The Alhambra Theatre, Wellington Street, Glasgow
Formerly on the site - The Waterloo Rooms
Introduction - Sir Alfred Butt & the International Syndicate - About Sir Alfred Butt - More Theatre and Westward Expansion - Howard & Wyndham Take Over - The Royal Scottish Variety Performance 1958 - The Starlight Room Years - The Wilson Barrett Company - Five Past Eight Shows - The International Ballet - The Alhambra Tatler - The Royal Performance of 1963
The most advanced theatre in Britain, the Alhambra opened in 1910 and stayed ahead of other theatres. Famous for glamour and humour, variety, ballet, pantomime, musicals, opera, drama and dance the Alhambra expressed the prowess of Glasgow and its environs. Expanding in London, Glasgow, New York, Berlin and Paris its managing director Sir Alfred Butt gave "the best of European and American Vaudeville attractions." The Alhambra was one of a handful of super-large theatres in Britain. Its founders supported cinema, jazz, cabaret and ballrooms.
Alhambra pantomimes became the hallmark of quality and spectacle. A showcase for musicals and premieres, it was also the birthplace of Mona Inglesby's International Ballet Company; the heart of Scotland's largest-ever repertory company, the Wilson Barrett Company; and the venue of Scotland's first Royal Variety performances, attended by Queen Elizabeth. The theatre's Five Past Eight shows presented by Howard & Wyndham remain unequalled in Britain. The Alhambra was a modern theatre, its entertainment exuberant.
For over forty years it was an independently owned theatre - a venture of London and Glasgow, the first step in Alfred Butt emerging as the Napoleon of Variety, and the promoter of scintillating musicals. In 1954 it became the premier theatre of Howard & Wyndham, a company born in the city. Their majestic theatre buildings survive today in Glasgow (2), Edinburgh (2), Newcastle, Manchester, and Liverpool - all except their flagship - the Alhambra.
On Monday 19th December 1910 carriages lined up round the new building in Wellington Street at the corner of Waterloo Street. Variety now attracted all social classes. Many went in evening dress. The immense Alhambra opened its doors to the surging crowd that besieged it. Soon every nook and cranny was occupied, and hundreds of people were left outside. After a lively overture from the 30 players of the orchestra, Miss Mary Grey - actress daughter in law of the Lord Mayor of London, no less - stepped in front of the curtains and sang God Save the King. The evening had begun. There were 14 turns, with France's audacious Yvette Guilbert as the main attraction, act number one, singing four songs.
Newspapers reported that the managing director Alfred Butt:- "pays periodical visits to Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Madrid, Copenhagen, New York and Chicago" keen on the lookout for any turn that may appeal to his British audience. Yvette Guilbert is indeed comedy, French comedy personified. Full of grace and charm, she invariably fascinates her audiences alike by her singing and her acting. Her rendering of an old Scottish song "the Auld Man" was rather a bold effort. Of course in her own French songs she was at home, her charming style being much appreciated by those who seemed to understand her, with the gallery expressing its perplexion. The other artistes were all of the highest class, brought from America, Italy, and the best known continental centres of amusement. Some pretty Kinema Color films from the Bioscope completed the performance after which Mr Alfred Butt addressed the audience."
Above - The Auditorium and Proscenium of the Alhambra, Glasgow - From 'Greater Glasgow' by Henry Munro, Ltd 1914
Harry Lauder (shown left) leading the Theatre Royal's pantomime at the top of Hope Street noticed a drop in his audiences as people went off to see the new theatre. More were to open. On the Alhambra opening the city's weekly Glasgow Programme wrote:- "Glasgow during the past few years has been going on increasing the number of places of amusement, until we begin to ask ourselves the question: where will it stop? Every new House eclipses its predecessor in grandeur and style."
Left - Sir Harry Lauder at a rehearsal in the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The Baillie magazine commented:- "Soon one will not see the city for houses of entertainment. And the funny thing about it is that they all attract large audiences. In the circumstances, it might be well if the churches were to adopt some of the variety idea into their services. Perhaps if they sandwiched a music-hall comedian or two or a cinematograph show before and after the sermon they would be assured of huge congregations."
Right - A Players Cigarettes Card depicting Sir Harry Lauder - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Plans were declared that month for more theatres, the Savoy Theatre opening in a year's time in Hope Street, the Olympia at Bridgeton Cross, and the West End Playhouse / Empress Theatre at St George's Cross soon after that. Only a very few theatres in Britain were larger than the Alhambra and it would continue as the largest in Alfred Butt's expansion plans. Justifiably it announced itself as "The Resort of the Elite".
The Glasgow Alhambra Ltd was formed, with shareholders mainly in and around Glasgow, ranging from housewives to engineers to lawyers, and its shares trading profitably on the Glasgow and Edinburgh Stock Exchanges. Managing Director was Alfred Butt of the Palace Variety Theatre, London, and the chairman was printer Ernest Polden who was also chairman of the London Palace.
Left - The style of the first programme covers for the Glasgow Alhambra - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The other two promoters were John Rowan, a stockbroker in Glasgow, and John Pitilla Kinghorn, an iron broker and importer in Glasgow, whose interests in art included the opening in May 1910 of his Charing Cross Electric Theatre in the city's Sauchiehall Street. That year it housed the Scottish premiere showing of natural colour films by the Kinema Color Company Ltd of which Butt was chairman following George Smith's invention of colour films in Brighton.
The new company's Prospectus, offering first class Variety, correctly described the theatre's setting:- "This Company has been formed to acquire the valuable site at the south-west corner of the junction of Waterloo Street and Wellington Street, Glasgow at present occupied by the Waterloo Rooms; to erect a handsome and commodious building embodying the latest principles and ideas in theatre construction, and to carry on the same as a first-class Variety Theatre.
The site is admirably adapted for the purpose, placed as it is in close proximity to the large Railway Termini, and in the immediate vicinity of the principal car routes of the city. It is distant from the Central Station about 100 yards and within a few minutes walk of St Enoch and Queen Street Stations. The car routes in Argyle Street, Hope Street and Bothwell Street may be said to encircle the building on three sides. While those in Renfield Street are within a short distance. The site is practically an island one, permitting the Theatre to be filled and emptied in the shortest possible time, and has the further advantage of being very free from noise."
The theatre was constructed on the site of the former Waterloo Rooms, the public hall and function rooms much used for meetings, concerts, soirees and balls, which had itself been converted from the former Wellington Church when its congregation moved west to University Avenue in 1884.
The architect chosen was Sir John James Burnet, (shown right) one of Britain's foremost designers, with offices in Glasgow and London, who would receive the RIBA's Gold Medal for his lifetime achievements in architecture. Nearby, Burnet was completing a number of American style office blocks and extending the opulent pile of the Clyde Navigation Trust of which John Kinghorn was a member. To Burnet's design in the Modern Movement manner the Alhambra rose in its complete steel frame envelope, clad in brick, guided by engineer George Leslie Allen and his Allen Construction Company of West Regent Street. The following year Burnet again chose the Allen Construction Company to build the (equally) pioneering steel-framed Kodak Building in London's Kingsway.
The American Influence
J. J. Burnet enthused about American invention and styling, translating much of it into his buildings in Britain. He knew Alfred Butt shared the vitality and showmanship of America. Burnet would be fully aware of New York's newest, largest and most vibrant theatre, the red brick Hippodrome, which opened in 1905. Designed by J. H. Morgan and modified by Dundee-born Thomas W. Lamb (one of over 300 theatres and cinemas he was responsible for in the USA and elsewhere), the Hippodrome was described as "Beaux-Arts with a Moorish Revival twist". It advertised itself as the "Largest Playhouse in the World" seating 5,300 people, and had state of the art technology.
By a happy coincidence the Hippodrome's director and producer of mammoth musical spectaculars was R. H. Burnside, from Glasgow, the son of a manager of the Gaiety / Empire Theatre in Sauchiehall Street and of actress Margaret Thorne, leading lady in James Baylis's pantomimes of the 1860s at the new Theatre Royal. In 1915 Burnside was asked by Alfred Butt to take control of the stage direction of all his theatres in Britain, at $20,000 a year. (Burnside declined, Britain was embroiled in war.)
Moorish Red Walls
Using the colour and cube shape of the Alhambra in Granada, the new theatre was finished in red brick, banded with black, and panels of white-glazed tile towards the top. There was also white tiling at ground level under the pavement canopies. Twin towers added above the cube were chatris, reflecting the importance of trade to India, jewel in the crown of the British Empire. A chatri in India, usually with four columns, allowed cool air to those sitting under it, and chatri domes were added to temples and other important buildings. The cool air entering the theatre was thought by customers to be too cool, and adjustments were made.
Burnet's new project reflected some of his Athenaeum theatre styling in Buchanan Street and some of the New York Hippodrome's exterior and interior. He rejected the rococo wedding cake style used in so many theatres. The Alhambra interior and balconies were in a restrained Louis XVI style, and the colour schemes were by the top interior decorators Guthrie & Wells. Above the boxes on one side of the auditorium was the Scottish lion rampant, and on the other the English lions couchant, with Glasgow's coat of arms on the centre of the proscenium arch. The theatre and land cost £60,000.
Above - A photograph of the Glasgow Alhambra Auditorium viewed from the Stage - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The frontage on Wellington Street was 83 feet wide and the theatre 140 feet long, before a major extension in the 1920s, and the stage opening was 37 feet. In the 1960s the stage opening was widened to 75 feet for the Five Past Eight shows in Starlight Room style. Designed for 3,000, it was decided to cut the numbers standing and it opened for 2,436, a number that would remain constant; the Stalls and Pit seating 952, the Circle 628, and the Amphitheatre and Gallery holding over 800 including 100 standing. There were Boxes on each side of the Stalls and Circle.
