THE curtain has risen on the Alhambra pantomime and once again the Sunbeams are taking to the stage - continuing a tradition spanning a century.

It was started by Francis Laidler, who founded the Alhambra in 1914. Originally a wool trade clerk, he had an interest in Bradford’s thriving theatre scene and when he went into partnership leasing the Prince’s Theatre he brought touring productions up from London. Laidler had a vision of a new, bigger theatre for Bradford - and on March 18, 1914, the Alhambra opened with a week-long variety show. Audiences flocked to the theatre for twice nightly shows.

Working with renowned variety producers Moss Empires Ltd, Laidler brought big names to town, not least Laurel and Hardy. But it is in panto that he left a lasting legacy.

In 1917 he introduced a junior dance troupe to audiences - they were called the Sunbeams and Laidler said they were to “bring light into the darkness” of the First World War. Sunbeams first appeared in Robin Hood at the Prince’s Theatre, Bradford, in 1917, and came to the Alhambra in 1930. The little girls, with matching bobbed haircuts, were an instant hit with audiences.

Laidler selected the youngsters from open auditions, which had girls and their mothers queuing round the block. Those who were selected, on strict height criteria, had their hair cut and wore a uniform of green cloth coats with velvet collars.

Hilda Williams, who is in this delightful picture, has fond memories of her days as a Sunbeam. Now 92, Hilda grew up in Little Horton and trained at the Prince’s Theatre before moving to digs at Cobden Street, Leeds, with other Sunbeams in preparation for the 1939-40 panto Jack and the Beanstalk, with variety star Norman Evans, at the Leeds Theatre Royal.

The following Christmas the same panto came to the Alhambra, starring Norman Evans once again but with a different troupe of Sunbeams.

Hilda’s daughter, Lyn Beecroft, says her mum remembers vividly the green coats and hats the Sunbeams wore, and the obligatory bobbed hairstyle. Hilda and the other Sunbeams were looked after in their accommodation by matrons known as Auntie Cluff and Auntie Collins.

In 2014 a group of former Sunbeams returned to the Alhambra stage for a gala show celebrating the theatre’s centenary. Minnie Baxter was a Sunbeam in 1936. She told the T&A: “There was an advert in the T&A every September - ‘Sunbeams wanted, must be over 12, under 4ft 3ins, girls only’. A man stood at the stage door with a tape measure.”

Today’s Sunbeams are both boys and girls from the Sara Packham School of Dance. Laidler’s last Alhambra panto was Red Riding Hood, opening on December 27, 1954. A few days later he died, on the eve of his 88th birthday. His widow, Gladys Stanley Laidler, announced that the show must go on. And it did. Today the Alhambra stages Yorkshire’s biggest panto, with spectacular special effects.

This year’s show, Aladdin, starring Billy Pearce, Faye Tozer and Paul Chuckle, runs until January 26.