From Ken Dodd to Tommy Cooper: 83 years of Dudley Hippodrome

Concerned the variety show at Dudley Hippodrome was running over time, Maurice Kennedy ordered that a young stand-up comic’s act should be cut to just five minutes.

Bruce Forsyth, Roy Castle, Ben Warris and Ken Dodd
Bruce Forsyth, Roy Castle, Ben Warris and Ken Dodd

Eager to get on in his career, the young man was only too happy to oblige.

“You just give me a signal by stamping on the stage, and I’ll go into my closing routine,” he replied. His name? Bruce Forsyth.

Brucie was one of a hatful of young, up-and-coming stars who made their name at the Hippodrome when it was one of the leading variety theatres in the country. While it attracted some of the world’s biggest stars – Bob Hope, Laurel & Hardy and Bing Crosby all played the Hippo – it was also a springboard for little-known performers who would go on to glittering careers.

Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd, Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd all cut their teeth on the Hippodrome’s vast stage, before going on to find fame in that newfangled medium of television.

The curtain now looks set to fall forever on the Hippodrome, the bulldozers poised to demolish what was the West Midlands’ largest theatre. But while the Hippodrome looks set to make way for a new university campus, its legacy will live on.

Comic legend Bob Hope, right, during his visit to the theatre in 1957

Opening the week before Christmas 1938 by Dudley Joel MP, Dudley-born Wimbledon champion Dorothy Round was also in the audience, along with deputy mayor Alderman J L Hillman, architect Archibald Hurley Robinson, and builder A J Crump.

Also there was a young man called John Bullas, who recalled: “Despite the fact that it was a bitterly cold night, the house was packed to capacity. Those fortunate enough to obtain a ticket for this momentous occasion will always treasure the memory.”

The polished performance on the night masked a frantic battle behind the scenes to get the building finished on time. While it was a running joke that theatres and cinemas were always finished at the last minute, the race against the clock was real this time.

Production held at Dudley Hippodrome in 1947

Just 16 months earlier the Dudley Opera House burned down, and the Hippodrome was quickly built to replace it.

With a capacity of 1,752, it was bigger than any other theatre in the region, a brave move when theatres faced growing competition from cinema.

The outbreak of war nine months later didn’t help, but once properly up-and-running, there was no stopping the Hippo. Throughout the 1950s the biggest names in showbiz flocked to the venue.

The venue was one of the first theatres to have an ice show on stage

In a 1993 interview by historian Ned Williams, stage manager Ken Shepherd recalled the hysteria from fans of American heart-throb Frankie Laine.

“When stars like that appeared, we used a little exit at the back of the theatre to get them away,” he said, adding that the singer was having none of it.

“He took off his toupee, revealing he was as bald as a badger, put on a pair of glasses, put on his mac, picked up an empty violin case, and walked straight out the stage door,” he said.

“He walked straight through his fans who were shouting ‘we want Frankie’ – and they never knew he was there.”

Tommy Cooper in a 1954 production of King of Hearts

Ken remembered Tommy Cooper being every bit as chaotic off the stage as on, getting his car stuck in the archway to Dudley Castle on his way to the post-pantomime ball.

“Nobody could get him in or out,” he said.

“Tommy Cooper eventually arrived at the ball by climbing out through his sunroof.”

The Hippodrome viewed from the stage after being used as a bingo hall

The 1953 pantomime, starring Harry Secombe, secured a place in history as the first to be shown on TV, but this new medium would contribute greatly to the Hippodrome’s downfall. While big-name stars would still attract sell-out crowds, the fees they charged were going up. When Paul Anka performed at the Hippodrome he demanded 80 per cent of the takings, meaning the show ran at a loss.

The Hippodrome’s huge capacity was becoming something of a millstone.The theatre did not so much close as fizzle out, diversifying the range of entertainments to meet the changing demand. Wrestling shows, striptease, pop concerts and bingo nights all mingled with repertory theatre and operatic performances.

Relaunched in 1973 as Cesar’s Palace, Tommy Steele, Ken Dodd, The Bachelors and Mike & Bernie Winters all put on performances, as did Tommy Cooper, Bob Monkhouse, Gene Pitney, Frank Ifield and Frankie Vaughan. But this could not hide the fact that variety theatre was going out of fashion, and it would be bingo that would prevail.

Roy Orbison was the last live performer in August 1974. From that time on, the Hippodrome became just another bingo club, finally closing its doors in 2009.

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