History of the Hippodrome (Formally, Grand Opera House)

The Hippodrome
The Hippodrome at night in 1934, showing posters advertising the ‘controversial’ film Morgenrot.

(Image taken by George Plunkett 1934)
The Hippodrome, or as it was originally named, Grand Opera House, was an Opera House that opened in 1903 (though, it hosted no operas) and changed into a variety plays theatre. Just one year after opening after the owners of a rival theatre bought it out.

The theatre would later on, become known as that place where Cary Grant would first perform, before becoming a Hollywood legend.

Between the 1930s to the late 1950s, the Hippodrome would become a cinema, which would become well known for daring to show the controversial film “Morgenrot” in 1934. Even though in the late 1950s, the Hippodrome would return to being a variety theatre, it would appear that venture was not exactly successful as the whole venue closed in 1960, with the site now being a multi-story car park.

Historic Timeline of the Hippodrome:

1898: Several investors joined in order to make plans to build a new theatre in Norwich, with the group settling on a site in St Giles Street (Formally occupied by the “Norfolk Hotel”).

1902: Construction work on the Grand Opera House begins with “messes land & sons ltd of Sheffield” being the company contracted to do the building work itself.

1903: On the 3rd August 1903, the Grand Opera House opened, but it was to plans that were reduced in scale from the original ones’ in order to reduce costs.
A blue plague that reads; Norwich Hippodrome. Also known as the Grand Opera House, the Hippodrome opened in 1903 and hosted a multitude of famous acts including Laurel & Hardy and the young Archie Leach before he went on to become the more famous Cary Grant.
Image © "Griffiths" 2015 (CC-BY 2.0)

1904: the Grand Opera House was put up for lease by its owner Fred Morgan as it was not making enough money, due to not hosting any operas and instead hosting “musicals, plays and other variety acts”, which would have attracted lower class, lower paying customers. The Grand Opera House would be brought by Edward Henry Bostock and Frederick William Fitt. The men would then convert the Opera House into a more casual venue, which it was before in all but name. On top of this, the Grand Opera House would have its name changed to the “Hippodrome Theatre”.

1916: The famous actor, Cary Grant (Than named Archie Leach), at the age of just 12, would make his debut at the Hippodrome. Of course, he would become better known for his Hollywood career, rather than his acrobatics.

1931: After changing hands again (The old company dissolved on the 23rd June 1930), the Hippodrome would get a major upgrade, when a new Western Electric sound system was installed, with the venue becoming a full-time cinema on the 30th September 1931.

1942: In April 1942, a bomb directly hit The Hippodrome during the World War 2 bombing of Norwich by the Nazi’s, this killed three people (The manager, his wife and a sea lion trainer).

The ultimate downfall and closure of the Hippodrome Theatre

After World war 2, some repairs were made to the Hippodrome with the theatre partially reopening in 1948, when it was taken over by Butterworth Theatres, who would turn the venue into a “
Repertory theatre”, aka a place for random plays.

February 1954, the theatre would spend more than £1,000 (£26,895 in 2018 money), for Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel to perform at the Hippodrome. This performance was well received by the public, but tickets for the show were 6D (£1.60 in 2018) more expensive than normal.

Just seven years after going back to its roots, the Hippodrome would go back to being a cinema, with the venue closing less than three years later in April 1960.

Demolition and the sites’ future as St Giles Multistory Car Park

St. Giles Multi Storey Car Park
Image © Evelyn Simak 2018 (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

After closing in 1960, The Hippodrome would never reopen, as the site had no one who wanted to use it, leading to the building being
left to rot and decay, which of course led to the building being vandalised by criminal scum.

After being empty for four years and it being 1964, The solution to the abandoned building would be a very 1960s one, of demolishing the old building and replacing with a subjectively ugly multi-storey car park. The St. Giles Multi-storey Car Park would open on the former grounds of the Hippodrome, in 1966.