Thursday, 11 February 2010

Get Out Of That!

Thanks to bloggin buddy Dan (from the excellent Blog of Eternal Disappointment) who tipped me off about this one. Due to the fact this happened in the early 1900's there is virtually no record of this event. However whilst researching the Southend Odeon and Laurel and Hardy in Southend posts a few months back, I did stumble across a couple of small pieces of information, so for what it's worth, here it is....

The legendary escapologist Harry Houdini was a regular visitor to these shores and appeared in theatres all over the UK almost yearly from 1900 to 1914, giving well over 600 performances in the process. His one and only visit to Essex was in 1911 where he appeared at the Hippodrome, Southend from Monday 27th March until Saturday 1st April. It was a routine performance all week, except for Friday 31st March, when Houdini accepted a challenge by 4 Southend carpenters, who had built their own wooden box for him to attempt to escape from! Alas there is no record of whether he was successful or not, although I'm guessing that as there was a performance the following day, he was!

The Edwardian Southend Hippodrome on Southchurch Road was built by Bertie Crew and opened on the 8th of November 1909. It was built on four levels and the capacity of the theatre at that time was 1750. For a number of years, The Hippodrome was thought of as the best theatre in town, and attracted some of the biggest variety stars of the time including Flanagan and Allen, George Robey and Gracie Fields. Performances were twice nightly (6.50pm and 9.00pm) and admission prices were 3d, 6d, 9d, 1' and 1'6. Boxes were 10'6 and 15'.

In 1928 the Theatre was bought by Gaumont Theatres who used it for both films and live theatre until 1933 when the building was closed and converted to a Cinema only auditorium. The changes made were vast, and as well as the building itself undergoing substantial alterations, the pavement outside the theatre was also relaid, and a huge canopy built. It re-opened on the 15th of January 1934 as The Gaumont Palace with a capacity of 1588. The entrance was manned by commissionaires with peak caps and braided coats... it really must have looked like something out of 1930's Hollywood! The opening film was 'Meet My Sister' starring Clifford Mollison. In 1937 it was renamed simply The Gaumont.
In 1948 the Gaumont achieved its biggest attendance record when 22,000 people watched the Norman Wisdom film 'Trouble in Store' in the space of 7 days! In February of 1954, now under the control of the Rank Organisation, a major fire destroyed the former stage of the building but remarkably the Cinema was back open again the following day... imagine how long it would be out of action for these days! The Cinema closed on 20th October 1956 when Rank modernised the Ritz Cinema in Southend which they also owned. The final film to be shown there was 'A Hill in Korea' staring Stanley Baker.

So what's the classy Gaumont in Southend looking like these days I hear you cry?! Well here it is in all its glory, snapped by me just the other day....

Yes, just like all the other 16 cinemas that used to be in Southend at one time or another, it is no more. The building was demolished in 1958 and a supermarket was built on the site. In the 80's (and possibly early 90's) I remember this building being a Halfords (a serial offender for taking over ex-cinemas in the area), more recently it has been the HFC Bank, Walmsleys Furniture Superstore and a tatty Christmas Shop. Currently an odd YMCA cafe and tat-shop all rolled in to one.
Interesting to see that the building to the left still remains - you can just catch it in the corner of the Gaumont picture above, then a restaurant, now a Slug and Lettuce pub.


Dan said...

An interesting fact about Harry Houdini:

When performing his legendary escape from a locked safe, he would be handcuffed, locked inside and then have a curtain placed around the safe. The orchestra would then launch into some appropriate music while the audience looked on tensely, wondering if he'd escape before the air in the safe ran out and suffocated him.

After a number of minutes (sometimes ten or so), Houdini would suddenly stagger out from behind the curtain, drenched in sweat from his exertions, to incredible applause. Surely, a magnificent feat of escapology?

Except Houdini had a bit of a secret. I won't give his methods away, but what he'd actually do would free himself from the safe within a matter of seconds and then, to ratchet up the tension, just sit on top of it reading a newspaper for a while! Then, when he felt the moment was right, he'd fling a glass of water over himself and stagger out from behind the curtain, giving the illusion of having been frantically beavering away to free himself.

The ultimate showman. So nice to know that he once played here in our grotty little town.

Anonymous said...

Just guessing, but the building that replaced the splendid Gaumont has all the hallmarks of a 60's design. Now the 60's has a lot going for it, but just what was going in the architect's heads during that decade? They have a lot to answer for.


Piley said...

Dan - haha! A showman indeed! I've often wondered that about performances like that, behind a curtain. Love the idea of him reading a copy of the local rag whilst the audience's blood pressure goes off the scale!

Warble - Yes, 60's buildings have a certain look about them don't they?!! Where did all the imagination go?? All those splendid buildings of the 30's and 40's and by the 60's all they ever thought was "i'll build a box...". Now if southend council was proposing to rid of of some of that tat i'd be more interested...


Kolley Kibber said...

Another great tale of poor old Southend's once-grand history. Can you imagine the same degree of fond nostalgia, in forty years or so, for any of the terrible heaps thrown up by the planners in the 60s and 70s?

