THEY were the "ray of light"in the darkness of the war years" and a century later, the Sunbeams are still lighting up the Alhambra panto.

Impresario and "panto king" Francis Laidler, who had the Alhambra built, started the charming tradition of using young performers in pantos in 1917. The Sunbeams made their first appearance in Robin Hood at the Prince's Theatre in Bradford, which Laidler also ran. Troupes of Sunbeams also appeared at the Theatre Royal Leeds, but it wasn’t until 1930/31 that they came to the Alhambra. The theatre's first pantomime was Mother Goose.

Minnie Baxter recalls life as a Sunbeam in 1936: “There was advert in the T&A every September - 'Sunbeams wanted, must be over 12 years, under 4ft 3ins, girls only'. A man was at the stage door with a measure.”

With matching bobbed haircuts, the Sunbeams were a hit with audiences. They added high spirits to Laidler pantos, joining in with comic capers. Laidler selected Sunbeams from open auditions, there was a strict height criteria and they had to be “in perfect health, with evidence of six months regular school attendance”.

The Sunbeams performing in venues outside Bradford lived in a boarding house, presided by a 'house mother'. Their weekly wages went into a Post Office savings account. As Mrs Baxter recalls, they were given “clothing (a uniform of sorts) including a green outdoor coat with matching cap, a Sunday dress, school clothes and a red check rehearsal dress.”

In 2012 former Sunbeam Jane Wood visited the Alhambra to meet that year's Sunbeams. She recalled queueing for hours to audition, aged 12. "Laidler wouldn’t stand for any nonsense, there was no talking in the wings. My favourite costume was a feather headdress and trousers with one leg shorter than the other.”

For 14 years, Sunbeams have come from Sara Packham's Theatre School near Keighley. Two teams of eight t (boy and girls these days) take it in turns for the six-week run.

"It's rewarding to see the children maintaining this wonderful tradition,” says Sara.