Continuing our look back at the former Coventry Hippodrome after Monday’s feature on Sir Ken Dodd, By Lola Johnson
In 1943, during Coventry’s bitter war history, The Coventry Hippodrome Theatre staged a “Wings for Victory” concert under the patronage of Her Worship the Mayor.
The concert featured an auction sale of a bottle of whisky, six pairs of silk stockings, two sovereigns and two bananas. The two bananas were presented to auction by ‘Her Worship the Mayor’.
Famous BBC variety conductor, Charles Shadwell, conducted the Augmented Hippodrome Broadcasting Orchestra. The concert was performed at 5:30pm on May 23 and featured the band of the W.A.A.F and the band of the R.A.F from R.A.F Station, Wythall.
By then, the Hippodrome had come a small way geographically in decades, but a long way in becoming a major venue.
The first Hippodrome theatre was built in 1884 by Captain H. Fitzgerald on the site of what is now Pool Meadow Bus Station. In 1904, it was sold to a new company, The Coventry Hippodrome Company Limited.
The CHC was comprised of five shareholders, including Samuel Theo Newsome. In 1905, a new theatre was built a few metres away on the site of what is now Lady Herbert’s Garden. It was named, ‘The New Hippodrome’.
S.T. Newsome died in 1930, and his sons, Samuel Herbert Newsome and Alan Newsome inherited his shares in the company. Samuel Herbert also took over as managing director for the Hippodrome.
Before venturing into the theatre business, Samuel Herbert built his own car, the ‘Cooper’, in 1921.
This led to the opening of a garage company owned by the CHC. It serviced Jaguar and Standard Triumph cars and was very successful in Coventry.
By 1936, the last Hippodrome was built. Also named ‘The New Hippodrome’, the theatre opened in 1937 on what is now the site of The Coventry Transport Museum. By 1955, its name would be changed to ‘The Coventry Theatre’.
“My father very successfully ran The New Hippodrome,” said 81-year-old Paul Newsome, “and between 1936 and 1950, they were playing to full houses”.
The New Hippodrome was a fine art deco building with 2,000-seats on three levels, a very large stage and a very modern production system for its time.
“It was principally a twice-nightly theatre,” describes Paul, who now lives in Dunchurch, on the outskirts of Rugby. ‘It was designed to put two shows on, one at 5.30pm and one at 8.30pm.
“Twice-nightly was all in-vogue up until about 1950 when television was just coming in. You would go to a show when you had just finished work, or you could go to the 8.30pm show after.
“During the war it had a direct bomb hit which didn’t go off, fortunately. It was the only part in the surrounding area of Coventry that didn’t get hit.”
The Hippodrome attracted many high-profile talents during its six-decade run. Stars such as Julie Andrews, Gracie Fields, Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey, George Formby, Arthur Haynes, Arthur Haskey, Harry Secombe, Norman Wisdom, Helen Landis, Ken Dodd, Edmund Hockridge, Al Read, Margaret Lockwood, Katherine Hepburn and Laurel and Hardy performed at the theatre.
“It was very important to my father that we had the absolute top stars. We had Norman Wisdom, for example.
“He was an up and coming star when my father decided to book him for the pantomime. He turned out to be a great success and we played to full houses every night for ten or twelve weeks.”
In 1967 the Hippodrome was purchased by Leslie Grade who was an influential talent agent at the time.
“We had here at the Hippodrome ever major touring show, because my father was also a director of major theatres in London. The only other place you could see those shows was at the Birmingham Hippodrome, or one or two other theatres.
“This link between British theatres meant that the public was getting a very good deal. This, however, was regarded by some people as a monopoly. When Lew Grade (Leslie Grade’s brother) bought the theatre companies, he closed down most of the major provincial theatres, except The Birmingham Hippodrome, The Palace Theatre in Manchester and one or two other theatres.
“He wanted the stars for television, not for live theatre. As a result, we lost many provincial theatres.
“What was regarded as a monopoly was, then, for the public interest.”
The Hippodrome was run by Leslie Grade for a few more years before it was sold to Paul Gregg’s Apollo Theatre Company. It became The Coventry Apollo. Two years later, it became the Gala Bingo site before it was purchased by the council in 2000.
In 2002, it was demolished to make way for Millennium Place.
Like his father, Paul worked in the garage and motor industry. He retired in 1985, but now works as the director of his own property company in the Midlands.
He said: “The Coventry Hippodrome was probably the finest art deco building in the Midlands and should never have been allowed to be demolished by the Coventry council.”