My name is Veronica Walker and I want to tell you about my brother Bert (Bertram Walker) and his work at the Dudley Hippodrome and the album he put together of all the stars, big and small, he worked with. He loved the theatre, the Dudley Hippodrome was his life. When I was very young, theatre workers were given family tickets free, on Monday night shows to help fill up the seats. It was very popular! On one of the Monday shows the curtain went up and there was a big chorus line of girls singing and dancing to the 'Lambeth Walk' in long red dresses. I said to my mother that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. It was in my blood.
The Dudley Hippodrome is extremely famous, it is a monument of wartime nostalgia and it was the only big theatre in Dudley. There were large departments stores and five cinemas. It was a magic time in Dudley then. I joined the 'Friends of the Theatre' to campaign with them to try and keep the theatre from being pulled down to make way for a car park. When I think that the biggest stars on the planet appeared there in the 40s and 50s it would be a travesty!
I was a resident dancer for 10 years at the Hippodrome. It was my second home in the 50s and 60s working in pantos and variety shows.
Bert emigrated to Canada in the early 50s taking his beloved album with him. When he came back to visit he would always go back to take pictures of the theatre he loved to take back to Canada.
Bert was very bubbly, full of jokes and quite the ballroom dancer. He loved working with the stars at the Hippodrome from 1945 to 1949. During that time he was on the short-list for the stage-managers job. He was broken-hearted not to get the job and decided to follow his friend Billy Ball to Canada. Billy and Bert worked together in the Spot Box at the Hippodrome. Billy emigrated to Canada a few months earlier. When Bert told my mother he was going to Canada the family were heartbroken. He took his memories of the Dudley Hippodrome with him, his treasured album.
In 2005 I went to see him, he had put all the pictures from his album on the TV screen so he could always look at them. He said that next time he came home he would bring me his album for safe-keeping as he knew I would treasure it as much as he did. To me, it will always be priceless. I am so happy to share these lovely pictures with you.
The Dudley Hippodrome was very strict and well run. If you stepped out of line you would be sacked, whether you were an usherette or a dancer in the chorus line. Everyone had the same rules. It was not all glamour - as dancers we would work from 10am until 5pm rehearsing for next week's variety show, and from 7pm to 10pm we worked in that night's show. We were often exhausted but I wouldn't have changed it for the world. When we heard that knock on dressing room door - a stagehand shouting 'overtures and beginners please - five minutes', the band starts the overture, the curtain goes up - that's when the glamour begins!
My mother used to repair the dancer's costumes. When Bert told her some of the dancers were starving she used to make cheese sandwiches to take to the theatre for them to share.
The Hippodrome opened in 1938, a year before I was born. When it closed around 1964 I was dancing in the final shows, also Terry (Toby Jug) Canter Shows. The word soon spread that the theatre was closing we were all heart-broken.
A few years ago I was invited to look around the now derelict theatre, the old dressing rooms were still there, and backstage bar which was well known as The Glue Pot. Most of the red velvet seats were intact and the balcony looked as steep as I remember it. It housed 1,700 people. The Spot Box was still there where Bert lit up the stars in the 40s to packed houses. Appearing was Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Chico Marx, Judy Garland and many more. Johnny Ray was there in the 50s where he sang his hit song 'When Your Sweetheart Sends You a Letter of Goodbye".
In this photo Bert has his arms crossed with the backstage crew. To thank the men for their hard work all week the Kennady Brothers would treat the men to a coach party 'mystery trip which was, in fact, a pub-crawl. As you can see they are all men, there were no ladies then - it was all male-orientated.
When TV arrived it killed the theatres, many closed down and music halls were long-gone. Artists were thrown out of work. Gradually the theatres started thriving again and live shows were coming back.
When Bob Hope appeared at Dudley, Bert said no one could get near him for an autograph -he had an entourage of people around him even in those days.
He said Bing Crosby was nice and friendly, and Judy Garland was a nice kid - she was just 16 years old at the time he met her.
I thank Bert for this wonderful album - if he hadn't saved all his memories and pictures then they would be long-forgotten and they deserve to be remembered. They were real troopers, they would go on no matter what problems they had. Show people are a different breed, 'the show must go on' will always stand in the theatre.
Bert's album of memories of the wonderful Dudley Hippodrome years will live on thanks to the Living Memory project. I will treasure it and leave it to the Dudley Museum or the Black Country Living Museum when I pass on.
I hope you have enjoyed my brother's memories of Dudley Hippodrome.
So, on with the show!
Long Live the Theatre!
Overtures and beginners please!