The lost Moorish palace of showbiz and sin: The story of Leicester Square’s Alhambra
The history of the West End theatre and music hall, which stood on the current site of the Odeon Luxe cinema.
Situated in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square is known for its cinemas, casinos, chain pubs/restaurants and cheesy nightclubs. As a lifelong Londoner, I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid it if I’m honest. However, I can appreciate it’s a destination for film fans, thanks to the premieres and awards ceremonies which take place there. Of course, it wasn’t always cinemas which drew people to Leicester Square, as the area has long been a destination for Londoners and tourists seeking nocturnal entertainment. One of the lost Victorian venues which lured in the crowds was the Alhambra, previously on the site of the current Odeon Luxe cinema.
Leicester Square was established in the 17th century, taking its name from Leicester House, the grand home built by politician Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester (1595–1677). It was largely residential in the early centuries, but started to evolve into a hub for tourism and entertainment by the 19th century. Before the Alhambra was built at 24-27 Leicester Square, it was occupied by four houses, dating back to the 1670s. These buildings were homes to Lords, Ladies, Barons and Earls over the years, although No.27 was converted into a bagnio (bath house) in the 1720s.
In Victorian London, Leicester Square boasted a host of attractions to amaze and entertain. Among the delights on offer were Wyld’s Great Globe, the Savile House museum, and the Empire Theatre of Varieties (the predecessor to the Empire cinema). The first Alhambra was first built in 1854 as an attraction named the Royal Panopticon of Science Arts. Designed by Thomas Hayter Lewis (1818-1898), it opened in March 1854 and hosted art exhibitions and scientific demonstrations (see a 1854 sketch of the interior). The façade was a bold Moorish style, feature two minaret-esque towers and a dome. Although initially a hit with a reported 1,000 visitors daily, it soon fell out of favour and prompted the owners to sell up for just £9,000 in 1857. The new proprietor, E.T. Smith was an experienced theatre owner and envisioned the building as an entertainment venue. He had a circus ring constructed in time for its re-opening as the Alhambra Circus in April 1858. Smith managed to secure a license for music and dance performances later that year and went on to host ballet and variety shows. After a few years, he sold the building to William Wilde Jnr, who used it for music hall and circus productions. The famous French acrobat Charles Blondin (1824-1897) performed in front of the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) at the Alhambra soon after his successful Niagara Falls tightrope. In May 1861, the venue hosted another legendary French acrobat, Jules Léotard (1838-1870), who wowed with his flying trapeze act over the heads of the audience below. As he proved a huge draw, Léotard was paid £180 a week – an impressive salary at the time.
By 1865, journalist and writer John Hollingshead (1827-1904) took over management of the (now-called) Alhambra Music Hall, continuing to produce ballets and musicals. However, he grew the the hall’s reputation with his elaborate staging, the corps de ballet and its Promenade bar, which soon became notorious for gentlemen associating with unescorted ladies. Hollingshead was credited with introducing the capital’s residents to the Can-Can, and also establishing the matinee performance slot. However, this racy French dance led to the Alhambra being stripped of its dancing license in 1870.
It was during Hollingshead’s tenure that the first of significant architectural alterations took place, in 1866. John Tavernor-Perry (1842-1915) and Frederick Henry Reed (1851-1909) – the architects of the Cecil Hotel on Strand – took charge of the improvements. A few years after Hollingshead moved on to manage the Gaiety Theatre on Aldwych, German composer Georges Jacobi (1840-1906) served as musical director from 1872-1898. He composed over 100 ballet productions, with Italian prima ballerina Emma Palladino (1861-1922) as his leading lady for many years. The Alhambra’s promenade bar continued it’s dreadful reputation throughout the 1870s. Women allowed to attend the bar unaccompanied (scandalous behaviour at the time!), which encouraged the attendance of prostitutes. Meanwhile, female performers would drink, eat and flirt with male guests in between scenes, with some dancers reported to be moonlighting in the sex trade alongside their stage careers. American writer Daniel Joseph Kirwan wrote of his shock at what he witnessed at the ‘Canteen’ bar in his 1878 publication, Palace and Hovel: Phases of London Life. Declaring the Alhambra as “the greatest place of infamy in all London”, he suggested the men didn’t come to watch the performances, but “the chief attraction is the women”. As you’d expect, not every meeting at the Alhambra would end with a fun roll in the hay or a harmless flirting session, there were often more sinister associations. A tragic prostitute named Harriet Buswell was found murdered in her bedroom at Great Coram Street in Bloomsbury in December 1872, hours after she was seen meeting an alleged ‘German man’ at the Alhambra and leaving together. The 27-year-old’s killer was never caught.
However, Leicester Square’s striking palace of varieties was due an unwitting makeover. The original theatre was destroyed by fire in December 1882 (see a 1883 sketch of the fire here) and built in a more modest Moorish style by Reed. When it reopened in December 1883, it was styled as the Alhambra Theatre. The theatre underwent many more alterations in the Victorian and Edwardian period, including one in 1912 by celebrated theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920). Among the Matcham theatres in London today include the Hippodrome, Hackney Empire, London Coliseum, Palladium, Richmond Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Victoria Palace.
By 1896, the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties was hosting screenings of early films, alongside its usual music hall entertainment. As the 20th century dawned and audience tastes changed, the Alhambra began to host revues and continued to do so throughout World War I, before returning to variety shows. English actress Dame Gracie Fields (1898-1979) starred in revue called ‘Mr Tower of London’ at the Alhambra in 1923. For two consecutive years in the 1920s, the Alhambra hosted the Royal Variety Performance, which was broadcast by BBC radio. Despite the Alhambra’s flirtation with early film, it never became an established cinema, despite movies sharply rising in popularity during the interwar years. In 1936, the Alhambra was purchased by cinema tycoon Oscar Deutsch (1893-1941) with plans to demolish to make way for the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square. The Alhambra had its final curtain call with a performance of Danish magician Dante’s magic show on 1 September. Following the Alhambra’s demolition, the flagship Odeon cinema was designed by Andrew Mather (1891-1938) and Harry Weedon (1887-1970) and opened the following year and still exists today. However, in autumn 2019, the name Alhambra rose again as ‘The Lost Alhambra‘, a subterranean cocktail bar two doors down from the Odeon.
- The site of the Alhambra is now occupied by the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square, 22-24 Leicester Square, West End, WC2H 7LQ. Nearest stations: Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus.
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