Theatres we have lost in Coventry
Coventry Hippodrome, Hales Street
This was the third theatre to carry the Hippodrome name. The first, little more than a corrugated tin structure on Pool Meadow, opened in 1884. Its successor opened on nearby Hales Street in 1906, but by the mid-1930s was found to be too small to cope with rising demand for entertainment in a growing city.
In December 1936, work started on a neighbouring site to build the much bigger third Hippodrome, which opened its doors to the public on 1 November 1937, with more than 2000 seats.
It was lavishly appointed, with an Art Deco interior, buffets and bars on each of its three levels and even a proper restaurant. Harry Roy and His Band played the opening night.
The theatre survived the bombing of Coventry, becoming a nationally well-known focus for big band concerts and shows in the war years.
In 1955, it changed its name to the Coventry Theatre and came under the management of local impresario Sam Newsome, who turned it into one of the top pantomime venues in the Midlands.
Newsome dubbed it ‘The Showplace Of The Midlands’ and throughout the 1950s and 60s, his Spring and Birthday shows, featuring the best of British comic and light entertainment talent, became legendary. But by the early 1970s, the theatre was increasingly having to stage pop and rock music gigs to keep going.
A change of name, to The Apollo, in 1979, failed to revive its fortunes and it closed on 6 June 1985, with a sell-out concert by singer Barbara Dickson.
Sixteen years as a bingo hall followed, before the building was finally demolished in 2002, to make way for Coventry’s new Millennium Square.
Opera House, Hales Street.
Built to replace the Empire Theatre, which had become a music hall, it opened in 1889 with a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It boasted just over a thousand seats and was the only theatre in the Midlands fitted with a revolving stage.
In February 1916, a performance of Il Travatore at the Opera House had to be conducted by candle and lantern light after an air raid warning of a Zeppelin attack turned the auditorium lights off.
Throughout the 1930s, the theatre was home to the Coventry Repertory Company, whose members included Phyllis Calvert, who went on to become one of Britain’s most popular film stars in the decade that followed, and Richard Hurndall and Raymond Francis, well-known actors in the early years of television.
The theatre was badly damaged in an air raid in October 1940 and when it re-opened in the summer of 1941 it had become a cinema.
It was briefly considered as a new civic theatre for Coventry after the war, but the Belgrade site was chosen instead.
It closed as a cinema in 1961, was sold to the Sketchley dry-cleaning company and was demolished the same year.
Theatre Royal, Smithford Street
Coventry’s first purpose-built theatre was opened in 1819 by Sir Skears Rew in a yard behind the offices of his plumbing and glazing firm in Smithford Street.
Within a year, the theatre was attracting the giants of the London stage, including the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, who played Richard III to sell-out audiences in September 1820.
Eight years later, the theatre was briefly managed by the American Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on the English stage, and in the 1840s was home to touring companies of actors, among them Benjamin and Sarah Terry, whose daughter Ellen, born in theatrical digs just round the corner in Market Street, in February 1847, would become the greatest actress of the Victorian age.
By the 1850s, the theatre’s fortunes were on the slide and in 1865 it became a music hall, returning to theatrical productions three years later, but always struggling to survive. Even an appearance there by Ellen Terry herself in 1880 could not arrest the theatre’s decline.
Renamed the Empire Theatre of Varieties in 1889, it drew down the curtain for the final time at Christmas 1895 and was demolished around 1903.