I wonder how many Eastbourne residents have travelled along Seaside Road, as I have, without realising that the road holds one of the town’s greatest treasures. I recently enjoyed a very interesting guided tour over the entire Royal Hippodrome Theatre (RHT), and I left the building feeling grateful to the local residents who formed a trust which rescued the theatre and which now maintains, manages and promotes it. Built on the site of a former house which was demolished in 1883, I understand that the theatre itself was in danger of being demolished in recent years when the council intended to build a multi-storey car park on the site. Luckily, a group of supporters successfully applied for a Grade II Listed Building Status a matter of days before the demolition plans were due to be finalised at a council meting.
Too many examples of the town’s historic buildings have disappeared with modern characterless developments such as offices and flats taking their place. The ornate interior belies the fact that the building took only six months to complete. The Royal Hippodrome, at 132 years old, plays an important part in the town’s history and its origins coincide with the arrival of the railway and the birth of the town as a holiday resort.
RHT volunteer guides, Mike, Tony, Harry and Barbara, recounted many interesting facts and pointed out many of the special features of days gone by – including a trap door installed by the famous escapologist Harry Houdini. Many famous entertainers have played at the RHT and one of the most famous, Sir Bruce Forsyth, while on national TV chat show, referred to it as a “grubby little theatre somewhere on the south coast”. This was regarded as a serious insult particularly as Bruce was in his second summer season at the Hippodrome when he was signed up in 1958 as the compere of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, which attracted 10 million viewers every week (interestingly, Norman Vaughan, an Eastbourne resident, became the compere at a later date).
The ‘Friends of The RHT’ donate their time free to assist in the running of the theatre – even volunteering to act as ushers at every show, and I’m sure that if Brucie was to return to the theatre today, he would have to eat his words – the RHT is a sparkling restored treasure and a unique attraction which many other towns should envy.