General 10 March 2023
OVER 100 YEARS OF THE HIPPODROME
A BLOG POST FROM IAN SCOTT OF THE FALKIRK LOCAL HISTORY SOCIETY ON THE HISTORY OF THE HIPPODROME, WHICH CELEBRATES ITS 111TH BIRTHDAY ON 11 MARCH 2023.
The Hippodrome in Bo’ness, Scotland’s first ever purpose-built cinema, opened its doors on the world of moving pictures over a century ago. The new sensation first hit the world’s screens in Paris in 1895 (according to many sources) and in less than 20 years was thrilling the folk of Bo’ness in their own brand new picture house. Elsewhere the public, if they had any provision at all, had to make do with old theatres, abandoned church buildings and converted halls. Bo’ness was at the height of its prosperity during those Edwardian years with shipping, coal mines, foundries and potteries bringing wealth and power to the local businessmen. With it came a sense of municipal pride that inspired many fine new buildings and among them the Hippodrome stands out as the most imaginative and unusual both in terms of design and purpose.
Two men take the credit. The first was Louis Dickson, entrepreneur and modernist, who recognised right away that the ‘movies’ were the entertainment of the future and a sure-fire money spinner for himself! He was an electrical engineer by profession, a keen photographer and in 1908 we find him acting as the official ‘kinematographer’ at the national exhibition in Edinburgh. To create his Bo’ness picture palace, he turned to the celebrated local architect Matthew Steele whose hand is everywhere to be seen and whose stylish and original work decorates almost every corner of the old burgh. Steele came up with the idea of a theatre in the round with seating for over 1,000 patrons and it was completed in time for its official opening by Provost Grant on 11 March 1912.
Thereafter Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops and Douglas Fairbanks Junior shuffled and swashbuckled their way across the silver screen as the Hippodrome became the place to be for that first generation of film buffs. For the next sixty years it continued to bring the very best of the movie world to the area but along with cinemas everywhere it fell before the advance of television. It closed in the mid 1970s and for a few years was home to that other popular entertainment, bingo, before closing in 1980. After that it lay empty and abandoned.
Its importance brought it into the ownership of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust and in 2002 they began the process or bringing it back to life. Falkirk Council took over responsibility for the restoration which was completed in 2007. Two years later the magnificent auditorium was ready for its second official opening.
It’s a wonderfully relaxing cinema, with beautifully restored, red velvet upholstered seats that provide great views of the screen, with a fantastic selection of different films and special events to enjoy from their packed year-round programme. From family films and musicals to the latest blockbusters, and even theatre, there’s something for everyone. It’s also the perfect place to sample something of the magic of those early silent days and every March since 2011 the Hippodrome hosts a Silent Film Festival. Once again this year the ‘silent’ musicians are limbering up and the projectionists standing by with reels of classic ‘silents’ from the golden age and much, much more.
In this day and age when we are still losing well-loved historic buildings it is a real pleasure to see this amazing place thriving and doing what it was built to do more than a century ago. With our support it will go on doing that for a very long time to come.