The circus industry has traditionally been peripatetic – we associate going to the circus with a “big top” tent in a field – but there was a moment, early in the twentieth century, when it seemed sensible to build auditoria big enough to house a circus ring.
That moment was brief. The prolific theatre-architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) converted the Brighton Hippodrome from an ice rink in 1901, but it was rebuilt as a variety theatre the following year. Frank Matcham’s London Hippodrome on the corner of Leicester Square, built in 1900, was adapted as a variety theatre in 1909.
There are two places in Britain where you can still experience circus in a purpose-built hippodrome – Blackpool Tower Circus (1894; interior by Frank Matcham 1900) and the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome (1903), but there’s a third survivor which is one of the largest and grandest of Frank Matcham’s auditoria.
The Olympia Theatre, West Derby Road, Liverpool (1905) was a proscenium theatre with a circus ring and water tank for the briefly fashionable spectacular performances known as naumachiae.
To accommodate the standard 42ft-diameter circus ring projecting into the stalls area, the proscenium is 48 feet wide, and the stage measured 100 feet wide by 41ft deep. The fly-grid is 68 feet above the stage floor.
The base of the ten-foot-deep 80,000-gallon under-stage tank survives without its hydraulic machinery: the basement storey also contained stabling for elephants and horses, and cages for lions.
The original seating-capacity was 3,750.
The Olympia was built by Moss Empires only a couple of hundred yards from their rival Thomas Barrasford’s 3,500-seat Royal Hippodrome (1902; demolished 1984), which stood opposite Low Hill Cemetery (now Grant Gardens).
Ken Roe, in his visit-notes for a Cinema Theatre Association tour in 2000, commented –
The Olympia was provided with 36 separate exits, but the problem turned out to be how to get the people into the place, not out…
Harold Akroyd, The Dream Palaces of Liverpool (Amber Valley 1987), remarked that –
…an asylum once occupied the site of the Olympia, which prompted the comment that Moss & Stoll must have been mad to open a music hall so close to the city…
This story is too good to check, however: The Stage, April 27th 1905, indicates that the site was formerly occupied by the Licensed Victuallers Association almshouses.
Three balconies spread the audience across a wider space than a conventional proscenium theatre. Beneath the Dress Circle were ten boxes facing the stage. The additional proscenium boxes facing the audience were clearly intended only for circus shows. Their onion domes are complemented by the plaster elephant-heads that embellish the side walls. A sliding roof provided ventilation between houses.
Associated British Cinemas Ltd took on the lease in 1929. On February 11th in that year the Olympia became Liverpool’s first sound-cinema when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer opened. For perhaps the only time in the Olympia’s history, queues stretched out of sight down West Derby Road.
As competition from large-capacity modern super-cinemas grew in the 1930s even the Royal Hippodrome went over to films, and ABC, which operated both buildings, closed the Olympia as a cinema on March 25th 1939.
After wartime use as a Royal Navy Depot, the Olympia was sold to Mecca Ltd and reopened as the Locarno Ballroom in 1949.
This conversion did practically irreversible damage to Frank Matcham’s auditorium. Raising the stalls floor to stage level involved inserting concrete pillars into the basement area; the rear-stalls projection-box was dismantled and stairways were constructed from the stalls to the Grand Circle.
In August 1964 Mecca closed the ballroom and adapted the building as one of their chain of bingo clubs.
Clearance of the surrounding housing led to closure in 1982, after which it remained on Mecca’s hands, listed Grade II, empty and for sale. Its listing was raised to Grade II* in 1985.
It remained dark until Silver Leisure Ltd, owners of the adjacent Grafton Ballroom, bought it in April 1990. Ten years later Silver Leisure reopened the building, impressively refurbished, with a programme of boxing, wrestling and concerts.
It has continued in the same family ownership, renamed Eventim Olympia with standing space in the stalls and seating in the lower and upper balconies. From the outset it was a huge risk to build the Olympia in inner-city Liverpool, but against huge odds, this enormous building has survived and earns its keep in the twenty-first century.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.