The Hippodrome, designed by C J Phipps, was opened in 1883 as the New Theatre Royal and Opera House, having been granted a Royal Patent by the then Prince of Wales. The interior of the new theatre was partly modelled on Phipps’ Savoy Theatre in London. Before the end of the century most of the famous theatrical personalities of the time had appeared at the theatre including Ellen Terry and Richard D’Oyly Carte's Savoy Opera Company.
In 1904 the theatre was renamed the Eastbourne Hippodrome and began a period of twice-nightly variety shows. Among those performing before the First World War were Harry Houdini (who made a well publicised escape from Eastbourne police cells), Marie Lloyd, Hetty King and Fred Karno's famous troupe (in which both Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin learnt their comedic trade).
Then, between the wars, the theatre adapted to a number of differing entertainments, including plays and films, and stars such as Vic Oliver, Cyril Fletcher, and Elsie and Doris Waters – billed as “Stars of Radio” – appeared.
In the late 1950s the theatre was bought by Eastbourne Borough Council. Still the variety stars kept coming, including Vera Lynn, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Ken Dodd and Roy Hudd. Bruce Forsyth was appearing at the Royal Hippodrome when he was called up to compère Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
The theatre continued to thrive through the 70s, 80s, 90s and the first decade of the 21st century as a variety venue, but in addition to the regular variety shows it also offered other entertainment events including one-night shows from artists including Val Doonican, Elkie Brookes and Lenny Henry.
At the end of 2007 Eastbourne Borough Council took the lease back and invested heavily in the 643-seat theatre to bring it up to date with current legislation. The venue was completely rewired and numerous improvements were made backstage. It also had a brand new emergency lighting and fire detection system installed, and was made more accessible for disabled patrons.
Since then, and in the prevailing economic climate, the threat of permanent closure has loomed large but now, with the help of both the elongated summer season production and the Royal Project, the future looks much brighter.
The Royal Project is an exciting community-based initiative to bring the Royal Hippodrome back into vibrant year-round use as a theatre for the whole community, open all day and presenting a dazzling range of attractions and activities. It will make this historic building a leading arts and media centre and act as a focal point for the regeneration of the area.
The summer show, which is being produced to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, is a family variety show appropriately called Sentimental Journey. This will take you on a journey back to the time of the coronation (1953) with Stars in Their Eyes contestants Colin Gold as Billy Fury and Tracy Lea, as Connie Francis. The show will also have its own Show Time Dancers and alternating compères Barry Moon and Mike Lee. Headlining is a man who has been described as “one of the greatest front of tabs comedians” and family favourite, Jimmy Cricket.
I had an opportunity to talk to Jimmy about the show and the theatre in which it plays. “This is the Cinderella theatre in Eastbourne and the fact that it could have closed makes me weep. I’ve gone out on a limb sometimes, when I see other theatres closing, and I have had irate letters back from some councillors asking why I am butting in, but I can’t just stand by and watch them go under.
“I was here three or four years ago. I stood in for Syd Little for a few nights in the summer when he had other commitments, and when I had the greasepaint on and I got the smell of the theatre in my nostrils I knew I wanted to come back. It’s wonderful to be here for a real summer season, with a time-honoured and classic variety show.
“Alas and alack, nearly all of them are gone now. There’s here, Cromer and Clacton but that’s about it, and its tradition and, just like this fantastic building, it’s a big part of our cultural heritage”.
Sentimental Journey is at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, Eastbourne on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 8.15pm from 1 May until 26 September. 1960s icon Jess Conrad replaces Cricket on 19 and 20 June and on 11 July.