Above - The Stage of the Alhambra, Glasgow showing the counter balance gear in 1928 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Entering through the six swing doors of mahogany, the small elliptical vestibule flanked with two pay boxes was floored in white marble with marble pillars and stairs leading down to the stalls and up to the circle. The vestibule ceiling was picked out in gold. Stained glass windows adorned the stairways. Entrances nearer the corners led up to the gods, past a pay box.
All the seats were tip-up armchairs including in the amphitheatre. The gallery benches were upholstered in leather at a time when theatres were still using wooden benches. Unusually each of the huge curving rows of this tier dipped towards the centre aisle, giving perfect sightlines.
Right - A side view of the Auditorium of the Glasgow Alhambra - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The bar saloon for Front Stall patrons backed onto the bar saloon for Pit patrons, but entered separately. The Front Stalls also had two small lounges on either side of the auditorium. Up in the Circle the bar saloon facing Waterloo Street had next to it a Bioscope enclosure for the short films shown at the end of each bill.
There were 15 dressing rooms at first (later greatly increasing), the stage door opening to Waterloo Street, with the stage manager's room to one side of the stage.
Above - The Stage Entrance of the Glasgow Alhambra in 1928 showing the Hall Keeper's Office - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Above - One of the Principle Dressing Rooms at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1928 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Above - One of the Chorus Dressing Rooms at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1928 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The scenery door was round in Wellington Lane, with a hand props store
adjacent. Under the stage was the musical director's room, band room
and carpenter's area. In the space directly above the very deep proscenium
arch, and served by a corridor round three sides of the tall fly-tower,
were the offices for "enquiries and typist", company secretary
and treasurer, check room, bill room, janitor room, and female attendants.
Alfred Butt was born in 1878 the son of Alfred Beyfus, a lawyer in London, and of the upstairs maid in the Beyfus household. Earlier in the 19th century the Beyfus family migrated from Hamburg to Glasgow and London, becoming general traders - including yarns, leeches and steel pens - and developing as furniture dealers, money lenders, diamond merchants and solicitors. In London the firm of Beyfus & Beyfus gained a reputation as pugnacious lawyers. Many clients were from the theatre world, including Richard D'Oyly Carte, opera singer Caruso, and dancer Diaghilev.
Right - Sir Alfred Butt and his Wife Georgina - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Mr D'Oyly Carte 's newly built Royal English Opera House in London failed after one year and the building in Shaftesbury Avenue emerged as the Palace Variety Theatre, largely controlled by the Beyfus family. After training as an accountant at Harrods, where a director was married to one of Alfred Beyfus's sisters, the young Alfred Butt joined the Palace, learning to manage and produce variety shows, which became spectacular revues, and becoming managing director in 1906. His aunt Gertrude Beyfus was married to Michael Garcia, partner in Simons, Jacobs & Co, fruit importers, headquartered in Glasgow and chaired by Michael Simons, who in 1895 created Howard & Wyndham Ltd, which became the largest company in Britain of drama theatres.
A Vanity Fair magazine feature about him in 1911 (shown below) shows Maud Allen, one of his principal artistes, some thought his mistress, in her controversial Salome dance. He introduced opera singers and dramatists, paying more than they got in drama theatres and was first in introducing classical ballet to Britain. He believed "good art was good business" - providing it at popular prices - and vied with impresario Oswald Stoll in importing Russian talent.
Left - An Advertisement for Reduced Price Matinees at the Glasgow Alhambra - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Above - Newspaper Cuttings relating to performances at the Glasgow Alhambra entitled 'From France and Russia - Two Chauve Souris Scenes' - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Alfred Butt was known as "The Boy Manager", on account of his youthful looks. Many an artiste would pass him in the hallway and ask if the manager was in. Once his international plans rolled out, the Washington Times called him "The Napoleon of Vaudeville." Butt's theatre power now matched that of Sir Edward Moss and his associate Oswald Stoll. By 1916 in Glasgow the annual profits of the Alhambra surpassed the total profits of all four theatres of Howard & Wyndham in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Shareholder dividends of 40% became normal.
Left - A Vanity Fair feature showing Alfred Butt with Maud Allen in performance in the background - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Britain's first Royal Variety Show was planned to take place in Edinburgh's Empire Theatre in 1911, to be produced by Sir Edward Moss, but the fatal fire in May destroyed the theatre. Alfred Butt was chosen by King George to direct it the following year, staging it in his Palace Theatre. His full Royal Variety programme can be seen here.
He was appointed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George as the UK's first Director of Food Rationing when that became compulsory at the end of 1916. He was knighted for this service and his charity work.
In 1919 Sir Alfred Butt issued his "Invitations to VCs" to all holders of the Victoria Cross - World War 1 and pre-war - and presented silver-gilt medallions to about 500 men, giving them free access to any of the theatres he controlled. He let it be known he wanted to become Chancellor of the Exchequer and in a few years time he added a career in politics. He was successful at the casino tables of France, and the racecourses on both sides of the Channel. One of his Newmarket stable's thoroughbred winners was called Glasgow Alhambra.
The International Syndicate
The Alhambra Theatre was part of an International Syndicate, with Alfred Butt at the centre of its European activity. Every year from 1907 Morris Meyerfeld, international banker and owner of the Orpheum circuit of theatres from San Francisco to Chicago, toured Europe looking to link with businesses - all the more important in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. Butt saw the advantages. In a concerted move with Meyerfeld he bid successfully in 1910 to take over the large group of theatres in Britain, and one each in Paris and Brussels, which had been developed by the late Tom Barrasford, whose creations included Glasgow's Pavilion Theatre. Weeks later a group of theatres led by Walter de Frece, joined the new combine, the Variety Theatres Controlling Company Ltd, under its first chairman Alfred Butt.
At the same time Butt and the Orpheum's general manager Martin Beck (shown left) announced the international syndicate, called the Beck-Butt Circuit, joined also by the major theatre combines around New York. The Los Angeles Times' headline ran "World Variety Circuit Formed." Performers could now have three years' consecutive booking in the States and Europe without retracing their route. Alfred Butt, for the new British combine, represented the syndicate in Europe, and created links with South Africa and Australia.
Left - Martin Beck, General Manager of the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Butt and Beck shared similar outlooks, with Beck "booking opera singers, classical musicians, and ballet dancers, even if he was the only one in the audience who understood them." Beck's objective was "To make the Orpheum circuit bring the highest forms of art within the reach of the people with the slimmest purses." In 1913 Martin Beck opened the New York Palace Theatre which became the top vaudeville house in America for twenty years.
In 1911 Alfred Butt expanded again by operating London's Gaiety Theatre, owned by Solomon Joel, millionaire trader in South African diamonds and gold. That same year Butt started the building of another new theatre, the Victoria Palace Theatre, with 65% of the money coming from an American in New York, a person not connected to the stage - but whose wife was an aspiring comedy actress. This was Frank Gould, railroad heir and Francophile who owned a string of casinos on the Riviera. It opened in 1912 topped with a statue of one of Butt's discoveries, the ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Right - A Programme Cover for the Alhambra, Glasgow under the Management of Alfred Butt - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
As part of the new syndicate involving Morris Meyerfeld, of America's Orpheum circuit, who was known as the "Rockefeller of Vaudeville," a site was leased to Butt and Meyerfeld in 1913 in Paris, near the Grand Opera, to build the first of a series of theatres on the Continent. Construction was delayed until the end of the Great War when it opened as the Paris Palace Theatre, changing after five years to become the Mogador Theatre. One did open under the Orpheum flag in Berlin in 1914 seating 2,000, opening with the French singer and dancer Mlle Polaire, renowned for her 13 inch waist. Plans were laid for Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne. Austria and Russia were also being thought about.
In 1914, this time with backing by Solly Joel, Butt bought the Queen's and Globe Theatres, followed next year by the Adelphi. Joel's wayward daughter Doris Joel was a composer and lyricist for revues, and taught a young Noel Coward how to write music for the stage. The theatres were sold a few years later, making substantial capital gains for Butt.
Alfred Butt added variety to Variety. After the overture in the Alhambra the first act was frequently a play, musical revue, ballet, or short opera, all followed by variety with 6-10 turns, and ending with film. Through the Syndicate, entertainers came from all continents - comics, mimists, singers, illusionists, gymnasts, tumblers, instrumentalists, dancers, whistlers, Arabian whirlers, conjurers, memory men, trick cyclists, quartettes, jugglers, and ventriloquists. Dance and ballet came from the Danish classicist Adeline Genee, the Imperial Russian Ballet, America's Maud Allan (shown left) in her provocative free-movement, Lydia Kyasht and her Russian corps de ballet, Nicolas Legat's Russian company, Anna Pavlova and others.
Left - America's Maud Allan - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Opera featured Evelyn Millard; the very new Thomas Beecham Opera Company; the Covent Garden Company and Kirby Lunn - all followed by variety. Shakespeare had his place, as did one act plays by Shaw, Galsworthy, Barrie and Bridie.
In 1912 and again in 1913 the Scottish Repertory Theatre Company, founded by Alfred Wareing gave seasons of plays - newspapers reporting "This is the first time a repertory company has appeared at a music-hall." Plays also came from the Abbey Theatre Irish Players, and from Graham Moffat's company of Scottish Players. Karno, Houdini and the Keatons, including young Buster, delighted and Stan Jefferson (Laurel) made his professional debut. Illusionists from around the world included Horace Goldin - famed for Sawing the Lady in Half, and for the Tiger God, a Bengal tiger which disappeared from his open cage; Linga Singh, the Hindu of high caste, producing poisonous snakes and water galore. The king of illusion for years was David Devant.
