Animal Acts at the Hippodrome

From 30 May, ‘Cats’ returns to the Hippodrome and reminds us that the theatre has had all sorts of animals performing on its stage in its 117-year history.

It had opened on 9 October, 1899 as the Tower of Varieties and Circus and the very first animal act on the bill that night was Cliffe Berzac with his Wrestling and Boxing Pony and his Wonderful Leaping Boarhound named “Pasha”. Quite an exotic opening!

The Circus was not successful and after five weeks it closed, re-opening as a theatre called the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties on 20 August, 1900- it was re-named Hippodrome in October, 1903.

On the first bill as a theatre, there were two animal acts – Felix De Marce and his Performing Baboons and Ponies, and his wife, Mdlle Irma Orbasany and her Wonderful Performing Cockatoos. Imagine touring the country with that combination!

Two other animal acts in 1900 were regular visitors to the Hippodrome. Professor Duncan and his Collies were described as “beautiful silky-haired collies and their performance is remarkable and brought roars of laughter and applause”. His son, Vic, continued the act from the late 1920s until 1958, when I remember seeing them in a Variety show- presumably with different and younger collies!

Lockhart’s Elephants also came first in 1900, billed as ‘absolutely the greatest elephant show in the world’. Their names were Boney, Molly and Waddy but the following year the act had new elephants – Salt, Sauce, Mustard and Pepper. In 1904, Sauce stampeded in a goods yard at Walthamstow Station and crushed George Lockhart to death. However, the act continued with his brother in charge.

In 1901, Miss Clotilde came with her performing cockatoos, ‘one of which rides a bicycle around the hall’. And so the animals and birds kept coming, from apes, chimpanzees and crocodiles (in ‘Scenes from Wild Australia’ – see the poster in the Circle foyer) to pigeons, sea-lions, lions, tigers, unrideable donkeys, horses and bears. There was even an act with performing turkeys and geese. In 1914, Charles Barnold’s Dogs and Monkey Actors did a one-act pantomime called ‘A Hot Time in Dogsville’, introducing ‘Dan the Intoxicated Canine’. Certainly not allowed today!

The first full-scale Circus on the Hippodrome stage since 1899 came in March, 1925. This was ‘The Royal International Circus’, presented by impresario Tom Arnold, and for many years after that circuses were regular attractions here. Where were the animals kept? – Some say under the stage, others claim they were accommodated in the stables at Digbeth Police Station or in the Council’s stables in Sheepcote Street. Before going on stage, the animals would be kept in cages on lorries in Inge Street and a continuous cage built from there to the stage, which was enclosed with a high cage to protect the audience. Imagine the logistics, not to mention the trepidation of the stage crew!

Circuses have continued to come to the Hippodrome in more recent years, including the Chinese Circus, the Moscow State Circus and Cirque du Soleil but nowadays they are without the animals. However, imagine the excitement as a small boy of seeing “live” your cowboy film hero Roy Rogers and His Horse Trigger in March, 1954 – Trigger at one point in the act was dressed in a kilt and sporran and did a Highland Fling! And, in a Variety show in September, 1928 of watching Terrier Racing around the Hippodrome’s stage, with six races at each house. I don’t know if any betting took place.

“Cats” reminds me that several cat acts performed here, even though they are very independent and difficult to train. In September, 1901, Leonidas came with his 54 performing cats and dogs. In November, 1905, Carola’s Miniature Circus featured Tilly “the great equestrian cat”, who rode on the back of a pony. One of the best cat acts was Silbon’s Novelty Circus in November, 1907, which brought “the Cat Looping the Human Loop” and “the Diving Kitten”. The following year, Horace and Olga’s Famous Troupe of Cats and Dogs appeared on the Hippodrome stage and, in 1910, Mdlle Dalmere brought her troupe of performing rabbits, cats, dogs, doves and rats – yes, rats!  The cats must have been very well trained not to have devoured part of the act!

Those were the days.

Article researched and written by Heritage Volunteer, Ivan Heard