"There used to be a lovely old NCP car park here, son, but of course they knocked it down to make way for this Jetpack Park...philistines..."

And didn't Houdini's 'trick' have something to do with the kiss his wife always gave him before he embarked on a stunt? Kate Bush referenced it on the cover of 'The Dreaming'.

Furtheron said...


I ought to dig up some facts about stuff in my neck of the woods but I'm not much of a historian.

We had a cinema in my little town but I don't remember it - it became a Liptons which I just remember then a furniture store which is still is today - local family firm, long may they continue.

In Gillingham we had the Plaza - or fleapit as we called it. I don't recall going there as a cinema. It was for a time the TVS studios and had some notable shows shot there but then the Maidstone Studios were built and it closed to be knocked down and a new Lidl built there.

In Chatham the old Theatre Royal has given up the fight to be restored I think - I went in for a look about 10 years ago with my son but it was a wreck then. Half of it had been a furniture shop - that was demolished and then the rest declared unstable. Now its in the middle of the Chatham bus station, flyover pull down redevelopment nonsense. It'll have to come down sooner or later as it is litterly just falling to bits. My father in law worked there as a lad on the lights so sad to see if finally pulled down.

We still have the Central which hosted Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie etc. in the 60s/70s and Maiden, Budgie, Saxon etc. in the 80s... now rarely music there other than tribute acts.

Mondo said...

What a name Bertie Crew..

A couple of other bits for you P. The square block above Halfords was also part of the old art college. Bleech, Lil, Mrs M and did a couple of weeks making window displays in there.

The building now a pub, I think used to be the site of Bermans: toys and childrens clothing. I had some fab pretend Danny Wilde persuaders clobber from them.

Any plans for a piece on southend Clothes shops. Rosehills, Man at Barry's, 45?

Istvanski said...

Interesting what Dan said about Houdini. I thought ol' Harry's trick worked because he had a secret key stashed somewhere which was used as an aid to his method of escapology.
Dodgy Hungarian git...

mrs mondo said...

Another fine example of Southend High Street going from riches to rags. It really is heart-breaking. (I still get wound up about the Royals - what a superb bit of planning that was. Lets ruin the top of Pier Hill (over-looking the worlds longest pleasure pier, now a sad relic in itself) by sticking an ugly great shopping centre there. *sigh*.

Piley said...

ISBW - Yeah, there seems to be a theme running in these 'old Southend' posts doesn't there??! That wasn't the case when I set out, but yup, it does just seem to be highlighting that it was probably one a really nice town. It actually makes me sad to look at the fab architecture on those 2 photos (I mean the first two, just in case anyone is unsure!!) and think that building was just yanked down to make way for a supermarket.

Further - Thanks... For someone who is "not much of a historian" you documented some pretty interesting stuff there mate!! I look forward to 'Furthers History Corner' popping up on the blog soon!

Nice one Mondo - Does that bit still exist up there I wonder? Whats up there now? Will have to check out about Bermans Toys... thanks for the tip off!

Ist - Nah, he were magic thats all!!!

Mrs Mondo - You are right, the Royals was (and is) a particularly bad eyesore... Why are none of these developments ever for the better??!! You'd think law of averages would make one of em a winner!!


Dan said...

Good Lord, I remember when Berman's was there! In fact, I have a relatively interesting tale to tell...

One Saturday, myself and a friend made the trip into Southend and availed ourselves of Berman's excellent selection of toys.

While we browsed various action figures, a man walked up and engaged us in conversation. He had a gyroscope with him and said, "Here lads, look at this" and proceeded to show us what it could do. Of course, as snot-nosed young brats we feigned interest but were rather more intrigued by how many gasmask-wearing Action Force figures we could purchase.

We politely nodded and smiled (in those days, you were never rude to strangers) then made our mumbled excuses and left. However, as I left, I couldn't help thinking that I recognised the chap who was demonstrating the fascinating physics of a gyroscope to two uninterested little oiks...

As we left the shop, I suddenly realised who he was when I saw a chalk board with the words - TODAY! Meet TV's Johnny Ball in person!

By then, it was too late to go back and speak to him, and we also had new toys to play with.

Ah, to be so close to greatness...

E F RICE said...

At least Harry Houdini escaped Southend, I've been trying for forty f****** years !

Piley said...

Dan - Frankly, i'm livid.... you palmed me off with this ol pony about Houdini in the local area, whilst keeping schtum about the REAL big news.. Johnny Ball in Southend. Well thanks very much pal... ;-)

EF Rice - Man I wish i'd thought of that line!!


Anonymous said...

Good post P. Although for once i cant think of much to say. Apart from the fact i'm amazed 22.000 people IN ONE TOWN went to watch a bloody Norman Wisdom film. Cant stand that twat.


Piley said...

blimey, can i frame that one??! Carl speachless!!!

Yes, they were simpler times then wernt they?! When 22,000 locals could be entertained by 'ol Norm!