The Brighton Hippodrome started life as a skating rink and then became a circus before finding it’s true calling as a venue for dramatic and variety performances in 1902. Tucked away in a narrow side street the rather plain exterior hid a glamorous venue designed by Frank Matcham, the theatre architect extraordinaire. It held around 2000 people and had five bars, refreshment rooms, lounges and promenades, warehouses, stabling and a large open yard. Before the grand opening a journalist from the trade paper, the Entr’acte, remarked that the facilities for dispensing liquors are very considerable while an advert for musicians states that evening dress and sobriety are indispensable. There was to be an orchestra of eighteen musicians, all to be experienced in the variety and circus business, and a first violin, piano, cello and bassoon were needed to complete it. In July 1901 first-class acts of all kinds were directed to write immediately to secure their bookings.
We know that the biggest music hall stars of their day appeared at the Brighton Hippodrome, including Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King. Vesta Victoria, a very popular singer and comedian, had an off-stage adventure during her time at the Hippodrome in 1906. She went for a moonlight motorboat ride with some friends and when they were seven miles out to sea the petrol for the engine caught fire. They couldn’t put out the flames and the Derby Daily Telegraph reports that just when the situation appeared to be desperate, Miss Vesta Victoria lit upon the expedient of tying her motor-veil to a boat-hook and of waving it in the moonlight. This was seen by fishermen who rescued the group and brought them ashore.
In her autobiography, Vesta Tilley tells of her experience in Brighton when playing the Hippodrome in the First World War. As Brighton was a coastal town no lights were permitted at all and she says she was obliged to literally feel her way from the Hippodrome to the Metropole Hotel each night after the performance. On one particularly dark night she and her maid found their way to the seafront and Vesta suggested guiding themselves by the railings. They finally realised they were getting no closer to the hotel and found they were walking round and round a small circular garden in the centre of the road. VestaTilley is reputed to haunt the Brighton Hippodrome, but in a dress rather than stage costume, and there is said to be a whiff of her favourite perfume backstage.
In 1921 Marie Lloyd appeared before the Duke of York (George VI) and the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) at the Hippodrome and received the royal approval in that the ‘democratic‘ Prince of Wales applauded the performance despite the fact that it was not customary for royalty to applaud in theatres. So in the year before she died Marie was accepted and appreciated by the establishment.
To end with a bizarre story – in March 1907 the Mid-Sussex Times reported that the musical director at the Brighton Hippodrome had written to say that one of his hens had laid an egg weighing over five ounces. The egg could be seen at the Hippodrome any evening.
This is the Hippodrome at the present time. There is a campaign to save and restore the building. The website is ourHippodrome.org.uk
Thanks to the British newspaper archive.co.uk, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, Marie Lloyd – Richard Anthony Baker