Alhambra founder's great-grandson visit's family legacy as theatre celebrates 100 years

Great-grandson of Francis Laidler, Robert Hodgson (centre) with wife Paula and their children, Chloe and Aiden, at the Alhambra

Francis Laidler, and some of the original waste site and Alhambra in 1914 as it opened

Francis Laidler with Alhambra Sunbeams

Robert Hodgson, the great-grandson of Francis Laidler, at the Alhambra

Robert Hodgson, the great-grandson of Francis Laidler, at the Alhambra

First published in News
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IN the foyer of Bradford's Alhambra theatre hangs a plaque in memory of Francis Laidler, who founded the theatre in 1914.

Unveiled by his widow in 1956, the year after his death, it reads 'A Tribute to the King of Pantomime, Francis Laidler, a Philanthropist who loved to make children happy'.

A century later, Laidler's great grandson, Robert Hodgson, visited the Alhambra, to see at first-hand the legacy left by the theatre impresario.

Mr Hodgson travelled to Bradford from his home in California, with his wife, Paula, and children Aiden, 17, and Chloe, 14, who accompanied him on a tour of the Alhambra yesterday.

"It feels very special to be here in the Alhambra's centenary year," said Mr Hodgson. "I have always wanted to come here. We've been visiting Edinburgh and are working our way down to London, so Bradford was the perfect place to visit in between.

"I have always taken an interest in the Alhambra and every time I look it up online I hope it is still there and in one piece. It's a beautiful theatre and it has been really well looked after over the years."

Mr Hodgson is the son of John Hodgson, and the grandson of Marion Laidler, daughter of Francis Laidler. He said he has long been fascinated about the history of the Alhambra and has learned much of it from a book called Domes of Delight by the late Telegraph & Argus entertainment writer Peter Holdsworth.

"We've had a copy of Mr Holdsworth's book on our shelves for years and every time I open it I think 'That's great grandpa'," said Mr Hodgson. "He left quite a legacy in Bradford, bringing big names like Laurel and Hardy, Peter Sellers and Ken Dodd here. These are artists who made me laugh when I was growing up."

Mr Hodgson grew up in Wimbledon and moved to America 20 years ago. He and his family live near Los Angeles where he works in visual effects on TV shows and films including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Inception and Flight Plan, starring Jodie Foster.

"My family wasn't particularly theatrical when I was growing up but I work in entertainment so I guess you could say there's some theatrical blood in the family," he smiled.

Mr Hodgson's daughter Chloe is a dancer, specialising in ballet. "I've performed on stage so it's great to come and see this theatre," she said.

The family also visited Bradford Cathedral, where Francis Laidler's funeral took place in January, 1955.

Originally from Thornaby on Tees, Laidler moved to Bradford in 1902 to work as a wool trader's clerk, and later worked for Hammonds Brewery. While at Hammonds he went into partnership with Walter J Piper, who was leasing the Prince's Theatre in Bradford.

When Piper died Laidler took on the theatre alone and, keen to broaden the range of shows, he brought touring productions up from London. His dream was to build a new, bigger theatre in Bradford - and in March, 1914 the Alhambra opened with a variety show, featuring singers, comics and acrobats.

The Alhambra has long been famous for its pantomimes, a tradition started by Laidler who became known as the 'King of Panto'.

Today's Alhambra pantos are the biggest in West Yorkshire, featuring spectacular special effects and continuing the tradition of the Sunbeams, the junior dance troupe originally introduced by Laidler to bring some light into the dark days of the First World War.

As well as bringing world-class productions to Bradford, Laidler enabled audiences to watch them in comfort and style, with upholstered seats in all areas of the auditorium, regardless of ticket price.

The Alhambra opened when variety was at its peak, with Edwardian audiences flocking to see live entertainment, and shows were performed there twice a night.

To celebrate the Alhambra's centenary this year, a 21st century variety show is planned for this summer. Called A Night of Variety, it will be headlined by musical theatre star Michael Ball and the line-up includes performers who have appeared at the Alhambra over the years, including Joe Pasquale, The Krankies, Lesley Joseph, Matthew Bourne's New Adventures dance company and panto stalwart Billy Pearce.

Shortly after the First World War, Laidler started working with renowned variety producers Moss Empires Ltd and for the next few decades the partnership brought every big-name variety performer to the theatre.

Stars who have graced the stage include George Formby, Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Peter Sellers, Victoria Wood, Stephen Berkoff, Frankie Howerd, Warren Mitchell, Rowan Atkinson and Lenny Henry.

The curtain has also risen on some of the world's biggest shows, including Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and, more recently, The Lion King and War Horse which ran this year as part of the Alhambra's centenary celebrations.

Highlights of this year's glittering autumn season include Singin' In The Rain, direct from the West End, the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry IV, Irish dance spectacular Riverdance and hit circus musical Barnum starring Brian Conley.

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