HOTELIERS have banded together to help try and save Eastbourne’s oldest theatre – now they need locals to help them succeed.
The Royal Hippodrome opened back in 1883 and is home to the longest-running summer variety season in the UK – with comedian Jimmy Cricket topping the bill this year.
However the venue is heavily reliant on the tourist trade with as few as just three per cent of locals ever having stepped foot through its doors.
If the bid to safeguard its future is to be a success, the members of Eastbourne Hotel Association who have taken over promoting the venue say that startling statistic needs to change. Eastbourne, they say, needs to fall back in love with the Hippodrome.
Darren Weir, who runs The Mowbray, and Marine Parade Hotel boss Jerome Farrow head a small team of locals who stepped in after finding out the Hippodrome was not in a position to stage its annual show.
The pair managed to convince Eastbourne Borough Council to back their efforts and, together with the Friends of the Royal Hippodrome and members of a trust set to take over the day-to-day running from the council later this year, they set about organising this summer’s showcase.
Taking over promotion of the show, Mr Weir and Mr Farrow changed the way tickets were sold. In years gone by every seat was reserved for coach trips and not released to the public until half an hour before the start of each show.
This made it near impossible for locals to book seats in advance and was one of the main reasons Hippodrome audiences contained fewer and fewer Eastbournians.
“There are an awful lot of people who live here who have never been to the Hippodrome,” explained Mr Weir. “And a lot of people you speak to who have seen a show there have not done for, say 10 or 20 years. Hopefully we can change that.”
Current show, A Sentimental Journey, is helping put the venue back on the local entertainment map. Although coach trips still make up around 80 per cent of the audience at any given show, more and more people are noticing the theatre and popping along.
Last week saw the biggest crowds of the season so far, with 229 people on one night and 252 on the other. “A lot more local people are walking in,” revealed Mr Farrow, whose wife is also part of the team. “It is a crying shame so many in Eastbourne have never been to the Hippodrome because it really is a great place.”
And, as Mr Weir was quick to point out, “There very nearly was not a show this year and it looks like the trust will not be in a position to stage one next summer either.
“We need people to come along and support the theatre because if it does close, it might never open again. Eastbourne is already losing attractions and we don’t want the Hippodrome another.”
In a bid to encourage more people along, organisers are offering anyone booking a group trip a discount on tickets. All they have to do is call 720012 or 730005.
And there are also plans afoot to put on shows, including live music, comedy and plays as well as opening up the rest of the venue to community groups and filling the ground floor shops with, among other things, a theatre memorabilia store.
Mr Weir and Mr Farrow clearly have big plans and have said they will do all they can to help the trust when it is up and running.
Despite what some readers think, the hoteliers are not doing it to make money. Mr Weird said, “Personally, there is no financial gain for me. My hotel is opposite the Devonshire Park so it would actually be easier for me to send my guests there rather than arrange a coach to take them down to the Hippodrome.
“We just don’t want to see the Hippodrome closed.”
Mr Farrow added, “Many come to Eastbourne because they want a traditional seaside holiday and this year’s show fits into that perfectly – good old-fashioned variety. It isn’t just for visitors though – there is plenty for local people to enjoy as well.”
Show tickets available online at www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk, on 01323 412000 or at the box office in Seaside Road. The show runs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8.15pm.