Right - A Poster for the Graham Moffat Comedies - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Revues originated in France, being brought dramatically to the stage by H. G. Pelissier, subtle satires by Andre Charlot, and followed by effervescent productions from Albert de Courville, Alfred Butt, Wylie-Tate, Nikita Balieff, Robert Courtneidge, C. B. Cochran and Jack Buchanan. Ragtime evolved to jazz. Major musicals opening for two or three weeks would have no variety following - the Alhambra's first being the newly written Kismet, in the vivid colours of the Orient.
Australia's Wonder, the Great Carmo, staged spectaculars featuring comedy sharpshooting, sketches, impersonations, music and magic. His latest sensation, The Vanishing Lion, packed the house - to witness a full grown lion disappear in full view of the audience from an open cage. Lockhart's Famous Elephants were truly famous and were stabled nearby. Every night for their week they marched through the streets to the theatre. On a smaller scale the Van Camp Pigs had attendant canaries introducing a boxing bout between two little pigs.
The annual touring pantomimes included The Forty Thieves starring Jimmy Learmouth. It had 15 principals, 40 thieves, 4 dancers, 6 gents singers, and 2 camels.
The last in the theatre, in 1916, was Cinderella with Scotch Kelly as Billy Buttons, "a Ballet of Irish Beauties, Gorgeous Scenery, Electric Coach and Real Shetland Ponies."
Right - Evlyn Laye, Jack Buchanan, and Adele Dixon - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
From 1917 onwards the Alhambra presented its own full seasons of pantomime each year, starting with Wylie-Tate's Dick Whittington starring Ella Retford and Harry Weldon from Fred Karno's army.
The Glasgow Herald noted:- "Enterprising vaudeville managers have not stopped at producing full-length plays. It is no surprise to see the pantomime season in Glasgow inaugurated on the music-hall stage on a more ambitious scale. Even the baggy trousered knave who once sported with Harlequinade makes his bow before the rise of the curtain."
Sir Alfred Butt now moved to having musicals as his priority, over variety. On the return of peace, 1919 was a special year in his theatrical development. In Glasgow, he announced that a second theatre was being planned for a site across the road from the Alhambra, with Sir John Burnet as architect. At the Glasgow AGM he declared:- "I have no hesitation in saying that the position occupied by the Glasgow Alhambra is unsurpassed by that of any theatre in the country. But in this respect I should remind all concerned - not only those associated with the Glasgow Alhambra but with the industry in general - that there is a limit to the holding capacity and consequent takings of a place of entertainment, and that it is necessary that we should all remember the fate of the goose and the golden eggs."
In Paris he opened his Paris Palace Theatre, guests of honour at its opening including President Woodrow Wilson, Lord Derby, Baron Rothschild and others who were in the city for the signing of the Peace Treaty. In London, Butt with the immense financial backing of Solly Joel emerged as the victor in a takeover battle for London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Three years later it opened with a remodelled auditorium, although remaining much smaller than the Alhambra, and he now brought to Britain new large scale American musicals, such as Rose Marie, Showboat, Desert Song, The Student Prince, among many more. It was noted that "he did everything short of flying the Stars and Stripes over Drury Lane."
From 1918, architect James Salmon in Glasgow was sketching outline drawings for a theatre for the Scottish Repertory Company Ltd - which started a decade before as the Scottish Playgoers Ltd, partly supported by Howard & Wyndham, rivals to the Alhambra. He examined sites mainly around Bothwell Street and Wellington Street.
Left - A Programme Cover for the Glasgow Alhambra under the Management of Alfred Butt and R. H. Gillespie - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Butt's Glasgow statement continued:- "It came to my knowledge that certain other people (the Scottish Repertory Company) were endeavouring to secure the excellent site which virtually faces this theatre, for the purpose of another place of entertainment. This would be prejudicial to the interests of this company for this site to be acquired by third parties, and accordingly I have purchased the site. The theatre I propose to erect will not, in my opinion, interfere or enter into direct competition with those already existing. It will be of a much more ambitious theatre, and will be equipped in such a manner as to enable Glasgow, with its population of over a million, from time to time to produce original plays, and thereafter send them broadcast all over the English-speaking world, instead of always receiving plays which have been produced by myself and other managers, either in London or New York, for their premieres. The new theatre will also be equipped to enable Glasgow to enjoy all that is best in high-class music and opera. I am not at liberty at the moment to mention the name of the proposed theatre but I hope when you all hear it, which I think you will do so shortly, the title in itself will be in accordance with our ambitions."
The Baillie magazine enthused:- "Here in the West of Scotland we are seeing a revival of Music, the elder sister of the Arts. The Repertory Theatre movement has been a clear manifestation of the craving for better things. Sir Alfred Butt has sensed the situation, and his orientation is welcome."
During 1920 the company reregistered, with additional shares being subscribed for the new theatre, and trebled in size financially. Moss Empires invested in 20% of the enlarged company at a cost of £21,000, which came from selling their Metropole in Stockwell Street. The Alhambra now had joint managing directors J. H. Gillespie (shown left) of Moss Empires and Sir Alfred Butt, who also became chairman.
However, at the 1921 annual company meeting Butt announced that "owing to industrial conditions - I do not feel justified in embarking upon a scheme which I know must involve a greater amount of capital than I had previously anticipated." Unfortunately Burnet's drawings did not survive the next war. Instead the continuing profits and new shares would be used for a major extension of the Alhambra starting in 1927. Sir Alfred continued to own the second site for a few years until it was developed as Waterloo Street Bus Station (shown below).
Above Right - Waterloo Street Bus Station built on site intended for the Alhambra's sister theatre - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Revues multiplied and variety built on its high quality, now including the many singing sisters from America, SophieTucker (without a sister, but always looking for a man), Switzerland's musical clown Grock almost became a resident of Glasgow, and the Co-optimists had five summer seasons, with programme changes weekly. Sybil Thorndike, a daughter of Scotland, led in major plays.
Musicals and pantomimes drew vast crowds, - especially those starring Lupino Lane - and mounted police were used to control the crowds queuing for tickets at the theatre's box office in Hope Street. In February 1925 the Alhambra staged the British premiere of No, No, Nanette.
Each year more musicals chose to open in Glasgow, before London, many from across the Atlantic. This latest one, originally produced in Chicago, had new tunes added prior to New York - including I Want to be Happy, and Tea for Two. For its British premiere the producer was William Mollison Jnr, son of Glasgow, and starred George Grossmith and Binnie Hale with all-action dances by two choruses, syncopations and saxophones. A masseur in the wings was essential!
Right - The No No Nanette Chorus Girls - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Theatre critic Eddie Ashton wrote:- "Even the Alhambra, the scene of so many brilliant premieres, has never known another first night like it. There was before the opening a certain amount of excitement in Glasgow. True, the show had been a big success in America - but after all American musicals, even successful ones, were no great novelty in Glasgow. On the evening of February 23 it opened and Glasgow went Nanette-crazy. The house rose to the show - some people even stood on the seats to cheer higher if not louder - and the audience simply refused to go home until Binnie Hale, Joe Coyne, George Grossmith and the rest of the cast had sung each twinkling tune again and again. Next morning there were block-long queues before the theatre opened - the shops were swamped with orders for sheet music and records. In Glasgow, not to know Nanette was to be socially dead."
Journalist Jack House added:- "There were placards in the streets for days saying "Yes, Yes, Nanette". But maybe the biggest stars of the whole show were in the orchestra pit. Glasgow had never heard anything like Percival Mackey and his Band. He had been Jack Hylton's pianist, and was the first to use jazz musicians in pit orchestras. When they played the hit tunes at the interval hardly a soul went to the bar. I should think that the bar drawings at the Alhambra can never have been lower than during No, No, Nanette. All girls took to wearing Three Yard dresses like Binnie Hale's. They were called that because you needed only three yards of material to make them."
Sir Alfred reported to the company that profits had increased by 25% due to the large-scale musicals arranged through the Moss Empires connection.
Buying property behind the theatre, and using the new share funds of the company, a major extension came into use in 1928 designed by Sir John Burnet. The wide stage, with its good spaces at the sides, was doubled in depth.
Above - A Plan showing the Alhambra Theatre's 1927 Western Extension in colour shading - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Instead of fly ropes being manually handled by a dozen men on the first floor of the fly tower a new grid was built - of stout wood, better than steel if a fire should start - above the third floor capable of hanging 70 cloths over the stage and for curtains and other scenery. Each cloth was hung on three wires led over wheels, with ball bearings ensuring complete silence. This system also allowed cloths and scenery to be tilted to the finest or largest degrees, and continued to be unique in Britain. The counter-weight system had 70 channels and wheels each numbered, and each with spring buffers at the end in case a weight was dislodged - ensuring a totally quiet landing. All this was operated at the stage level's new switchboard by one man, giving speed, accuracy and economy. New lighting and generators were introduced.
Right - A Watercolour of the Alhambra Theatre by Robert Eadie RSW from the cover of a 1928 Tatler Magazine, commissioned to mark the western extension of the Theatre opening that year - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
A lift for performers was installed to all floors and a canteen added. Dressing rooms increased in number to 25, "all well and comfortably furnished, each with its shower bath." Dressing rooms all with showers would continue to be unheard of anywhere else. Still unique in Britain to this day was the style of shower with water coming down from a wide neck ring at shoulder level, so that hair and makeup was unaffected. New offices were added, and a laundry. The scenery door moved into Waterloo Street and the property store moved under the enlarged stage - anything from the hind legs of an elephant to a golden throne. The stage door moved west and next to it a large theatre shop and ticket centre was planned. However Hope Street won as the main box office.
