Royal Hippodrome, West Derby Road, Liverpool.

Royal Hippodrome Theatre

West Derby Road and Walker Street,

Liverpool, L6

 

Owners from the time the building became a cinema:  General Theatre Corporation/Gaumont British Theatres.

Capacity as a cinema (1931):  2100 seats.

Date opened as a cinema: Monday 20th July 1931.

Opening film:  “Dracula”, starring Bella Lugosi .

Final owners:  Rank Theatres Ltd.

Date closed:   Saturday 16th of May 1970.

Final film shown: “Winning” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Date demolished:  1984.

 

 

Although used as a cinema from 1931, the Royal Hippodrome had had a long history as a live venue previously. Known affectionately by many locals as simply the Hippie, this massive structure that could accommodate 4000 customers had once housed Charles Hengler’s Circus. A royal coat of arms was placed in a permanent position over the entrance leading many to believe that a member of Royalty had once been in attendance.

Located on the junction of West Derby Road and Walker Street, on the far eastern reach of Liverpool. It was designed by the renowned theatre architect, Jethro T. Robinson.  The small uninspired entrance really helped in impacting the thousands of customers as they flocked into the breathtaking massive circus.  Hengler’s Grand Cirque first opened on Monday 13th November 1876. It proved to be a great continuing success and laid the template for other such Hengler circus’s in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Hull, and Dublin.  The circus continued until it closed on 9th February 1901.

The building lay boarded up for several months until it was acquired by Thomas Barrasford, a northern theatre operator who immediately set about to transform the venue into one of his variety theatres over a six month period.

He commissioned the dynamic Bertie Crewe, a popular theatre architect, to transform the hall into a large comfortable auditorium into an ornate Louis XV style. An eye catching circular ceiling feature depicting flying cupids upon beds of clouds was artistically painted by London artist Walter Sicard.  Below, the largest stage in Liverpool was created in place of the old circus ring. It measured 90′ wide and 40′ deep. The proscenium opening was 40′ wide and topped by five painted panels that featured the Five Senses. For the wealthy patrons there were four pairs of boxes that flanked the proscenium sides.

Set over three levels, stalls, dress circle and balcony, the capacity was now 3500 seats, with a further 500 standing patrons, which gave an overall capacity of 4000. In the balcony, the 1000 cheaper priced ticket holders had to sit on wooden benches.

Certain features from the old circus were retained such as the mosaic floor of the small dress circle foyer depicted images of two clowns. The existing twelve dressing rooms were kept and refurbished. There was little change externally, the main narrow doorway that provided entrance to the stalls and dress circle remained. Access to the balcony was via a separate entrance around the corner in Walker Street, as shown in the photograph below.

Walker Street elevation. The entrance doors to the gallery can be seen on the right, under the canopy.

The building opened its doors as the Royal Hippodrome and Theatre of Varieties on Coronation week, Monday 4th August 1902. The opening programme of ten variety performances included the Six Sisters Daineff, plus the ‘Barrascope’ projecting films onto the screen painted on the safety curtain. 

Royal Hippodrome Liverpool 1911 full house

Several changes of ownership took place during the successful three decades it operated as a variety theatre. When it came under the control of the General Theatre Corporation (soon to be merged with Gaumont British Theatres/Cinemas circuit) in March 1928, it was only a matter of time before film would take over.

The capacity audience was entertained by Vesta Tilley and Harry Champion as they gave the last performance at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre of Varieties Saturday 20th June 1931.

It took Gaumont British just one month to turn the building into a cinema. A large projection department was installed into the balcony. The steepness of the projection throw meant that the Kalee 35mm projectors were set at a 26 degree rake. The screen was leant back to avoid loss of light and severe key-stoning. Sound equipment was installed. The seating was set out to give more leg room and the total capacity dropped to 2100.

Click on the frame above to watch the re-released “Dracula” trailer.

The grand opening of the cinema took place on Monday 20th July 1931. “Dracula”, starring Bella Lugosi and “We Dine at Seven”, starring Herbert Mundin. More than 30000 people bought tickets on the opening week and the new venture was hailed “a great success”.

Now as a cinema, the Royal Hippodrome’s business flourished serving this densely  populated district of Liverpool. Surviving the bombing raids of World War II, the cinema provided a place where Liverpudlians could escape from the upheaval and horrors of the war devastation that surrounded them. In the Royal Hippodrome’s heydays of movie entertainment, large queues of patrons waiting to get in were a common sight.

 

A much needed, complete refurbishment took place during 1966. The paintwork was freshened and highlighted with gold finish. Rumours started that pop concerts and live shows might now take place. Sadly this was not to be.

The surrounding area was undergoing a major redevelopment programme that entailed many residential properties lost and whole communities moved away, so diminishing the cinema’s potential audience catchment. However, in 1968, due to the Odeon being closed for alterations, the important Liverpool premiere of the Beatles film, “Yellow Submarine”, took place at the Royal Hippodrome. The cinema was also able to play first run Rank release while the Odeon was closed.

Once the two screen Odeon opened in the city centre, the audiences were drawn back. Now struggling with the severe reduction in local patrons and returning to second run product it became clear that the future of this large cinema was now uncertain.

The final week.

Closure came swiftly, with the final film, “Winning” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, shown on Saturday 16th of May 1970.

Forlorn- The huge and once grand auditorium of the Royal Hippodrome Theatre as demolition commences.

The building lay boarded up and derelict for ten years before demolition took place during 1984.

Luxury apartments now stand on the plot of land that the Royal Hippodrome Theatre once occupied.

 

copyright whitechestercinemas.co.uk  with thanks to Roger Shone for additional information and photographs.

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