Six ‘educated’ lions in a cage with their lady tamer and two volunteer Eastbourne businessmen drinking a bottle of Champagne.
That was the scene at the newly refurbished Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Seaside in August 1904.
It was a hot August day when the lions came onto stage, and it’s fair to assume that they were drugged in some way, because the gentlemen were close up to them for at least 15 minutes while the wine was appreciated.
It is also a good assumption that their nails were clipped, because the safe performance of two of Eastbourne’s unnamed finest businessmen was never in danger.
It was a wonder that the theatre was ever built in the first place, because in the very early 1880s local businessmen who were members of the Season Extension Committee approached the seventh Duke with a view to opening a place of entertainment on his land.
This was refused, being deemed unsuitable, so the gentlemen who wanted to extend the current nine week visitor season approached theatre designer and architect Charles John Phipps.
He raised the £13,000 funds in London and the Prince of Wales was approached so the theatre was called the Theatre Royal.
An old house in Seaside called Edinburgh House was purchased as a suitable site and on January 2 1883 demolition commenced.
The theatre’s first night was on August 2 1883.
Some 1,500 patrons were entertained at each of the two performances, with the first three rows of the stalls in individual seats.
The other patrons were crammed onto benches, with 60 waiters scurrying to serve drinks.
The wealthier were in individual seats in the Dress Circle, the very poor at the very top. The design was so the top shelf did not overlap the middle, as the poor were known to lob their detritus below.
The first manager’s wife was a performer, but after a few months another lady from his Manchester town came forward – with two children and it was regarded as something of a scandal.
Initially gas lit, the 1904 conversion to electricity was combined with the name change to the Royal Hippodrome, because of animals on stage.
In the ensuing years Marie Lloyd, Harry Houdini with his special trap door which is still there, and Bruce Forsyth have been the variety of stars.
Russ Conway came to the theatre’s rescue 25 years ago, raising funds and the theatre gaining listed status.
The theatre is now very much a community theatre and has been run by the Royal Hippodrome Theatre Management group since 2013 after Eastbourne Borough Council granted it a licence and allowed the group to take it on a lease.
For the next year the management group is focusing on getting the Grand Dame of Eastbourne theatres into more active use in preparation for its 130th anniversary.
Harry Pope is an Eastbourne sight-seeing guide. www.harrythewalker.com 01323 734107 for tour information.