All over Britain countless former cinemas and theatres lay vacant, slowly deteriorating while a decision on their future is debated. A select few, largely thanks to pockets of enthusiasts and community groups, get rescued from the wrecking ball, restored and preserved for future generations to enjoy. With a professional, creative and passionate approach, many of these glamorous old structures can still successfully be used for their original purpose. Failing this, it’s often viable to sympathetically modify the building to fulfil new functions, without altering the fabric dramatically.
Alas, many don’t get the opportunity to rise from the ashes. It seems a month rarely passes when I don’t read about another former cinema or theatre being torn down to make way for some architecturally bankrupt, get-rich-quick project. Obviously not every example can, or should be preserved. Some, following years of neglect and vandalism, have succumbed to the elements and deteriorated beyond the point of no return. Others, simply don’t possess the architectural merit or viable business solution to make restoration worthwhile. But those that do, those inspiring examples of Britain’s flamboyant theatrical and cinematic heritage, awaiting the chance to illuminate their neon signs again, should surely be awarded the opportunity.
The Hippodrome in Dudley is one such case in point that, thanks to community pressure, has recently been snatched away from the dreaded demolition gangs. Designed by renowned theatre architect Archibald Hurley Robinson, it replaced the Dudley Opera House, a late Victorian building gutted by fire in 1937. The Hippodrome’s giant curvaceous buff-brick frontage stood directly next door to another Robinson building, the more cubic Plaza Cinema, completed two years earlier. This in turn, was adjacent to the Zoo’s main entrance, and directly opposite the stunning 1937 ODEON Cinema. With four dramatic modernist attractions in such close proximity, all on the main drag into town, Dudley must surely have been the envy of its less pioneering Black Country neighbours.
Completed just prior to Christmas 1938, the Hippodrome threw open its doors with an evening of up-tempo jazz, headlined by the formidable Jack Hylton and his Band. 1939 saw a packed programme of music, theatre and dance, typical of variety theatres during the period. Despite temporary closure during the war, the 1600 seat venue, dubbed ‘The Showplace of the West Midlands’ became a mainstay for major touring theatre and variety performances in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. The annual Christmas pantomime was another big draw, featuring some of the dazzling entertainment stars of the day including Harry Secombe, Derek Roy, Tommy Cooper, Eve Boswell, Beryl Reid and Morecombe & Wise. The golden 1950’s were rounded out with a run of sell out shows by rebellious rock ‘n’ rolling upstart, Cliff Richard.
Dubious management led to a reported decline of quality bookings in the early 1960’s, and with striptease performances and evenings of wrestling not filling the stalls, the Hippodrome changed hands. Re-launching as a casino club, it boasted a combination of bingo during the day, and live performances every night, a format that lasted until 1974, with the late great Roy Orbison, closing out proceedings. From that point on, the Hippodrome concentrated solely on hosting a mixed bill of bingo, bingo and more bingo, a concern that would actually prove viable for a further 35 years at the venue. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and in September 2009 the balls would flutter for the last time, as the Hippodrome shut its doors for good.
The Plaza had been demolished in 1997, and thus, plans were made to follow suit with its now decaying neighbour. Had it not been for a group of local enthusiasts led by former college lecturer Geoff Fitzpatrick, this would probably have been the end of the story. The Save Dudley Hippodrome group (later Black Country Hippodrome ltd) collected 35,000 signatures objecting to the demolition of the building, and proposing it be restored and brought back to life in its original guise, a theatre for national and international touring productions.
Sadly, Geoff passed away in 2014 while the fight with the council was ongoing, but the group he helped form continued their quest, and in July 2016 was granted a five year lease to restore and revive the building. The keys were handed over to chairman, Dr Paul Collins in front of a jubilated crowd at a ceremony on the steps of the boarded up venue in December, and the arduous task of raising funds has now begun.
This short video filmed in 2015 by Dr Collins, though not of very high quality, does show the auditorium intact, complete with decorative plaster mouldings on the side walls, circle and ceiling. Further images taken by volunteers show an Aladdin’s cave of period features retained within the building, all ripe for restoration.
Having visited the site a couple of times recently, I can’t help but comment that the scale of the project is mind boggling. The giant brick complex houses a neat collection of graffiti, rooftop weeds, boarded up windows, leaking guttering and missing down pipes that is not a sight for the feint hearted. Look past its current condition though, and the sheer potential the place possesses is astounding. With its prominent location, excellent access, and ample parking, there is no reason why it couldn’t be run as a successful theatre, and to see this gigantic chunk of jazz age construction glowing with neon again, busy with Black Country crowds, would be truly magical.
For further information and updates on the project, please join, follow, like, contribute to the Black Country Hippodrome’s Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/25779253540/