hen the curtain first went up in January 1900 audiences in the capital were treated to a show that combined a stage show, circus and water spectacle. A 100,000-gallon water tank set in the well of the theatre was big enough to accommodate swimming elephants, high-diving midgets and Venetian-style gondolas.
While the entertainment would have been what caught the headlines on the opening night, history records an even more remarkable performance. According to legend, on the stage that night among the performers was a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin, just 20 years old and at the start of a career that would see him knighted and immortalised as Charlie Chaplin.
It was a propitious start for a building that would stand at the heart of London's entertainment industry for more than 100 years, until it lost its way, together with its licence to serve alcohol, in 2005.
Since then the building on the corner of Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road has been occupied by little more than memories: of its nightclub years under the stewardship of Peter Stringfellow; of when stars such as Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey performed there when it was called The Talk of the Town; and of its longest incarnation as a 1,340-seat theatre from its birth until 1951.
Now the building, flanked by gaudy souvenir shops is being stripped down and prepared for its latest incarnation – as London's most high-profile casino. Simon Thomas, the developer and bingo hall entrepreneur, is spending up to us$ 45 million of his own money to refurbish the place.
Above, below and to the sides of the main auditorium the venue will have three floors of gambling, four bars, a 200-seat theatre and a 150-cover restaurant. Rooftop gambling rooms where punters can smoke and gamble at the same time have been planned. The place will even have a wedding licence. "If you want to get married by Elvis in London, you will now be able to do it," Thomas boasts.
How London's tourists and locals will take to a round-the-clock adult playground is not easy to imagine, especially one perched on the edge of one its busiest tourist sites. But by mid-2011 anyone over the age of 21 will be able to gamble 24 hours a day and get a drink at one of those four bars between the hours of 10am and 5.30am. Thomas is not unaware of the challenges this will bring, at both ends of the day.
"Trying to animate an area as big as this at 9am on Monday morning is no small challenge," he says. "But we will close down areas, have interactive media and other forms of entertainment."
And at the other end of the day, when other forms of entertainment are winding down and spilling their clients back out on to the street, the Hippodrome will still be open, and serving drinks. In fact, what Thomas and his business partner, his father, are looking for is the seemingly unstretching target of 2,000 people per day coming through his doors, spending an average of us$ 58 each.
Under his business plan that level of business would see the venue return his initial investment and move into profit within five years. "We are doing this because we love it, because we want to do something special," he says. "And because we want to make money."