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The Alhambra

27 Leicester Square
Opened as theatre: 18th March 1858
Closed: 1st September 1936

The Alhambra Palace, as it was first known in 1858, housed everything from performing animals and prize-fights to classical ballet during its various incarnations, and in its heyday was one of the most successful theatres in Europe.

The Alhambra in the 1890s.
The Alhambra in the 1890s.

The building started life in 1854, as the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art, a scientific exhibition hall built in ‘Moorish’ style with a great central dome flanked by two minarets. Inside, the attractions on offer included an immense pipe-organ, electrical machines and a fairy fountain which sent up coloured sprays from floor to dome, but the area (the centre of London’s French quarter in the 1850s) had a dubious reputation, and the expected crowds did not appear.

The Panopticon and, inside, the  Great Fountain The Panopticon and, inside, the  Great Fountain
The Panopticon and, inside, the Great Fountain

In 1858 the hall was taken over by Edward Tyrrel Smith ‘for entertainment’ and let to Howes & Cushing's Grand American Circus. This venture proved an immediate success. The Illustrated London News commented on 10th April:

‘The arrangements of this new place of entertainment fulfil the promises held forth in the programmes of the management. The American troupe certainly perform some extraordinary feats, and the Yankee clown abounded in broad jokes, which probably excited as much laughter here as in the United States. The horses, which were numerous, appeared to be remarkably well-trained… The Bedouin Arabs executed their remarkable manoeuvres with that peculiar native skill which excites merriment as well as marvel. The building certainly presents a majestic appearance, and crowded as it was to the ceiling with curious, expectant or laughing faces, presented an effective and animated scene.’

Circus at the Alhambra, 1858
Circus at the Alhambra, 1858

Later the same year the Royal family attended a private performance at the Alhambra featuring the troupe’s star horse, Black Eagle, who, it was claimed, ‘among his many accomplishments, waltzes, polkas, imitates the camel of the desert, and stands erect upon his hind legs.’

Black Eagle, star of the American Circus
Black Eagle, star of the American Circus

After the circus left, Smith tried to gain a licence to use the building as a theatre, but was faced with opposition from both the Lord Chamberlain and established London theatres. In 1860 the managers of the Haymarket, the Adelphi and a number of other theatres actually petitioned London magistrates against the renewal of Smith’s performance license, citing both unfair competition and moral unsuitability. The sheer number of music halls now opening were, they claimed, ‘detrimental to Public Morality, and [we] respectfully beg your Worships not to grant any further licences of a like nature.’

Petition against the Alhambra from the owners of ‘legitimate’ London theatres  Petition against the Alhambra from the owners of ‘legitimate’ London theatres
Petition against the Alhambra from the owners of ‘legitimate’ London theatres

Smith was denied a licence to operate as a theatre, but he was allowed a music licence. The same year he completely reorganised the interior of the building, putting out chairs and tables in what had been the circus ring and building a stage fifty feet wide and seventy deep. The ‘Alhambra Palace Music Hall’ was re-opened in December 1860.

The audience were able to eat and drink while enjoying musical shows and spectacles. During this period the Alhambra Palace featured the début of Léotard, ‘the daring young man on the flying trapeze’, who swung back and forth over the audience’s heads. Later Smith used the hall to show prize-fights.

'A Bird's-Eye view of Society': The Alhambra and its audience in 1862.
'A Bird's-Eye view of Society': The Alhambra and its audience in 1862.

Smith's successor as manager, Frederick Strange, put on an ‘Oriental Ballet’ by the Hungarian Ballet company as his first production in an attempt to attract a higher class of audience, and was immediately attacked by several of the ‘legitimate’ theatres arguing that this was a stage play, for which the Alhambra had no licence.

The Caverns of Ice: Ballet and spectacular at the Alhambra in 1867
The Caverns of Ice: Ballet and spectacular at the Alhambra in 1867

Strange’s tenure continued to be marked by controversy. In 1870 he featured a can-can troupe for five weeks which was several times watched by the Prince of Wales: in the resulting legal wrangles even his music licence was temporarily withdrawn. The Hall was finally closed down after Strange presented a series of Promenade concerts at the height of the Franco-Prussian War which turned into nightly fights between expatriate French and Germans, while the Alhambra orchestra played the national airs of whichever side seemed to be winning.

