†The subsequent three Christmas seasons brought the best of the worlds of musicals and ice shows – in 1953, “Chu Chin Chow on Ice”; 1954 “The Dancing Years on Ice”; and 1955 “White Horse Inn on Ice”.

Opening on 22 December, 1956 was “Birmingham’s first big-scale Ice Pantomime Humpty Dumpty” with 70 skating stars. This proved to be an appropriate link with the next phase of the Hippodrome’s history, when in December, 1957 its first pantomime was staged – “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

Since then. give or take a few years, the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime has gradually moved itself into the pre-eminent position it holds today Рregarded as the best in the country.