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Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 14:13 UK
A last farewell to the Hippdrome?
A 1933 poster for the New Empire

After over a century of entertainment, the Tameside Hippodrome may well have made its last curtain call.

The Hippodrome closed in March 2008 when the concert promoters Live Nation pulled out of the venue.

Ever since, Tameside Council have sought developers to either run it as an entertainment venue or redevelop the site.

No developers have been found to date, meaning the Hippodrome's future remains uncertain.

With such speculation over the future of the venue, we turned the spotlight on the theatre's past.

From Blackpool to Ashton

As with many other North West venues, the Empire Hippodrome - as it was known when it opened - came into being thanks to the theatre impresario William Henry Broadhead.

A 'rare' theatre saved
On Wednesday 16 September 2009, the Tameside Hippodrome was granted Grade II listed status by English Heritage, who described it as "an example of Edwardian theatre that's rare in the UK".

That means the theatre will not be demolished, but Tameside Council are still unsure of exactly what its future use will be.

Originally from Manchester, William moved to Blackpool for health reasons in 1883 and subsequently made his name as one of the men responsible for making the town into a hot spot for entertainment and variety.

He founded Messrs W Broadhead & Sons and, having found success on the Lancashire coast, decided to take that success across the region.

The company opened venues from Morecambe in the north (the Victoria Pavilion) to Ashton and Eccles in the south (the Empire and the Crown Theatre), running a total of 16 at the height of their success.

Early success

The luxury and comfort of the Empire meant it was an instant success, though the surroundings weren't the only reason. By 1930, the venue had hosted turns from some of the biggest names of the age.

Both George Formby Senior and the eventual film star George Formby Junior performed there, father in 1907 and son in 1923, Harry Houdini wowed the theatre with his illusions in 1909, the theatrical supertstar Lillie Langtry performed there in 1919 and the future TV star Hylda Baker provided the entertainment in 1930.

The early Charlie Chaplin (centre in bowler)
Charlie Chaplin performed at the Hippodrome in 1910

Interestingly though, the two most famous names attached to the venue came in much smaller parts than they would later be able to command.

In November 1910, Fred Karno's 'Wows-Wows' - a music hall ensemble - brought their slapstick comedy and songs to the Empire, bringing with them a young Charlie Chaplin.

The troupe would take the same show to America the following year and start Chaplin on the road to cinematic immortality.

Five years later, another future great, Gracie Fields, arrived in her first major revue tour, alongside Archie Pitt. It was the first time the pair had worked together but Pitt would go on to be not only Gracie's comedic partner, but also her husband and manager.

The golden age of cinema

William Broadhead's death in 1931 threw his business into turmoil. Some of the theatres being run by his company fell into disarray, saw a severe drop in profits and had to be sold off, including the Empire.

Inevitably, with the trend moving away from the stage and towards the magic of Hollywood, the new owners converted the Empire into a temporary cinema, showing their first film - the adventure love story Carnival Boat, starring Ginger Rogers and William Boyd - in August 1932.

The move to the big screen was deemed a success and the owners decided to make the change permanent.

The following year, the Empire was closed for refurbishments. The gallery and private boxes were removed to be replaced with one huge 600-seat single span circle, which had the benefit of needing no pillars; that meant those sat below in the stalls also had an uninterrupted view.

The building reopened as The New Empire in November 1933 with a grand VIP event.

With luxury being at a top priority, the venue boasted a lounge that could accommodate 100 people, guardsmen-like ushers at the entrance and an army of lady attendants to attend to the needs of the patrons.

The success continued through the 1930s and later in the decade, the New Empire was bought by 'Associated British Cinemas Ltd', who remained as the lease holders on it until 1974 (in which time they became ABC when they were purchased by publishing giants EMI).

No to bingo

The mid-70s saw another twist in the Hippodrome tale. With ABC giving up the venue, the Licensing Justices received an application to convert the venue into a bingo hall.

Tameside Hippodrome's blue plaque
The Hippodrome was awarded a blue plaque on its centenary in 2004

That may have gone through but for the opposition of two operatic societies - the Dukenfield and Ashton Operatic Societies - who used the building for their performances and rehearsals; though the building was converted into a cinema, the stage from its theatrical days remained.

The societies raised a petition to oppose the bingo hall proposal and as a result, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council took a 21 year lease on the building, reopening it as Tameside Theatre (though they still showed films) in 1976 with a performance from the singing star Vince Hill.

The modern Hippodrome

The council subsequently bought the venue from EMI in 1983. Nine years later, they handed over the management over it to the theatre giants, Apollo Leisure (and subsequently to Live Nation), and renamed it Tameside Hippodrome in reference to its original name.

Since then, the Hippodrome has hosted everything from pantomimes to concerts to school presentations, and in 2004, the comedian and entertainer, Ken Dodd, unveiled a blue plaque on the building that celebrated a century of performances there.

What the future holds for the Hippodrome remains to be seen, but one thing is certain - with so many twists to its story and so many fine turns in its past, the venue will always be remembered as the home of Ashton's entertainment.

Photographs of Charlie Chaplin, The New Empire and the blue plaque used by kind permission of Tameside MBC Local Studies and Archives Centre

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