Alhambra Theatre - History - Entertainments


London's Alhambra was predominantly used for the popular entertainment of the day, music hall. The usual music hall acts were performed, as well as the début of Jules Léotard performing his aerial act, above the heads of diners in May 1861. Other entertainments included "patriotic demonstrations" celebrating the British Empire and British military successes. The theatre also staged ballet and light opera. In the 1860s, John Hollingshead took over management at the Alhambra and made it famous for its sumptuous staging, alluring corps de ballet and the notorious front-of-house Promenade bar. At its bars, the attractions of the Alhambra's ballet were not merely artistic:

You must please imagine yourself a man about town, with money in your pocket and a fancy for a night of pleasure. It is early in the year 1870. You find a congenial companion with similar inclination, and after a leisurely dinner at the club you find yourself looking at the Alhambra. You are purposely too late for the strident 'variety' with which the programme opens, but in easy time for the Ballet which concludes the first half and is followed by a long – a very long – interval. The interval is one of the main features of the show, for the huge basement canteen is open to any of the audience who think a visit worth while ... You wander down after the ballet, pick up a couple of dancers and buy them champagne. They are cheerful young women still wearing their scanty ballet costumes and with plenty to say for themselves. Nearly an hour passes in telling stories and gossiping about the crowd of swells and chorines who skirmish and lounge and laugh in the long, bare but well lighted room. It is now nearly time for the notorious Can-Can, and you prepare to return to your seats. The ladies wish to say thank you for their wine, and each, with an arm round your neck or his, puts unmistakable provocation into her kiss. She probably ventures other familiarities, and certainly asks softly if you will be near the stage-door when the show is over.
—Michael Sadleir, Fanny by Gaslight (1940)

The Can-Can as presented at the Alhambra by the 'Parisian Colonna' troupe proved so sexually provocative that in October 1870 the Alhambra was deprived of its dancing license.

Another example of the fare on offer was this 1882 production, written by Dion Boucicault and J. R. Planche:

Marian, the giant Amazon queen, will make her first appearance in England at the Royal Alhambra Theatre on Saturday, 8th July, in the magnificent silver armour scene in the enormously successful fairy extravaganza, "Babil & Bijou". This young lady was born on the 31st January, 1866, at Benkendorf, a village near the Thuringia Mountains, Germany, and has attained the remarkable height of 8 feet 2 inches (2.49 m), and is still growing. —Alhambra Theatre poster. Marian the Giant Amazon Queen, 1882

Early films were also a part of the entertainment, with Robert W. Paul, a former collaborator of Birt Acres, presenting his first theatrical programme on 25 March 1896. This included films featuring cartoonist Tom Merry drawing caricatures of the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II (1895), and Prince Bismarck (1895). Merry had previously performed his lightning fast drawing as part of a music hall stage act.

During World War I, a series of hit revues played at the Alhambra that included The Bing Boys Are Here (1916), which featured the first performances of the song If You Were The Only Girl In The World, performed by Violet Lorraine and George Robey . This was followed by The Bing Boys on Broadway (1917) and The Bing Boys are There (1918). The music for the revues was written by Nat D. Ayer with lyrics by Clifford Grey, and the text was by George Grossmith, Jr.

Like many other theatres, the Alhambra went into decline after World War I owing to the increasing popularity of cinema and radio. It was demolished in 1936 to make way for the Odeon Leicester Square, which remains on the site. The entrance on Charing Cross Road has also been demolished and is now a modern office block.

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