Visit to Hippodrome Theatre, Eastbourne

ON the first Friday of November a group of Rotarians and their partners went on a guided tour of one of Eastbourne's most famous and historic buildings, namely the Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Seaside Road. The Hippodrome which opened in 1883 is the oldest theatre in the town. It was designed and built for the theatre manager and impresario George Beaumont Loveday by the eminent theatre architect C.J. Phipps. At the time of its opening Eastbourne was emerging as a highly fashionable destination, encouraged by regular visits from the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.
The interior of the theatre was partly modelled on the now famous Savoy Theatre in London, and before the end of the 19th century most of the famous theatrical personalities of the time appeared at the theatre including Ellen Terry and Richard d'Oyly Carte's Savoy Opera Company. The original name of the theatre was the Theatre Royal and Opera House, following the permission granted by the then Prince of Wales for the theatre to have a royal box. To date the theatre is still waiting for a member of the royal family to attend a theatre performance!
In 1904 the name of the theatre was changed to the Royal Hippodrome Theatre. The reason for the change of name is however unclear, but seems to mirror a change in style and use. In the early days plays and light opera were presented, but these gradually gave way to music hall and variety shows including the use of animals such as donkeys and even elephants. In the late 1950's the theatre was sold by its private leaseholders to Eastbourne Borough Council. Variety stars who have performed at the theatre include Tommy Trinder, Vera Lynn, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd. Bruce Forsyth was appearing at the Royal Hippodrome when he was called upon to compere Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
The Theatre has, however, seen better days, and major investment to restore the building to its former glory is required. Work is underway, and the outside frontage of the building is currently being renovated. All the electrical wiring, the boiler and the alarm systems have been replaced to ensure that the building meets its licensing requirements.
The tour of the theatre was excellent and comprehensive, commencing with a history of the theatre, while we sat in the front stalls, and then going onto the stage itself to get a feel of the theatre design and layout as viewed by the actors and performers.
The theatre has four levels of seating, which at the time that the theatre was built, were completely segregated from each other with separate entrances to prevent the different classes accidentally mixing with each other.
Only the first 3 rows of what is now known as the stalls had comfortable seats. These seats were for "posh" people and access to these seats was by a dedicated entrance passage way. The rest of the stalls comprised benches suitable for the seating of the then middle classes. Above the stalls was the grand circle, which had comfortable seating for the rest of the "posh" people. Above the grand circle was the upper circle which had benches for the rest of the middle classes. Above the upper circle was the gallery, which had standing room only for what were perceived at the time as the unruly lower classes. These class distinctions have today been removed and there is comfortable seating throughout the theatre.
After going on the stage, we were shown the wings, the storage area for the scenery and the stage managers control booth. Next, we were taken under the stage to see all of the props used in various shows over the years, which included some amazing artefacts like boxes of black and gold bowler hats, clown uniforms, and dresses for every possible occasion.
It was also interesting to see the strengthening steel work under the stage which had had to be added in the early 1900's to allow animals to perform on the stage. The original designer clearly did not perceive that the stage would be used in the future by elephants!
The next part of the tour was to go right up to the top of the theatre directly above the stage to the fly deck. The fly deck is the area where the stage hands raise and lower the scenery which is suspended by ropes, pulleys and gantries. The size, length and weight of the scenery and the supporting gantries is substantial, and necessitates two stage hands at a time to move the scenery. The lighting gantries are even heavier, and a system of whistles is used to warn anyone around that either scenery or lighting gantries are being moved. To get from one fly deck to the fly deck on the other side was quite exiting as there is only a 1-foot wide platform suspended 40 feet above the stage to be traversed to cross over the stage below.
All the Rotarians took up the challenge and crossed, even though the guide did say at the outset that he would not be offended if anyone decided that they did not wish to attempt the crossing. On the way down from the fly decks we were shown some of the dressing rooms, and the areas used by the production team during shows to monitor sound and lighting on the stage.
The tour ended, perhaps inevitably, in one the two theatre bar areas. All the group enjoyed a very memorable theatre tour.
After the tour several of the group went for a fish and chip lunch at a highly recommended nearby fish and chip restaurant. The lunch was excellent, and I am sure the restaurant will be visited again by many of the group. They all hoped that it would be possible to arrange another such trip in the future.

posted: Friday, 3 November 2017

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