Tracing the history of Hulme Hippodrome

Save the Hulme Hippodrome campaign (https://niamos.co.uk/savethehippodrome) is raising funds to save the theatre from developers (https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/save-hulme-hippo). The theatre has an important place in British theatre history, as a surviving venue in the variety theatre networks that dominated British theatre from 1900 to the 1950s. In this article, I explore some of the performers who worked at this beautiful and at-risk theatre.

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During its heyday, Hulme Hippodrome played an important part in British theatrical life: it hosted many of the stars of variety like Gracie Fields (1915), George Formby (1930), Randolph Sutton (1930), the famous Tiller Girls (1912). The kinds of boundaries we imagine between musical comedy and variety are not as always as firm as we might assume, so actors like Florence Smithson also performed there; classical pianists like Marie Novello (1912) and comedy pianists like Ernie Ream (1916). 

Marie Novello in later years

As well as all the usual weirdness of variety theatre that you’d expect, singers, dancers trick cyclists, pigeon novelty acts, performing dogs, and magicians like Ray St Clair, the theatre also launched many careers. Numerous performers started off there, including Gracie Fields, who appeared in the revue Yes I Think So in 1915; Stanley Lupino starred in the revue Girl Wanted (1916), right at the beginning of his lengthy career in British theatre as a performer, writer and composer. Benny Hill also performed at the theatre (1951) before his internationally famous TV show started in 1955.

Like many theatres in the UK, Hulme Hippodrome played an important role in the success of touring Black performance practice. Black performers were a regular part of the British variety circuits. In An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre (Sean Mayes and Sarah K Whitfield), we have traced the touring practices of numerous Black performers and practitioners who shaped British musical theatrical life. 

Several of these people regularly performed at Hulme Hippodrome: African American performers [Harry] Scott and [Eddie] Whaley performed there perhaps the most often. The pair came to the UK from the US in 1909, and performed right across the UK in their comedy music double act. Scott and Whaley’s performances at Hulme traced the shift from popular ragtime to jazz. Black British performer Cassie Walmer (born in Camden, London in 1888) also performed at Hulme Hippodrome in a well received solo act. 

Will Garland, perhaps the most significant Black practitioner in British musical theatre before 1950, performed at the Hulme Hippodrome several times. Will Garland was a remarkable polymath, a performer, producer, writer, choral director, musician and bass singer. His presence in British theatre is substantial, and is only recently starting to be understood in full.

Passport photo of Will Garland: a Black man wearing a suit and tie. He has short black hair. He is in a photo studio and you can see a curtain behind him. The image is stamped with the raised US stamp.
Passport image of Will Garland (c. 1920s)

Garland performed in shows that he had produced as well as Coloured Society (produced George Sax’s revue). Sax was a Manchester based producer (probably white, since no mention is ever given of his identity at the time). The name of his show clearly is problematic, but what is particularly interesting is that within a year of being in the show, Garland had taken it over and went on to produce and run it for some years. Amazingly, recording of Will Garland exists, thanks to the remarkable work of Rainer Lotz:

In all likelihood, many Black performers from across the African diaspora worked at Hulme Hippodrome and whose names we don’t know. In 1953, the theatre played host Memories of Jolson, to Shirley Bassey’s first stage job, alongside Chris Gill (an African American performer) and Ike Hatch (an established music hall and variety performer who had been in the UK from the US for many years).

The theatre was part of the Broadhead circuit, owned by impresario William Henry Broadhead from at least 1902, and for a time was the centre of their operations. By the time Broadhead died in 1931, the theatre was facing serious commercial challenges from cinema. When it was sold in 1933, the smaller of the two theatres had moved from cinevariety to purely showing film (known as the Junction Kinema). It became part of another British variety circuit, the Barrasford Circuit, in 1933. By the late 1930s, the theatre was playing host to strip tease and US burlesque artists like Peaches Weston.

In World War 2, shows promised mild sauciness, with taglines like ‘Ladies’ Legs and Laughter’. As the war went on, show titles just out-right promised the chance to see scantily clad dancers, as in the case of Shoulder, Arms and Legs (1940). Revues became more ‘naughty’, shows appeared like Bed, Board and Romance! (1947) around escapades at a Blackpool guest houses.

By 1958, all subtlety had gone, the ‘world’s most exciting women’ were promised and shows had titles like Don’t Point, It’s (rude) Nude (that’s really the title). The theatre closed in 1960, was briefly rented by the BBC before being bought by ‘Manchester clubland personality’ Bill Benny. The theatre, like so many others before it, ended up as a bingo hall owned by Mecca Bingo.

That it still exists is a remarkable opportunity to save the theatre and to re-energise the surrounding community with this important space. 

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