Old methods of cleaning the theatre were ended in 1922 when an electro-turbine exhaust vacuum system, Clyde-Turbo, was installed by shipbuilders Alexander Stephens & Sons, Linthouse, using a series of fixed tubes and flexible hoses, with dust collection silos in the basement. It had tools for the cleaning of furs, dresses, clothing and stage equipment. The auditorium was vacuumed daily and the gridiron and equipment weekly, made easier by the extension's flat roof and no inaccessible places. Alhambra's grid sparkled!
Above - Blackbirds Revue June 1927 with Florence Mills centre in Darkest Russia scene - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Florence Mills and the Blackbirds (shown above) came with their Plantation Jazz Orchestra, singers and dancers in two summers. And Jack Hylton & his Band (shown below) made their Glasgow debut at the Alhambra returning for summer seasons twice nightly in each of 10 years. The Alhambra's deputy manager Fred Ferne became Hylton's personal manager - and a decade later returned as Alhambra's general manager. Hylton also became a director of the Locarno Ballroom which opened in what had been John Kinghorn's Charing Cross Electric Theatre.
Above - The Jack Hylton Band - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
From 1920 to 1940, when wartime paper shortages brought it to an end, the company published and sold its substantial and illustrated monthly magazine, The Alhambra Tatler, containing features on current shows, news of forthcoming attractions, and theatrical interviews.
Right - An Alhambra Tatler Magazine Cover showing the 1927 - 1928 'Desert Song' Production - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Left - An Alhambra Tatler Magazine Cover showing the 1926- 1927 Production of 'Sunny' - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
From 1924 to 1933 musicals replaced pantomimes, and the theatre's revolving stage was well used in many productions. Jack House recollects Arthur Riscoe, musical comedy star of The Girl Friend and many more shows. Always waiting in the wings was his dresser, standing like a perfect butler with a tray on which reposed a bottle of whisky and a glass. Each time he came off the stage he had another nip just to keep him going.
Right - A Souvenir Programme for 'Stand Up And Sing' at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1930 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Alhambra's record attendance for packed houses at musicals was held by Jack Buchanan. All his revues and musicals were sell outs. Another Buchanan success That's a Good Girl (programme shown right) co-starred Elsie Randolph with Anton Dolin, the Tiller Girls and the Debroy Somers Band. The opening number was Let Yourself Go, and Fancy Our Meeting was the big hit song. Playwright Alan Melville recalls:- "Jack and Elsie sang with the full chorus. They were all dressed in the palest of silver grey and the palest of silver blue. Glasgow thought it the last word in chic. So did I. There was some strange feat of levitation - their feet never seemed actually to touch the stage, or if they did, it wasn't for long. You could hardly hear a sound except for the quiet pizzicato of the strings or the occasional, very occasional, tap of Jack and Elsie's shoes."
Right - A Programme for 'That's A Good Girl' at the Alhambra, Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Equally popular was Jessie Matthews who often premiered in Glasgow her spectacular musicals written for her in America, where she was known as the Dancing Divinity. By 1939 she took over Buchanan's mantle for record attendances when she and her former husband Sonnie Hale premiered their I Can Take It. But it was not able to tour the country because of the outbreak of war.
Left - A Flyer for Jessie Matthews in 'I Can Take It' at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1939 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Plays, and ballet including the Vic-Wells Ballet, followed by the new Markova-Dolin Company and its symphony orchestra of 40 players, followed by the Ballets de Monte Carlo, all found themselves joined by a new institution from 1936 onwards - the Glasgow Gang Show, the third to start after London and Newcastle and produced of course by Ralph Reader.
(The Glasgow Gang Show is today the longest running Scout Gang Show in the world, albeit now taking place in the small Mitchell Theatre at Charing Cross.)
Right - A Glasgow Alhambra Gang Show Flyer for 1936 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
After Sir Alfred Butt retired from his many theatre directorships, one of the other founders, John Rowan, was appointed Chairman in 1930.
He was succeeded in 1935 by iron founder Col Douglas McInnes Shaw (shown Left). During the Great War he was decorated for bravery for the capture of over 100 Germans (including Prince Hohenlohe) and became the youngest Battalion Commander in the British Army at age 23.
Left - Douglas McInnes Shaw - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The Depression affected all theatres and in 1933 the Alhambra made its first loss. The decision was made to reintroduce pantomime - and increase takings - for the winter seasons starting in 1934 with Will Fyffe taking the lead in Mother Goose.
Its producer Julian Wylie was broadcast on BBC Scotland from the Alhambra in an interview preceding the start. Asked if he was superstitious before the start of this, his 13th panto season, he cheerfully replied he was not. He died within three days.
But the show went on as did his other five pantomimes across Britain. The Glasgow Herald reported "the fun is fast, furious and at times delicious." A few years later Fyffe was joined by Harry Gordon, as Dame, in a long partnership in Alhambra pantomimes.
Above - A Programme of the Pantomime 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1940, presented by Tom Arnold (see below) - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Ivor Novello starred at the Alhambra in his own performances in revue and now, for over two decades, wrote and produced plays and musicals. In the 1930s Tom Arnold (shown right) took over the late Julian Wylie's position as top producer of pantomimes, musicals, and summer shows. He launched his new idea - major musical ice shows - starting in 1937 with Switzerland which was in three parts - ice spectacle; cabaret; ice spectacle, and the following year the Winter Sports Ice Show.
Right - Tom Arnold, Pantomime Producer at the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
For all his ice shows for the next 30 years he chose L.Sterne & Co of Glasgow to devise the stage ice rinks, refrigerating equipment and pipeworks, and make them portable after 1945, across Britain where they were maintained by Sterne's branches. L. Sterne built around 90% of all public ice rinks here, and a number overseas.
Not resting on his laurels Arnold produced even more pantomimes across the country. Annual profits returned by 1938 largely thanks to Aladdin with Harry Gordon as Widow Twankey and supported down the bill by Alec Finlay (shown left) making his pantomime debut and even playing Il Trovatore on his bagpipes.
Left - Alec Finlay complete with top hat, tails, and bagpipes - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The principal dancer was Berenice Barry, sister of Alice Markova. Magnificent palaces and pagodas appeared and vanished, and on a magic carpet Harry Gordon (shown right in 'Cinderella') and Renee Foster (Aladdin) floated high over the heads of the audience - without any visible means of support.
Right - A Programme Cover showing Harry Gordon in 'Cinderella' - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Hundreds of fairy lights illuminated the Tableaux of the Lamp on the revolving stage. Thanks to Harry Gordon and other film enthusiasts 10 minutes of excerpts from Aladdin 1938 can be enjoyed here on Scotland on Screen.
- A Programme for the Alhambra Revels at the Glasgow Alhambra in the
summer of 1939 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Left - Beauty And Grace - A scene from 'Crest of the Wave' at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1938 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Above - The Nautical Scene from 'Crest of the Wave' at the Glasgow Alambra in 1938 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The 1939-45 War brought two more major innovations in repertory drama and in ballet. Wilson Barrett (shown right), once of the Brandon - Thomas company and grandson of a Victorian actor of the same name, and Esmond Knight trialled a new Repertory Company in London, across Britain and up to Edinburgh, but making losses on all venues and derisory audiences.
Right - Wilson Barrett - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Bill Barrett writes:- "However, Glasgow made up for it. 1940 was the first time we had ever played at the Alhambra and when we opened there on the Monday night to a full house and a wonderful welcome to us all, we knew we were home again. During that week at the Alhambra the future of the company was settled, although we did not appreciate then to what extent. Fred Ferne, the General Manager of the Alhambra, asked us to come back the following year for a twelve-week season in the summer, and we accepted. If it had not been for this I do not think, looking back, that we could possibly have survived what was ahead of us."
Left - An Alhambra, Glasgow (one page folded) Wartime Programme whilst the Theatre was under the General Management of Fred A. Ferne - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
For the next 14 years Alhambra's entertainment calendar would be the very best of pantomimes for almost five months each winter, three months each summer of the Wilson Barrett company producing plays and the other months major musicals usually 2-3 weeks each (and sometimes 6 weeks), ice- shows usually 4-6 weeks, ballet of the new International Ballet, and of the emerging Festival Ballet, and other plays.
Above - A Flyer for Tom Arnold's 'Babes in the Wood' at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1946 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Above - The Wilson Barrett Company's Touring Van - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Well into their stride the Wilson Barrett Company staged 15-20 plays each summer. Established and new plays were presented. In weekly repertory, rehearsals for the next week's play took place during the day, while the current week's was played in the evenings.
After the 1941 summer season of plays in the Alhambra, Edinburgh became a second Barrett city following an invitation to perform at its Royal Lyceum theatre. Barrett opened his office nearby. And Aberdeen also became a Barrett city after a trial season at His Majesty's in 1947. Two companies of artistes were now engaged. Glasgow was over a full Summer, Edinburgh and Aberdeen alternating between Spring and Autumn. Alhambra Season tickets started in 1942, individually and for families, ensuring the same seats each week. Costume supplies had come from London but proved erratic.
Left - A programme for 'A Waltze Dream' at the Alhambra, Glasgow on the 21st September 1942.
In 1943, as Barrett writes:- "The increasing prosperity of the Glasgow season made me more than ever determined to build up our own wardrobe. We bought every scrap of unrationed stuff, sets of curtains, table-cloths, bedspreads everything. The press wrote of our difficulties and we were overwhelmed with offers of items stored away in trunks and boxes, dresses that went back well over a hundred years - original silks, satins, velvets and brocades."
