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This article is about the former theatre in London. Alhambra Theatres were located throughout the British Empire, significant examples were located in London, Bradfordmarker, Hull and Glasgowmarker. See Alhambra #Theatres for more disambiguation.

The Alhambra was a popular theatre and music hall located on the east side of Leicester Squaremarker, in the West Endmarker of Londonmarker. It was established in 1854 and demolished in 1936. Its name was adopted by many other British music hall theatres located elsewhere in the metropolis, in Bradfordmarker, in Hull and in Glasgowmarker etc. The name comes from association with the Moorish splendour of the Alhambramarker palace in Granada.



The Alhambra was originally known as The Royal Panopticon and was built at 23-27 Leicester Square in 1854 by T. Hayter Lewis as a venue for scientific demonstrations and popular education. This was a commercial failure.

In 1858, the building was converted to the Alhambra Circus, also by T. Hayter Lewis. It had a frontage and was very tall for the time. It was built in a Moorish style, with lavish fenestration, two towers and a dome, similar to the eponymous Bradfordmarker theatre in architectural style. It was a complete contrast with the neighbouring buildings. Inside there was a central rotunda in diameter and high. There was a secondary entrance to the rear on Charing Cross Roadmarker.

The Leicester Square theatre's name was changed frequently, but usually reflected the building's (very loose) stylistic associations with the celebrated Alhambramarker in Granadamarker, Spainmarker. By 1864, the circus had become the Alhambra Music Hall. Rebuildings occurred in 1866 and 1881, by Perry and Reed. From 1871, when it obtained a licence, an equestrian ballet was performed. The Alhambra was destroyed by fire in 1882, and was rebuilt in a more restrained style by Reed, reopening in 1884 as the Alhambra Theatre. Further rebuildings were in 1888 by Edward Clark, 1892 by Clark and Pollard, 1897 by W. M. Bruton, and in 1912 by the prolific theatre architect, Frank Matcham. Other names used during the life of the theatre were the Royal Alhambra Palace; Alhambra Theatre of Varieties; Theatre Royal, Alhambra; Great United States Circus and New Alhambra Theatre.


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:

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 :

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 lightening 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 [194996]. This was followed by the 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 due to the increasing popularity of cinema and radio. It was demolished in 1936 to make way for the Odeon Leicester Squaremarker, which remains on the site. The entrance on Charing Cross Roadmarker has also been demolished and is now a modern office block.

Notes and references

  • Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950, John Earl and Michael Sell pp. 128 (Theatres Trust, 2000) ISBN 0-7136-5688-3

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