Reinventing itself yet again, the house re-opened in 1871 as the Royal Alhambra Palace, 'Theatre of Varieties'. This time Strange focused more closely on opera and ballet, appointing his own composer and musical director, the distinguished French conductor Georges Jacobi, who was to stay with the theatre through several changes of management. Jacobi would lead the orchestra for the next twenty-six years, and his music firmly established the Alhambra’s reputation.

But in 1882, the theatre burned down. The cause of the blaze was never discovered, though at a time when theatres were lighted by lamps or (as in the Alhambra’s case) by gas-jets and most fittings were made of wood, fire was an ever-present danger. The fire was discovered at 1.00 in the morning of 6th December, at which point it had already taken hold. Firemen employed on the premises immediately set up three hydrants, but, as the Illustrated London News reported,

'the flames spread with a rapidity with which they were unable to cope, and by the time the
first consignment of the fire brigade arrived, the theatre was wrapped in flames from floor to roof'

Artist’s impressions of the fire, December 1882
Artist’s impressions of the fire, December 1882

The firemen hosed the building from neighbouring house-tops, but the theatre’s roof soon fell in: a scene recounted by the Illustrated London News in language that might have described one of the Alhambra’s own spectaculars:

‘the flames shot up with a grand and picturesque effect. The two towers which flank the
building north and south continued intact amid the circling wreaths of flame, and shone out like beacons.’

Aftermath of the fire
Aftermath of the fire

No-one was killed in the fire, but several reports at the time dwelt on the hardship caused to the large regular cast of performers and small army of backstage workers who were deprived of their jobs just before Christmas, and benefit performances were held for them in other theatres.

'Sufferers from the fire' and 'A Fairy Out of Work': from the Illustrated London News
'Sufferers from the fire' and 'A Fairy Out of Work': from the Illustrated London News. Some of the performers affected by the fire were children.

The theatre was rebuilt in1883. The June edition of The Builder that year notes that the new theatre, then under construction, would ‘perhaps be unique. With the exception of the stage floor and machinery, and the handrails of the staircase, no wood will be used in the building. Floors, roofs, steps, stairs, stages…will throughout be of concrete’. A picture of the foyer in the new theatre includes the sign: ‘This theatre is absolutely fireproof.’

‘Inside the newly rebuilt Alhambra in 1883
Inside the newly rebuilt Alhambra in 1883

The manager of the new Alhambra Theatre, Henry Morton, gave particular prominence to dance, putting on two short ballets every evening with a music-hall programme between them. The Alhambra became known both as a home of ballet, which had declined in popularity in the opera houses, and also as a successful music hall. The programme of events in 1897, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year, gives an idea of the house’s scope. On 25th May the Alhambra premiered Sir Arthur Sullivan’s opera-ballet Victoria & Merrie England, which was widely acclaimed and went on for another 154 performances, but that summer the theatre also featured jugglers, trapeze artistes, a trick cyclist and Vasco the Mad Musician, who played 25 instruments at once. From July the evening shows also included cinema:

'Magnificent CINEMATOGRAPHIC VIEWS of the JUBILEE PROCESSION taken by Messrs. Phil and Bernard (Wrench's Patent). This splendid Panorama is composed of the most interesting and striking features of the whole of the procession, and presents a series of animated pictures never excelled' and later in the year this gave way to regular Grand Wrestling Tournaments.

The Alhambra theatre of Varieties at the turn of the century
The Alhambra theatre of Varieties at the turn of the century

The Alhambra continued as both a music hall and a centre for ballet into the 20th century: in 1921, for instance, the Diagilev Company gave the first British performance of The Sleeping Beauty there. It was altered in 1912 by the celebrated architect Frank Matcham, and its ornate mosaic interiors continued to impress audiences. But as the popularity of music hall declined and ballet found homes in other theatres, its fortunes fell. The theatre was demolished in 1936 and the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, built in its place.

‘Interior of the Alhambra in the 1920s
Interior of the Alhambra in the 1920s

The Alhambra in the 1930s
The Alhambra in the 1930s
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