Right - A Flyer of the Wilson Barrett company at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1950 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
After a few years a warehouse was purchased in Edinburgh for props, and costumes numbering around 3,000. Under Isabel Imrie music at the Alhambra was supplied by two pianists - including herself, Jean Milligan, Arthur Blake and Eric Stapleton. Shakespeare plays broke box office records in Glasgow, but not in Edinburgh's Lyceum where they were told to bring no more! Henry V had the largest cast at the Alhambra - 80 in all, comprising the entire double company, extras from London, members of Rutherglen Repertory Company, and soldiers from Maryhill Barracks.
Left - A 1950s Programme Cover for the Alhambra, Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Wilson Barrett seasons presented plays from Shakespeare to Shaw, Rattigan
to Ibsen, Sheridan to Goldsmith and others emerging as playwrights.
They were the first in Glasgow to stage Arthur Miller's new play Death
of a Salesman. As a contribution to the Festival of Britain they put
on a special series of the plays of James Bridie. There was a permanent
company of around 25 and guest artistes of around 45 in any one year.
Guest producers were invited in addition to company producers who included
Richard Matthews, Joan Kemp-Welch and C. B. Pulman.
Right - A Poster for 'Jack and the Beanstalk' at the Alhambra, Glasgow in December 1952 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
In his memoirs - On Stage for Notes, published in 1954 - Bill Barrett writes of Repertory and his experiences:- "A Repertory Theatre is a place where, apart from a few youngsters of definite ability who are learning their job the hard way, only the most experienced actors should be engaged. I have worked in theatre for over thirty years, and I have founded and run for fourteen years a company, which, to put it at its lowest, is financially the most successful in the British Isles... there is far more first-class acting to be seen in a tour of the established Repertory Theatres of Great Britain than you will ever see in a London season. We have opened each year with a big overdraft at the bank (in today's money £120,000.) We reduce this through the year, thanks to the huge capacity of the Glasgow Alhambra, plus the enthusiasm of Glasgow audiences, but when we return to the smaller capacity of the Edinburgh Lyceum, the deficit creeps up again slowly but surely, and during our Christmas break, when all the staffs in our big workshops are getting ready for the coming year, making new scenery, costumes, productions, and repairs, all with no revenue coming in, it soars up. If a first-class standard of production in Repertory is to be kept up, then every penny coming in must be used. Yet we are allowed no tax relief of any kind. A play supported by the Arts Council can play tax free in London but we have to pay full entertainment tax on everything we produce, because we are "commercial". We are given no subsidies, we are helped in no way by the Arts Council or any other body. What is it that these (Arts Council) people want? Their golden rule seems to be that never should a play be produced that is likely to appeal to any but an extremely limited number of people who pride themselves on being considerably more cultured and intelligent than the rest of us - and if by chance such a play does become a popular success then obviously it must be bad. Our plays from Shakespeare to Shaw have every ingredient of greatness in them, and because they are written by master craftsmen they have an appeal to every section of the theatre-going public."
The Wilson Barrett Company presented over 450 plays across Scotland.
In London a 21 year old wartime ambulance driver - ballerina and choreographer Mona Inglesby (shown right) - was concerned that ballet as a performing art would disappear for decades as men went off to the forces and orchestras and dancers disbanded. New dancers, whenever that may be, needed about 8 years to become highly proficient. She formed her own company The International Ballet, soon engaging as her chief director Nicolai Serguéeff who had been the last head of the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg. He instilled in the new company that one of the great strengths of the Imperial company was the superb quality of mime. Later she recalled:- "A whole generation of dancers could have been lost as a result of World War II, and I considered it our contribution to the war effort to help keep theatre open, allowing a population starved of relaxation and entertainment to have an opportunity to savour classical ballet of a high standard throughput blacked-out Britain."
Right - Mona Inglesby, founder of The International Ballet - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
She premiered her company, The International Ballet, on 19th May 1941 in the Alhambra. She opened with 21 dancers, including 15 year old Moira Shearer making her debut, and a full orchestra. It grew to be the largest ballet company in Britain, employing 80 people - and made classical, international ballet very popular - bringing ballet to the masses in theatres, including Moss Empires, cinemas, seaside holiday camps, factories and military bases across Britain. It also performed overseas, when hostilities ceased. The Musicians Union thanked her for employing so many musicians, at a time when 3,000 of them were unemployed.
Left - An International Balet souvenir brochure - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Her company attracted top designers - her principal one being Doris Zinkeisen, who also designed for C. B. Cochran and Jack Buchanan, and for the Cunard liners being built on the Clyde - composers, musicians and dancers from many countries. They had colourful and adventurous costumes, in lavish productions; created new audiences; and started workshops and lectures in schools explaining ballet. One of many new ballets was her glamorous production of Twelfth Night, the first two-act ballet created for a British company, which added the novelties of song in the Greig score and dramatic voice of a Shakespearean actor.
Above - The Ballet 'Sea Legend' as performed by Mona Inglesby`s International Ballet - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Mona Inglesby's International Ballet's last productions in the Alhambra were in 1952, with The Sleeping Princess, Coppelia, Swan Lake and other full length classical ballets which became the vogue. She retired the company in 1954. A few years earlier she declined the offer to be Moira Shearer's rival ballerina in the famed film, The Red Shoes, wary of Michael Powell's direction. Later, in her memoirs, Ballet in the Blitz, published posthumously in 2008, she wistfully regretted her decision.
A few years after 1945 the Alhambra company completed theatre renewal work delayed by the war, and combined the two bars under the stalls. The chairman was especially proud of the Alhambra having the longest bar in Scotland! A powerful Lamp Room was added above the Gallery Bar roof - between the two towers - for a main spotlight to the stage, 12 spotlights inserted in the Gallery front, and six spotlights in the Circle front.
Above - Alec Finlay, Duncan Macrae, Harry Gordon, and Robert Wilson in front of the Curtain in Aladdin at the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow in 1951 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
In pantomimes the regular principals became Harry Gordon, Alec Finlay, Duncan Macrae, and tenor Robert Wilson (shown above) until the theatre changed to new owners in 1954, after which Tom Arnold moved his pantomimes, and comedy revues, to the Empire Theatre, Sauchiehall Street.
& Wyndham helped Canadian Roy Thomson's plans for commercial television,
agreeing to sell him the Theatre Royal (their
most profitable theatre, but now showing its age) and to supply artistes
for his planned Scottish Television service.
Before this could happen they needed a new flagship theatre. The candidate
was obvious, there was nothing to match the Alhambra. Also, it had a
continuing alliance with Moss Empires,
chaired by Prince Littler who chaired many theatre combines including
Howard & Wyndham.
Right - A Page from an Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow Programme showing many of the Theatres on the Howard and Wyndam Theatre Circuit in 1954.
A casualty was the Wilson Barrett Company whose 1954 season was moved up the hill to the Royal. Their 10,000 a week audience, many of them season ticket holders, was loyal to the Alhambra, and television was starting to have an effect. Bill Barrett closed the company at the end of the year.
The new owners redecorated the theatre, installing new carpeting and cream and gold seating in the Stalls and Circle - the Balcony had to wait - and dispensing with the two aisles in the Stalls by making a central aisle. Their top manager John Stewart was put in charge.
For each new Howard & Wyndham production of a play, musical, pantomime or summer show the managing directors widowed mother would always have a box for herself on opening night, while Stewart Cruikshank (shown left) always sat in the Stalls a few rows back and at the aisle, to give him room to stick out his gammy leg. After the interval he would join his mother in the box and look at the audience to see how it was reacting.
On the 6th May 1954 Half Past Eight said hello to the Alhambra, packing the enormous auditorium for five months. As ever A Cocktail of Song, Laughter and Dance headed by Stanley Baxter and Jack Radcliffe, with Molly Urquhart, Helen Norman, Kenneth Sandford, Billy Dick and many more.
There was a change of programme weekly, which soon became fortnightly to let more people see the show. After opening on a Thursday or Friday, rehearsals would start the next day for the following edition.
From their start in 1933 at the Kings in Bath Street, produced by Julian Wylie, and followed two years later by a separate Half Past Eight in Edinburgh, the Half Past Eight revues were major successes, led often by George West, and succeeded by Dave Willis.
Above - An Audience Arriving at the Glasgow Alhambra for a 'Five Past Eight' Production - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Styling it the Spectacular Song, Dance and Laughter show, Stewart Cruikshank launched in 1955 the first Five Past Eight show, running for five months each year. He always insisted that the comedians must be Scottish, the audiences expected the best, and they generated huge profits.
It was a very hot almost tropical summer, and the post-war austerity transport restrictions requiring shows to start at 7.30pm ceased. Half Past Eight had been starting at half past seven! Now a new time of 8.05pm was chosen, allowing people to come after a day out in the sun. Hence the new name Five Past Eight. Saturdays became twice nightly at 6pm and 8.30pm by removing one scene in each half!
Right - A Flyer for 'Five Past Eight' at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1955 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Musicals, plays, and Italian opera continued, as did Tom Arnold's Ice Shows with up to 80 skaters. Even today some skaters recall the effort of perpetually walking in skates to the top floor dressing rooms up and down the backstage stairs. The passenger lift was too small for so many.
Freddie Carpenter was now producer in charge. For his first of many Alhambra pantomimes Carpenter enlisted Rikki Fulton, Jimmy Logan, Kenneth McKellar, Joan Mann, the Lionel Blair Dancers and others including Margaret Morris and her Celtic Ballet in Babes in the Wood in 1956/57.
In 1959 Alec Finlay appeared in his 15th pantomime at the Alhambra, "the opulent and funny" Goody Two Shoes - with Jack Tripp, Sheila O'Neill, and Ann Howard. The stylish scenery was designed by Peter Rice, noted also for his opera work.
