At the beginning of the 20th century, a doctor’s son called Francis Laidler moved to Bradford from the North East to take up a post as a wool trader’s clerk.
He went on to work for Hammonds Brewery where he was quickly promoted to management. While at Hammonds, he struck up a partnership with Walter J Piper, who was leasing the Prince’s Theatre in Bradford. Six months later, Piper died and, aged 35, Francis Laidler left Hammonds to take on the theatre alone.
A sharp businessman, he brought London touring productions to Bradford and had the vision of building a new theatre in the city.
In 1914 his dream was realised, when the Alhambra was built. It officially opened on March 18, 1914 and five days later the curtain rose on a variety show and revue with a cast including Yeadon-born comic Sydney Howard and the Benedetti Brothers acrobats.
The Alhambra opened during the height of variety, offering twice-nightly shows. Shortly after the First World War, renowned variety producers Moss Empires Ltd approached Laidler about working together and they remained the Alhambra’s booking agent for more than 40 years, drawing every big-name variety performer to the theatre.
It continued to prosper in the 1920s, attracting stars such as George Formby, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Peter Sellers and Frankie Howerd trod the Alhambra boards.
This year, to celebrate its centenary, the Alhambra is returning to its variety roots. In September it will host A Night Of Variety – Celebrating 100 Years Of The Alhambra, a one-off show billed as “an homage to the Alhambra Theatre’s early days of variety and subsequent long history of entertainment”, with star names to be announced.
Before then, the theatre plays host to some of the world’s biggest shows, starting with The Lion King, which roars into town next week for a seven-week run.
In May, the National Theatre production of poignant drama War Horse arrives for the only Yorkshire stop on its first UK tour, followed by hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors in July and classic musical Singin’ In The Rain, direct from the West End, in September. The Royal Shakespeare Company performs Henry IV in October and circus musical Barnum arrives in November, along with Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, Lord Of The Flies.
Bradford Theatres general manager Adam Renton said: “Through the golden age of variety when it opened, the 1980s refurbishment and up to the present day, the Alhambra Theatre has had a wonderful and varied history. It remains an iconic venue, attracting the very best in star names and live entertainment to Bradford.”
When first built, the Alhambra offered a touch of luxury to Bradford theatregoers. Tip-up seating in the pit stalls was upholstered as comfortably as seats in the orchestra stalls and dress circle, much to the delight of audiences – the cheaper seats would usually have been wooden benches or uncomfortable chairs. Capacity in the auditorium was originally nearly 1,800, later reduced to 1,650.
Visiting performers welcomed such comforts as hot and cold running water, and gas and electric light in the dressing-rooms. The book Domes Of Delight, by the late Telegraph & Argus entertainment writer Peter Holdsworth, reveals that Laidler is said to have placed a notice on dressing-room doors saying: “Please do not ask management for complimentary tickets for your friends. If your friends will not pay to see you, why should the public?”
Since opening its doors in March 1914, the Alhambra has staged some of the world’s biggest and best-loved productions. It is one of the North’s premier musical houses, staging shows by leading musical theatre producers including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Bill Kenwright.
The theatre underwent a major refurbishment in 1986, and large-scale shows including Jesus Christ Superstar, The Sound Of Music and The Muppet Show graced the newly-refurbished stage. Bradford audiences were the first to see a new stage version of TV sitcom ’Allo, ’Allo before its West End opening. With thousands fighting for tickets, one staff member commented: “It was as if a war for tickets had been declared”.
Prior to the refurbishment, the Alhambra was the setting for 1983 film The Dresser, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
Other smash-hit productions at the Alhambra include Les Miserables, which ran for three months in 1998, Phantom Of The Opera, Miss Saigon and The History Boys. The theatre has staged numerous premiers, including Swan Lake by the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet), watched by Princess Margaret at the Alhambra in 1977. In 1930, prima ballerina Anna Pavlova performed The Dying Swan there.
Today, the Alhambra’s name is synonymous with pantomime, annually staging the region’s biggest panto. Francis Laidler was known as the ‘King of Panto’, and for half a century delivered panto after panto in his Bradford venues, and his theatres in Leeds, Keighley and London.
The 1958/59 production of Jack And The Beanstalk, starring Ken Dodd, still holds the record for the theatre’s longest-running panto. “It went on until March, we were throwing Easter eggs out at the audience,” recalled Doddy in a recent interview with the T&A.
The theatre impresario started the charming tradition of junior dance troupe the Sunbeams for Robin Hood in 1917 at the Prince’s Theatre in Little Horton Lane. In 1930, the Sunbeams came to the Alhambra, when Laidler switched his pantos to the venue.
The Sunbeams were his “ray of sunshine in the darkness of the war years”. The girls, with matching bobbed haircuts, were an instant hit with audiences. All recruited locally, they added high spirits to the Laidler pantos, often joining in with comic capers on stage.
Laidler selected Sunbeams from open auditions. Each girl had to meet strict height criteria and be “in perfect health, with evidence of six months regular school attendance”.
In 2012, former Sunbeam Jane Wood told the T&A she queued for hours to audition, aged 12, in the 1920s. She said Laidler ran a tight ship. “We were well cared for but he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense,” she recalled. “There was no talking in the wings, and we had to be out of the theatre by 10pm. We had our hair cut the same length, some of us played boys. Mr Laidler measured me for my costumes. They were lovely, my favourite was a headdress made of feathers and a pair of trousers with one leg shorter than the other.”
Sunbeams reunions have been held over the years at Bradford’s Great Victoria Hotel, where Francis Laidler once lived.
In the 1960s, Bradford Council took ownership of the Alhambra, which prospered into the 1980s with the biggest panto stars of the day, including Les Dawson, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, the Krankies and Russ Abbot. Today’s Bradford panto king is Yorkshire comic Billy Pearce, who recently appeared in his 15th Alhambra pantomime.
Laidler’s last Alhambra panto was Red Riding Hood, which opened on December 27, 1954. A few days later, on January 6, 1955, the visionary impresario died, just one day before his 88th birthday. In showbiz tradition his widow, Gwladys Stanley Laidler, announced that the show must go on.
The show did go on – and continues to do so.