The London Hippodrome auditorium featured a stage and an arena or ring containing a tank 230 feet in circumference operated by hydraulic rams. It sank to a depth of 8 foot in about a minute and was filled with 100,000 gallons of water weighing 400 tons for spectacles such as ‘The Grand Spectacular Aquatic Carnival’ Giddy Ostend, or, the Absent-Minded Millionaire, its opening aquatic production in which the young Charlie Chaplin took part. The tank featured fourteen port lights, eight telescopic central fountains and a circle of fountains around the ring fence. For dangerous animal performances the ring fence was raised by hydraulic rams, and entrances to the ring could be flooded for the arrival of boats. The stage behind the arena, constructed on steel girders, could be raised or lowered to the level of the arena. When the ring wasn’t flooded for the annual spectacle it could be used for demonstrations of swimming and diving.
The thirst for aquatic theatre at the London Hippodrome had seemed unquenchable, but by 1909 works were undertaken by Matcham to enlarge the auditorium and reconstruct the interior as a Music Hall and Variety theatre. Harry Houdini performed there and the venue staged the country’s first ever performance of Swan Lake.
In 1958 the original interior was demolished and reopened as The Talk of the Town and presented major stars from throughout the world including Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr, The Jackson 5 and Tom Jones.
After various different reincarnations, including a nightclub under the management of Peter Stringfellow, in 2008 the venue returned to its roots as a circus venue for burlesque cabaret La Clique, which closed in June 2009.
When work started on the £40m project to transform this landmark building into The Hippodrome Casino in 2009, owners Simon and Jimmy Thomas vowed to do as much as they could to repair the damage done to the building over the years as it evolved to adapt to new styles of entertainment.
Paula Reason, the architect behind the Hippodrome’s transformation, said her team’s biggest challenge was the unknowns in tackling a building that had been covered up and pulled apart again for more than 100 years. In my opinion she succeeded as many of the original interior has been carefully restored thus providing visitors a small glimpse of what once was the glorious circus wonder of London.
The London Hippodrome
Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square
WC2H 7JH London