Above - The 'Goody Two Shoes' finale design of 1959 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Above - A Scene from a 'Five Past Eight' production in 1957 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Above - A Scene from 'A Music of Vienna Set' in Five Past Eight at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1960 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
One dazzling show presented for six weeks by Jack Hylton was Kismet and its Arabian Nights, a new version from America's Zeigfield Theatre with sumptuous sets and costumes.
Another dazzling debut, and never shy, was Dick Hurran taking up his new role as producer of Five Past Eight. He had been a dancer with Half Past Eight before the war, moving on to be a nightclub and theatre producer and songwriter. He liked large-scale spectacle and soon created novel, highly engineered and advanced sets each year, which were not to be equalled in Britain. The shows became even more lavish. Editions changed from being fortnightly to three-weekly - such was their popularity. Hurran also enjoyed circuses and usually worked a circus into each revue.
Right - A Poster for a 'Five Past Eight' production at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1959 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
He concentrated upon the Alhambra but also kept an eye on Edinburgh's Five Past Eight. Dick Hurran's first Five Past Eight starred Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan, David Hughes, and Fay Lenore, with the George Mitchell Singers and Roy Kinnear. While across in Edinburgh, Alec Finlay, Rikki Fulton and Kenneth McKellar took the lead in its Five Past Eight.
Left - A Souvenir Programme for a 'Five Past Eight' production at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1961 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Most years Alicia Markova and Anton Dolins London Festival Ballet presented up to 14 ballets in their fortnight's visits. 1957's cast included a young Peter Darrell who would be asked to form The Scottish Theatre Ballet company in ten years time. The London Festival Ballet soon enhanced their artistry with principal dancers John Gilpin, David Adams, and Galina Samtsova, who later became Scottish Ballets artistic director. And in the 1960s Sadler's Wells started presenting annual seasons of opera, while The Royal Ballet kept up on their toes.
The first-ever Royal Scottish Variety Performance took place on 3rd July 1958, attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, almost fifty years after Sir Alfred Butt staged the first British Royal Variety performance in London.
Right - The Alhambra, Glasgow's Royal Scottish Variety Performance Souvenir Programme of 1958 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The Alhambra was repainted every two years whether or not a Royal visit, when many other theatres were painted once in 10 or 20 years. It was staffed by between 75 and 90 people the difference being the number of casual stage hands, usually 10 rising to 25 depending on the show. Over the previous decades some smaller rooms were combined but the normal number of 18 (large) dressing rooms all with showers remained, unchallenged in Britain. The huge dressing room for the chorus could accommodate 30 chorus girls. Near the stage door were the rooms of the Stage Manager, Chief Electrician, and Housekeeper (who also acted as head dresser) while under the stage was the Musical Director's office, and band room. Also downstairs was a shower room for staff, a rare feature elsewhere.
More amenity was planned beginning in 1958 when a Board Room was added below stage level. This was beautifully carpeted and furnished with gold brocade chairs, mirrors, and a fully stocked bar with crystal glasses. All very exclusive. Mrs Burnet the head housekeeper guarded it with her life!
At the end of a day the ushers would cover all seats with white sheets. Every morning the theatre was cleaned and vacuumed, using the Clyde-Turbo system. The sheets were always restored to position. At 12 noon the Head Cleaner knocked on the Housekeeper's door to report cleaning had finished, whereupon Mrs Burnett put on her white gloves and inspected a different area each day. Before each performance the Head Usher reported to the Housekeeper once the ushers were all in position after readying the house and removing the white sheets. He then blew his whistle to open the doors for business.
The Royal Scottish Variety Performance
Above - The Royal Scottish Variety Performance Finale at the Glasgow Alhambra in July 1958 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
For Five Past Eight, producer Dick Hurran installed three powerful stage lifts which could lift the whole front, middle, and back of the main stage in differing sequences. (The two existing scenic lifts continued.)
One scene this year captivated above all - the Riviera scene with a 20,000 gallon 18-feet wide swimming pool being raised up complete with an aqua ballet and dancers, made even more visible by a giant mirror descending from the fly tower and then tilted. This was also in the special evening of 3 July 1958.
Ticket prices as high as £50 for the front stalls (equal to £600 in today's money), normally 8/6d, and a £1 for the balcony, normally 1/6d, went with other revenue from the Royal evening to support the Scottish Theatrical & Variety Artistes Benevolent Fund, whose President was theatre and cinema impresario Alex Frutin. Many Scots entertainers graced the Royal Variety performances in London over the years but this was the first in Scotland, to the credit of Howard & Wyndham and members of the profession.
Right - A 'Five Past Eight' poster from 1958 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The Five Past Eight cast were joined by guests from both sides of the border and from America. The list was long, some 200 singers, comedians, dancers, musicians and acrobats, aided by a stage crew of 50. Sir Alfred Butt would have approved.
Cast of Entertainers on 3rd July 1958
The Andrea Dancers, Jack Anthony, Stanley Baxter, Bernard Bresslaw, Clyde Valley Stompers, Rudy Cardenas, Grace Clark and Colin Murray, Tommy Cooper, Jacqueline Delman, Lonnie Donegan, Alec Finlay, Rikki Fulton, Geraldo and his Orchestra, Los Gatos, Margo Henderson, David Hughes, Landellans Jivers, Alan King, Fay Lenore, Jimmy Logan, May Short (Logan), Sally Logan, Alicia Markova, Larry Marshall, Alistair McHarg, Kenneth McKellar, Jack Milroy, George Mitchell Singers, Tommy Morgan, Jack Radcliffe, Janette Scott, Jimmy Shand and his Band & Dancers, Charlie Sim, Andy Stewart, Ross Taylor Dancers, Marjorie Thompson, Frankie Vaughan, Johnny Victory, Aly Wilson, Robert Wilson, Band of the Scots Guards, City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band; and a walk onstage of others in showbusiness. An edited version of the show was broadcast on radio a few days later.
Five Past Eight
Stanley Baxter and Rikki Fulton teamed up for the first time, joined by singer David Hughes and leading lady Fay Lenore. The George Mitchell Singers, famed through television thanks to their Falkirk founder, complemented the Ross Taylor Dancers. The swimming pool also had portholes in its side through which lights shone illuminating the whole thing. Six swarthy flamenco dancing Spaniards, Las Trianas from The Lido, Paris, added to the holiday themes, as did sumptuous sets, and trains and planes; while an enormous rain curtain was installed for Singin in the Rain, immortalised by Gene Kelly. There was a change of programme every fourth Monday.
In 24 weeks it was seen by 328,000 people, higher than the last year's 317,000, and the previous 280,000. The Edinburgh Five Past Eight played to 170,000 and on its closing it moved for a week to Dundee as an experiment. Five Past Eight would continue for the next decade, with substantial changes each year. Over 400,000 came to it at the Alhambra next year. Five Past Eight's formula was copied in some of Howard & Wyndham's English theatres under different titles - including at Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and at the Victoria Palace, London (built for Sir Alfred Butt). The original title was always reserved to Scotland.
Radcliffe, Logan and Boswell
For the next three years Jack Radcliffe and Jimmy Logan resumed their top positions in Five Past Eight, joined by Eve Boswell. The trio went on to hold the record of the largest number of Five Past Eight shows. Singer, pianist and instrumentalist Eve Boswell was a globe-trotter and recording star with shows in Britain, her native Hungary, and in South Africa where she lived mainly, returning to Scotland each year to Five Past Eight - even playing a duet on the bagpipes with Jimmy Logan. In private life she was Mrs Trevor McIntosh and proud of her Scottish name thanks to her father-in-law from Ayr. The stage's jewelled curtain revealed more innovations each year, not just the poodles and borzois, circus scenes, winter sports scenes, nor the vintage 1908 Rover car loaned by transport magnate John Sword. Chairman and managing director Stewart Cruikshank wrote in one programme:- 'The show has come of age. Edition 1 went 5 weeks, Edition 2 played capacity for 8 weeks, and the season is not even half way. The policy is to make Five Past Eight bigger and better than ever. We've got the theatre, the equipment, the best public of any city - and there's no reason that Scotland should not have the very best. This year 1959 producer Dick Hurran returns with ice, hydraulic lifts, giant stairways. Spectacle and lavish colours are his trump cards - and without doubt they represent the theatre's answer to the challenge of Television.'
Right - A Poster for 'Sinbad the Sailor' at the Alhambra, Glasgow in 1958 Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The season's attendance reached 450,000. Tourists from America booked in New York, and others from Paris and Germany booked directly. An orchestra Band Wagon was installed (unique in Britain). It could rise with players onboard, then go down when overtures finished. It could also slide across the stage silently on rails, using low battery voltage. For a special scene or finale the platform - with players playing - could rise from the orchestra pit a distance of eight feet to the stage level; then travel - still music-making - a distance of 32 feet to the back of the stage. The final lift took the band far above the stage, with the musical director Danny Walters more than 20 feet above the stage. Of the shows editions the Daily Express explained:- "The scenery revolves and tilts and slides. Great chunks of the stage zoom mysteriously up and down, elevating the entire Geraldo Orchestra, or a regiment of gorgeous girls. Half the stage suddenly becomes a real ice rink. The side of a liner slides aside and we are in the engine room, with stokers at the glowing furnace in a ballet."
The Merry Widow and merry music
Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow produced by Freddie Carpenter ran for weeks in 1960, starring Vanessa Lee, Peter Graves (her husband), and Douglas Byng. Its sublime costumes were designed for Howard & Wyndham by Anthony Holland who soon would help create the most imaginative designs seen in any pantomime (A Wish for Jamie).
