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As a major port from the Roman invasion onward and subsequently being labelled “the Gateway to the World”, cosmopolitan Southampton has undoubtedly had its fair share of music, dancing, theatre and entertainments over the years.
There is no hard evidence that Shakespeare came to Southampton but an actors’ company (Lord Strange’s Players) of which he was a member did perform upstairs in the Bargate and a patron of his Thomas Wriosthesley was the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare also mentions the Red Lion pub Below Bar as the site of the Courtroom in Henry V Part 2.
In 1766 the Southampton Theatre was opened in French Street and renamed the Theatre Royal in 1803. We know the renowned actress Sarah Siddons performed here in 1802 and in 1807. Jane Austen and her family attended a play. Jane also went to the Dolphin Hotel for its balls, spending her 18th birthday there.
She lived in premises on the site of the Juniper Berry pub from 1807-1809. That pub was later noted for its exotic entertainments such as drag artistes like Danny La Rue in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The Royal Pier was opened on July 8th 1833 by the Princess (later Queen) Victoria. The present Gatehouse dates from 1930 and the pineapple on top denotes an international sign of welcome.
Its heyday was from the 1920’s to 1970’s with most major acts playing the Mecca Ballroom. A locally famous dance band in the 30’s/40’s was led by Gil Hulme and a picture exists which shows him with Louis Armstrong in 1932 on Armstrong’s visit to Southampton, where he played at the Hippodrome in Ogle Road.
The Hippodrome was built by the owner of the Theatre Royal in 1883 as a modern venue to stage Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.
Escapologist Houdini first performed his famous upside down ‘Chinese Water Torture’ trick here in April 1911 – to just one audience member so he could copyright it!
Billy Reid (1902-75) rose from humble origins in the Chapel area of Southampton to become one of the world’s great songwriters and is honoured at the site of theatre where he established his reputation. He wrote 250 songs, including The Gypsy – a Number 1 hit for partner Dorothy Squires and his songs were recorded by artists including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Inkspots.
Southampton is also the birthplace of Benny Hill. He performed some of his early routines in the vaults, which were being used as air raid shelters, to keep spirits up during WW2.
St. Mary’s is the Mother Church of Southampton and is 6th on this site since the first Saxon church of 634 AD. “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is a 1914 song, music written by A. Emmett Adams with lyrics by Douglas Furber. It was written following a visit and hearing the bells. The song was revived 1945 in the Hollywood musical of the same name, by Bing Crosby. It even appeared on Phil Spector’s classic 1960’s Christmas album.
Today we have one of the country’s most important regional theatres: the Mayflower. It opened in 1928 as the Empire Theatre with 2,299 seats. In 1929 ‘talkies’ started and the theatre was home to films as well as shows. It became the Gaumont in 1950. Famous names who have played there include Stanley Holloway, Paul Robeson, Gracie Fields, Harry Lauder, Ivor Novello, Julie Andrews, Danny Kaye, Tommy Steele, Bill Hayley, and the Beatles. It was bought by City and became the Mayflower in 1987.

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