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Happy days when big stars came to the Dudley Hippodrome

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 30, 2014

  • Wilfred Pickles, right, and Mabel, left, with a contestant on the radio show Have A Go

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AS the future of the Dudley Hippodrome still hangs in the balance, here we have a reminder of the variety theatre's glory years with a bill promoting shows at the end of 1946.

The Hippodrome, "England's most modern variety theatre", first opened in 1938 and throughout the Second World War and into the 1950s it was one of premier venues, attracting big star performers from both sides of the Atlantic. The programme for October 1946 is typical of the shows that were put on for discerning Dudley folk to enjoy.

Beginning on 28th October was a week-long run of the musical Good-night Vienna. This popular romantic operetta was originally written by Eric Maschwitz for the radio and was filmed in 1932 starring Jack Buchanan and Anna Neagle. Maschwitz wrote many dramas and screenplays but is perhaps best remembered for writing the lyrics to the popular songs A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and These Foolish Things. The production at the Hippodrome featured James Etherington, Jackie Hunter, Marjorie Brown and Teddie St Denis.

The following week another drama was staged, The Cure for Love by Walter Greenwood. Salford-born Greenwood made his name with the 1933 novel Love on the Dole and wrote this play in 1945. It tells the story of a soldier returning from the war and marrying his long-term fiancée, even though he can't stand her anymore.

The original West End production featured Robert Donat and Renée Asherton and Donat directed a film adaptation in 1949.

The 1946 touring production starred Wilfred Pickles and Ella Retford in the lead roles. Pickles was a popular entertainer and actor who rose to prominence as an announcer on the BBC's northern radio service. In the Second World War he sometimes read the news on the BBC Home Service, in "a deliberate attempt to make it more difficult for Nazis to impersonate BBC broadcasters".

From 1946 to 1967 Pickles hosted the radio show Have A Go, along with his wife Mabel, in which members of the public wrote to Pickles in the hope of fulfilling their lifetime's ambition. From 1954 to 1956 a version of the show ran on television, called Ask Pickles.

Ella Retford was a star of music hall who had entertained troops in the First World War with songs such as Hello There, Little Tommy Atkins and Ship Ahoy! (All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor).

It was then time for laughs at the Hippodrome when the biggest comedy star of the day came for a week. Max Miller was born Thomas Henry Sargent in 1894. He began performing at concert parties during his army service in the First World War and on demob carried on performing in his native Brighton. He changed his name in the early '20s and began touring all over the country. His reputation grew and he began making recordings and film appearances in the 1930s.

Miller became known for his risqué material, although he never swore on stage. He would often leave a sentence unfinished, allowing his audience to supply the double-meaning. By the Second World War Miller was the highest-paid variety star in Britain, earning more than £1,000 a week. His popularity continued into the 1950s but he was unable to make the transition to television, a medium that did not suit his style. A heart attack in 1958 forced him to cut back on his schedule and he died in 1963.

Miller was a great southern comedian but in the following week at the Hippodrome his place was taken by a great northern comedian, Norman Evans. He was born in Rochdale in 1901 and as a young man he first performed on stage with his local amateur dramatic society. His big break came in 1934 when Gracie Fields, having spotted him at a benefit performance for Rochdale FC, gave up 20 minutes of her own show so that he could appear.

Evans became a celebrated pantomime dame but his reputation rests largely on his "Over the Garden Wall" sketches, in which he played Fanny Fairbottom, a gossiping northern housewife. In particular, this act inspired Les Dawson in his "Cissie and Ada" sketches with Roy Barraclough. Evans died in 1962.

The last item on the playbill is the Hippodrome's 1946 Christmas pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. This starred comedian Jack Edge as the Royal Jester, Roy Royston as the dame and Beryl Stevens as Jack. Also appearing were George Betton, Mavis Whyte, the Gripp Quartette, the Five Romas, the Florence Whiteley Girls and the Latour Babes.

Bugle reader Alan Carter of Woodsetton, Dudley, has written in with his memories of the Dudley Hippodrome in the 1950s:

"Three friends and myself became regular attendants at the Saturday night variety night. It was always a good evening, made better that my group scoutmaster did the accounts for the Hippodrome and so we could occasionally get to meet the stars and get autographs.

"One of our group was a mad keen Goons fan from radio days, so when we heard that Harry Secombe was to appear at Dudley the Goon Show favourite in our number was thrilled. I was able to arrange for us to meet him before the show and we then settled into our seats.

"During the first half the 'goon' did extracts from the show and told funny anecdotes, some about his life in the army as an artillery man.

"He came out for the second half dressed in a black dress suit, white shirt and bow tie and we all were expecting another funny sketch when suddenly the small orchestra in the pit struck up and Harry Secombe began to sing the aria On With the Motley from Pagliacci. He followed this singing Nessun dorma from Turandot. Clapping erupted from all around the theatre, we were all sitting speechless, none of us realised he had such a wonderful voice. He finished by singing Land of My Fathers in Welsh. We could not believe what we had just heard.

"We left the theatre with Harry Secombe's wonderful voice still in our heads, determined to search record shops in the hope of finding a Secombe record that we might play at home

"This was the first time for us four Goon fans that we realised that one of the Goons was also an opera singer, one of the many very happy evenings my three friends and I spent at the Hippodrome"

Please share your happy memories of the Dudley Hippodrome. We would also like to hear from anyone with memorabilia from other Black Country theatres, such as the Wednesbury Hippodrome or the Theatre Royal, Bilston, for example. Contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to our editorial address on page 2.

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