Now settled in the Alhambra the Glasgow Grand Opera Society staged annual seasons with the Scottish National Orchestra in the pit, usually led by Sam Borr. More of the amateur societies added to the Alhambra lists - including The Pantheon Club, the Lyric Club and the Theatre Guild. All their singers were keen to pass the test - were their voices able to reach the back of the theatre?
The Bluebell Girls arrive in Britain
To a national fanfare of publicity the statuesque and glamorous Bluebells Girls flew in from their Lido theatre headquarters in Paris, making their debut in Britain at the Alhambra. For 12 years they were the main attraction in Le Lido and now a main attraction in Five Past Eight for two years. Jack Radcliffe, Jimmy Logan and Eve Boswell also had in their cast singer Sheila Paton, the acrobatic Carsony Brothers and, making her comedy debut was actress Una McLean from the Citizens Theatre.
Right - The Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow from a 1960s programme cover - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Margaret Kelly, the Bluebells founder, accompanied her troupe and appointed as Bluebell captain Audrey Mortimer now based in Paris and originally from Fife. Kelly first trod the boards as a youngster in Liverpool before joining a Scottish dance troupe Hot Jocks, touring music halls. She joined the famed Jackson Girls here and danced with them in Berlin in the 1920s before moving to Paris where in 1932, age 22, she started her own group called the Bluebell Girls.
There were Parisian scenes, a Roman Orgy of near Hollywood dimensions, a Viennese Ballroom reflected at a vertiginous angle in a very large mirror, and fireworks. This year Dick Hurran built a 24 foot glass tank at the back of the stage for a firework display each evening - the sparks and smoke being drawn up a funnel to a water tank at the top of the building. Major scenes included a giant Ferris wheel containing 1,400 lights, and illuminated helter skelters. The stage got an electric powered moving staircase placed on an arc at the rear of the stage, allowing grand entrances from the first-floor level behind the stage.
The Bluebell Girls made their entrance on smooth stepped platforms moving in from both wings, dancing out on to a semi-circular stage in front of the orchestra. In the next edition they floated in from the side galleries on hobby horses, motors making them rise up and down to the music. The tall Bluebell Girls got all the attention, on and off stage and even when enjoying the sunshine on the Alhambra's flat roof.
A Wish for Jamie
Stewart Cruikshank encouraged producer Freddie Carpenter, its author John Law and choreographer Peter Darrell in a new venture opening in December 1960. A Wish for Jamie was written round Kenneth McKellar - as Jamie - "with the songs and dances of Scotland woven into the story of the pantomime." This was Howard & Wyndham's first Scottish story pantomime, instead of a Continental tale, and the season sold out in two weeks. Jamie would run for years (with later versions in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Newcastle.) This was the Alhambra's Jubilee Year, with first night patrons receiving a miniature of whisky with their programmes.
Right - A Souvenir Programme for 'A Wish for Jamie' at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1960 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Set in Fairy Tale Land with comic frogs and colourful characters, Jamie's wish is that he wants to marry the laird's daughter. Jamie is the easygoing member of a family trio - Rikki Fulton his sister, and Fay Lenore his brother Donald who guards Jamies sweetheart, Principal Girl Mary Benning, against allcomers be they laird's sons or frogs. The comic partnership is Rikki Fulton as Dame Little, and Reg Varney as Percy the English farmhand. It started with Aggie Goose (Ethel Scott), the couthy wee fairy godmother, whizzing across the stage on tartan wings. She wants to give Jamie his wish but before then the Principal Girl is captured by a menacing King of the Frogs (Russell Hunter) who offers to give Jamie his wish on condition he swaps voices with the Frog.
The Scotsman called it "a vibrant whirligig of fun, song and glamour," the Glasgow Herald writing: "Jamie sings steadily on from Burns to rock' n roll and on to a climax of almost his entire repertoire with appropriate scenes shone on the screen behind. The Five Villams do the most unlikely things at fearful pace with themselves and with Indian clubs. And Paul and Peta Page's Puppets give us a kind of resume of all the pantomime plots that have not been used this time. Western Theatre Ballet help blend it all."
For the first time in Britain the same pantomime returned in the same year as it had closed. On 5 November 1961 A Wish for Jamie started again only 9 months after its finale. The renewals and development of Jamie stretched far into the future. The BBC's UK Head of Light Entertainment was so impressed with it and the audience that he insisted on televising The Rikki Fulton Show in the Alhambra in front of a live audience.
Jamie returned for a third year as A Love for Jamie. Kenneth McKellar was now the Principal Boy and his love the Principal Girl was Jill Howard, and Rikki Fulton as the Dame. The pantomime came back yet again, for a fourth year, being enjoyed by 250,000 over five months each year. Endless future permutations were possible.
Right - A Programme for 'A Love for Jamie' at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1963 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Jamie moved in November 1964 to the King's to let the Alhambra extend its run of the musical My Fair Lady. A Love for Jamie also delighted in coming years at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Newcastle with a different cast including Fay Lenore. Latterly it became A World of Jamie, still with Kenneth McKellar.
Five Past Eight for six months
Jack Radcliffe, Jimmy Logan and Eve Boswell created even more records, as Dick Hurran returned from his visits to Las Vegas, Paris, Rome and Beirut with new ideas and guest performers. For the girls, ostrich feathers came from Paris and jewellery from Milan. Over the record six months there were two editions, rehearsals taking place in St Andrews Halls. Of the sixteen sections five were shows within shows, each with three scenes. To great effect for his shows he used perspective scenes and tilting tables - making the stage look even bigger- and scenes like huge picture frames with artistes at angles in them.
Above - An Eve Boswell Piano Set in 'Five Past Eight' at the Glasgow Alhambra - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Special effects this year included a two-ton curtain from roof to floor made to swing on its axis and become a gigantic staircase; and a passenger liner in detail 60 feet long and 20 feet high. Its destination was a South Sea Island inhabited by tartan clad natives with Jimmy Logan in a grass skirt. The tropical scene finished with Tahiti the Brave! In a cabaret scene Eve Boswell played piano with Jimmy Logan before, switching to clarinet for the melody Mack the Knife. In this Alhambra Jubilee year a Five Past Eight postal quiz competition had prizes including a Weekend in Paris including seats at the Folies Bergere, dinner at the Lido Night Club, a mink stole and a Vespa scooter.
One diarist, John Bruce, records his enjoyment of the "New York Night Out" scenes with Boswell and Logan; and "When Knights were Bold" with the Bluebell Girls, and the George Mitchell Singers, complete with a golden staircase - A glittering scene of gorgeous mediaeval costumes and a drawbridge coming down to turn in to a grand staircase. "Follow the Sun" had a dockside with a passenger liner moving off, which changes to a paradise island featuring Jimmy Currie's Tropical Cascades - a really astonishing cascade of enormous volumes of water that was quite memorable and tremendously effective. "Getting Around" went through coaches, penny farthings, a 1911 Anzani car and a scene of ingenious illusions of young men speeding on motorbikes through a moonlit cloudy landscape.
Above - The Tiller Girls on stage in 'Five Past Eight' at the 'Starlight Room' at the Glasgow Alhambra, in 1963 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Every year the Alhambra brought something new, and unique in Britain. In 1962 it was something quite unique in theatre and set the pattern of future Five Past Eight productions - the creation of the Starlight Room. The Alhambra's 78 foot wide stage now cascaded into the auditorium. Britain had never seen anything like it before. It had ideas seen in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and New York. This was Theatre-ama, more than equal to Cinerama.
The orchestra pit was removed and a glass apron stage with wide stairs lit from below tumbled into the stalls, being met by curved gilded stairs from new stages built in front of the boxes for singers and dancers. The stage was given a glossy non-slip black linoleum finish, polished daily and looking like glass. The band, of 12, played on a raised mushroom tower onstage. Altogether the Starlight Room had 5,000 lights.
American born entertainer Dickie Henderson opened the sell-out season, with the support of singer Lena Martell, Una Maclean, the Tiller Girls (shown above), the George Mitchell Singers and the cabaret dancer Aleta Morrison. From America came the acrobatic dancers and instrumentalists The Charlivels, Eddie Vitch comedy mimist, and from South America the juggling Piero Brothers. The second edition from September was led by Stanley Baxter.
Welcoming the Starlight Room the Daily Expresss editor wrote of Dick Hurran:- "He is Mr Spectacle of showbusiness. The man who has made the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow, the home of the most lavish, glittering and glamorous shows in Britain. His productions cost around £150,000. They are on a bigger scale than anything the London Palladium can stage."
Theatregoer John Bruce's diary agreed:- "A glittering show, beautifully costumed, with a reconstructed theatre around the stage and the orchestra pit. The performance extends out into the auditorium with the side boxes now included in part of this display and reached by two ornamented flights of stairs. The orchestra is back staged. There are no changes of scene, no spectacular transformations as in last year's show. The entertainment was a high class variety. Lavish, in excellent taste."
Dick Hurrans new policy of using mainly London-based headliners in the coming years, such as Max Bygraves, Bob Monkhouse and Bruce Forsyth (who attracted small audiences) had its ups and downs. Equilibrium was achieved by a later arrival of Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy. At the end of each season the Starlight Room was restored to the normal theatre staging.
Above - A farewell from the Royal Box after the Royal Performance at the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow in July 1963 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
To raise money for the artistes benevolent society a second Royal Variety performance took place on 3 July 1963 - in essence a gala performance of Five Past Eight. Hurran left little time for many of Scotlands top performers. The show opened with Fay Lenore, singers and dancers choreographed by Lionel Blair, and guest artistes included Eartha Kitt, Connie Francis, and jazzman Acker Bilk. Bob Monkhouse did not do so well in that year, and instead of a third edition Half Past Seven with Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy moved in from the Kings in October, before A Love for Jamie brought in more pantomime gold, enjoying a complete sell-out - for the fourth year.
Commonwealth Arts Festival
Glasgow's celebration of the Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1963 saw the theatre stage performances by the Trinidad Dance Company, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Australian Ballet and the Nigerian Folk Opera.
The festival culminated in a fireworks display over Kelvingrove. More National Dance Companies started touring, notably those of Sierra Leone - rapidly becoming ambassadors for their newly independent Countries - Guinea, Roumania and The Philippines.
Five Past Eight took residence in the Starlight Room under the happy spell of Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy. After five years in Edinburgh's Five Past Eight this was their first in Glasgow, joined by Australian pop star Patsy Ann Noble, Elaine Taylor, Clem Ashby, Ethel Scott and Glen Michael.
In what would be the theatre's last pantomime, 1966/67, Cinderella sold well, the Ugly Sisters being Stanley Baxter and Ronnie Corbett, who made their entrance in a hot air balloon descending with golf clubs, and Lonnie Donegan - son of Bridgeton, jazzman and the King of Skiffle - was Buttons. Paula Hendrix as Cinderella and Lynne Kennington as Prince Charming held their own over the Ugly Sisters. The press hailed a rich evening of pantomime with transformation scenes, gaudy, gauzy, jewelled and glittering, to ravish the eye.
Frankie Vaughan and Startime
Above - A Flyer for the Frankie Vaughan Show at the Glasgow Alhambra in the winter of 1967 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
After the Scout Gang Show and Sadler's Wells Opera the company started several seasons across two years of Startime fortnights - full variety with a major top-liner, starting with singer Frankie Vaughan, and followed by others including Shirley Bassey; The Shadows with Lena Martell; ventriloquist Ray Allen and Lord Charles; Harry Secombe; and The Seekers with comedian Norman Vaughan; Max Bygraves, Edmund Hockridge, Winifred Atwell, Nina & Frederick, the Dallas Boys and Cilla Black.
Not a pantomime but a full Festive show took its winter bow for 8 weeks - The Frankie Vaughan Show attracting large houses not just for the crooner but also for singer Moira Anderson, making her theatrical debut in Glasgow, joined by the foot juggling Baranton Sisters, the tap dancing Clark Brothers and the Tiller Girls - including a vivid scene of a film sequence of a BOAC plane flying, then landing, and as if by magic the girls descending from the same plane on stage.
Changes of Leader
Under Stewart Cruikshank the Alhambra Theatre regularly created half of Howard & Wyndham's annual profits across its theatre division of over 20 theatres. Sadly he became terminally ill and in 1965 his deputy Peter Donald took his place as Managing Director and Chairman. By 1967 the theatre division was still making profits.
Right - A Programme for a Stewart Cruikshank and Howard & Wyndham 'Five Past Eight' Production - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Peter Donald was not of the same cut as Stewart Cruikshank, and is remembered as a humourless man, who had visions of grandeur. He wanted to open a new theatre in Hyde Park, London (a pipe dream) and to be more involved in television. Under his direction the company were joint bidders for the Yorkshire Television franchise, but did not win it.
He now diversified the company into theatre productions for others, and film and television productions, and in design graphics and equipment control systems. These soaked up money as if it was going out of fashion. All made losses. Losses from these were five times greater than the company's theatre operating division. Eventually the company had to sell its jewel in the crown, the Alhambra, to pay off group debts.
In 1968 the company invested £150,000, from the sale of the Kings Theatre to Glasgow Corporation, in improving amenities even further for patrons and staff and bought the neighbouring property to the west of the Alhambra. The Management offices, at the Circle level, were demolished and a new Entresol Bar and reception area built for the Circle. The offices were re-sited to the top floor backstage next to the chorus dressing rooms and the existing lift renovated from basement to top, replacing the 1928 lift. Of the new offices for the General Manager, House Manager and Assistant House Manager the first two each had ensuite facilities and showers. A rehearsal studio and more dressing rooms were planned, but were put on hold.
Above - A Flyer for Dickie Henderson and Lena Martell in a Stewart Cruikshank and Howard & Wyndham 'Five Past Eight' Production at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1962 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Five Past Eight with The Batchelors ran for three summer months, supported by Julie Rogers, Peter Goodwright, and Rawicz & Landauer who walked down stage as their pianos came from each side drawn invisibly by wires. Morecombe & Wise were rehearsing for the Festive season but due to illness they had to withdraw. Instead it changed to The Norman Wisdom Show, with Norman Wisdom and Moira Anderson. The theatre made a loss on it, the first loss ever for a Christmas season.
Right - A Flyer for a concert by Marlene Dietrich with a 'Full London Orchestra' at the Alhambra Theatre Glasgow, which was a sell out week from November 1966 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
In November the company invited offers for the Alhambra, seeking £500,000 - its management claiming that there were not enough big stars nor big shows available to keep the theatre busy. (There was some truth in that because writers were concentrating on television.) But the company had run out of money on Peter Donalds schemes of diversification. A discount on the price was available to the city's Corporation if they stepped forward.
Left - 'Five Past Eight' Costume Designs for the Opening Singers by Berkeley Sutcliffe in 1968 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
1969 and L'Envoi
In what would become the theatres last year Peter Pan proved very popular, featuring Wendy Craig and Alistair Sim. The London Festival Ballet also enchanted, now including its Glasgow-born principal male dancer Ian Hamilton. Film actress, and wartime pinup and inspiration, Betty Grable crossed the ocean on her European debut and first visit to Britain at the Alhambra. For a fortnight the house, and Wellington Street, was crowded out, not so much for the cowboy play The Pieceful Palace but for the legend she was. In journalist Willie Hunter's opinion Glasgow Corporation should stop thinking about preserving the Alhambra and instead should preserve Betty Grable and stop her from leaving the city's boundaries!
Howard & Wyndham announced a Farewell of the Startime Season but declined to say if the theatre would close. Clearly they hoped it would remain. Despite the public campaigning, and the logic of the case for it, doubts grew. All the weeks were well attended. Max Bygraves was followed by Ken Dodd with Donald Peers, Teddy Johnstone & Pearl Carr. Frankie Vaughan was joined by Winifred Atwell and impressionist Mike Yarwood; while Cilla Black in a final capacity week was supported by Vince Hill, the Dallas Boys and George Chisholm.
For months the directors forbade staff to use the word "closing" - there were to be no press statements, no guest artistes, no bouquets, no speeches - even although the Lord Provost was in the audience. However Cilla Black defied them and at the end led the audience in a medley of songs finishing with Auld Lang Syne.
From around 1960 the Corporation started demolishing whole districts of the city, decanting around 400,000 people to distant housing estates, burghs and New Towns. Apart from housing and roads it had no interest in the city's heritage. The growth of television and subsidised civic theatre continued. Howard & Wyndham started to sell their theatres, except the Alhambra, and were changing to theatre management and productions for television. Now they offered to sell their flagship to the Corporation. Despite a public campaign, and the largest petition ever, to save the theatre and use it for the city, Glasgow Corporation said NO. The Town Clerk would brook no criticism of his committees. Public engagement with the City Chambers was not encouraged. The Corporation's halls manager Tom Malarkey, now also running the Kings Theatre, was very keen to take the Alhambra into the civic realm, recognising it was superior and fully up-to-date compared to its cousin in Bath Street, but the Corporation said NO.
Even the Secretary of State lent support, listing the building as a category A building of architectural and historical interest. This gave a six month reprieve, in those early days of conservation. Howard & Wyndham kept the theatre cleaned and spic and span, equipment maintained and tested, ready to open at a week's notice.
But the Corporation said NO.
After the six months the company re-advertised it for sale to help pay off some of the colossal debt they built up in productions for film, television and others. It was sold for £350,000 to a property developer who demolished it in 1971 and built a monotonous dull grey concrete office block on its site. Fortunately it in turn was flattened about the year 2000 and todays new Alhambra House office building is finished in quality polished granite in a style and colour worthy of its name.
Above - The Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow during its demolition in 1971, looking east from the stage towards Hope Street and Central Station - Courtesy Colin Duncan. The photograph also shows the Waterloo Street Bus Station, mid left in red sandstone, which would have been the site of the Alhambra`s sister theatre 1919/20, had the Depression not set in.
Above - A view from the stage of the Alhambra Theatre,
Glasgow during the Theatre's demolition in 1971 - From the book 'Glasgow
since 1900' - Archive publications.
Ironically a few years earlier in 1962 fire destroyed the Corporation's famous St Andrews Halls at Charing Cross, next to the Mitchell Library. Meanwhile they arranged a "temporary" venue using an old picture house in Argyle Street for concerts and events, promising to rebuild the Halls. "Temporary" was to last almost 30 years - but if they had not closed their ears in 1969 the Alhambra would have been a superior venue.
The above article on the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow was very kindly written for this site by Graeme Smith in December 2015 and added to the site in January 2016. The narratives and images are mostly from his recently published book Alhambra, Glasgow (Details below).
Famous for glamour and humour, variety, pantomime, musicals, ballet, opera, drama and dance the immense ALHAMBRA THEATRE stayed ahead of other Theatres. Opening in 1910, at the corner of Waterloo Street and Wellington Street, and designed by eminent architect Sir John James Burnet, its managing director Sir Alfred Butt gave "the best of European and American Vaudeville attractions" in the "Resort of the Elite." Its founders supported cinema, jazz, cabaret and ballrooms.
The complete history of the Glasgow Alhambra is told for the first time, in full colour, with 400 illustrations, in this new quality-bound softback book by Graeme Smith and is highly recommended.
The book is priced just £20 and can be found in all good bookstores and online at the book's own website www.glasgowalhambra.co.uk
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: