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Betty’s Blog- A Night On The Town!

February 21, 2014

Wednesday 19th February 2014


“A Bit Of A Do!”

A Matinee Tea show today, and for a change a day of blue sky and no rain!  When I arrived at 1pm the coaches were waiting to open their doors- today it turns out virtually everyone in the audience has come from Kent!

I think I have about four more shows when I can see clearly, and after that I will have to complain to Specsavers. Or to Hayley-Jo- well, she is in the current Specsavers Advert, so worth a try! My contact lenses have yet to arrive, and I’m searching my drawers for the odd pair left about!

The show was great fun, with a very well received “Busy Bee” gag. Paul and Andrew giving it large as they say, and it certainly makes them laugh loud and long!

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A far cry from many years ago when I watched the gag performed as a filler while the scenery was being changed (ever was the reason for the Frontcloth gag) and having done the set-up of the routine the Dame re-entered and said “Busy Bee, Busy Bee, What have you got in the….Oh, they’re ready!” turned on his heels and exited. Tabs opened and the principal girl sang her song!

The panto came down at about 4.40pm and then the Brick Lane Company repaired to their dressing rooms to apply more make up, and headed off “Up West!” This will be our first time sitting around a table since rehearsals!

Sadly “Mine Host” Vincent didn’t join us, as he has a streaming cold, and no-one wants to sit next to him! He is awash with tissues, and a night in with a blanket and a beechams might sort it out!

In a City of nine million, in a jam packed underground train at rush hour I still managed to see my Brother Vivyan strap hanging in the crush on the circle line. Just like a village London really! He’s off to the Palace Theatre to see a show tonight.

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The Brick Lane party commenced in Leicester Square- very apt really, as this is the part of London where the two main Music Halls were to be found from the Victorian era right through to the Variety Days of the 1930’s. More of that later!

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For now we ascended to the hights of “The Penthouse” in Leicester   Square and enjoyed the delights of “Two For One” cocktail hours with the most amazing views over Leicester   Square, The Odeon Cinema, Big Ben and the London Eye. Never knew this place existed- a great place to watch the big Film Premiers I’d imagine- and the New Year’s Eve fireworks! The “How many Panto People can you cram in a lift” record was I think broken. Fortunately the lift wasn’t!

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Life at the top! The Penthouse, Leicester Square.

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Cocktail hour over, a short promenade led by Mr Paul James to Old Compton Street  where we met up with Zara, Natalie and Michael, joining them at the Amalfi Restaurant. Great food, jolly company and and a lovely evening! Lauren and I left for the tube, as did Rusty- I think the others were heading off for the Cabaret delights of “Molly Mogs” bar on the Charing   Cross Road. I’ll find out more on Saturday I’m sure- we have the next two days off!

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Leicester Square- The photograph I took of Rusty looking over the newly refurbished square (it had become a bit of a dump to be honest) shows him appropriately  in front of the tall 1930’s OdeonCinemaTower. He’s been in a good few films over the years- “Willie Wonka” being just one of them.

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That tall Odeon building, scene of many premiers was built in the late ‘30’s to replace the huge AlhambraMusic Hall that reigned over this London square. In its day Leicester Square was the site of the major “Halls”, with the Hippodrome and Daley’s theatres very close by.

My brother Vivyan’s website has a lot of information on London’s Theatres and Music Halls. Here is a small article I’ve purloined from his site- with his permission. It’s a piece about the Alhambra and the Empire Theatres – the home of Music Hall in Leicester Square. Enjoy!

Alhambra Rebuilt 1883

ALHAMBRA, Leicester Square

1854    Opened as Royal Panopticon of Science & Art

1856    Closed

1858    Re-opened with a circus ring

1860    Re-named the AlhambraPalaceMusic Hall

1881    Altered and refitted as Alhambra Theatre

1882    Burnt down

1883    Rebuilt as  Alhambra Theatre Royal

1892    Reconstructed:   New entrance and some rebuilding

Taken over by ABC Cinemas, mainly used for films

1931    Taken over by Stoll. Returned to variety use

1936    Closed and demolished:         Odeon , Leicester   Square built on the site

Alhambra 1860 Exterior

The Alhambra Opened in 1854 as an exhibition centre called the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art, holding 5,000 people. It lasted just two years, and it took a further two years before the legal arguments were settled and the site could re-open as the Great United States Circus. The Circus closed in 1858.

In 1860 a stage was built in order for it to be used as a music hall.  From then on this was one of London’s most celebrated music halls with seating for 3,500 people. In 1861 it saw the first appearance of the acrobat Leotard. He was the original muse for the song “The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze”, and gave his name to the garment worn by all dancers !. Later it was the first theatre in England to feature the can-can (which caused a temporary loss of its licence).

On 7 December 1882 the building was burnt to the ground. Just under a year later  -on 3 December 1883-  the new Alhambra Theatre Royal opened its doors.  This new venue aimed to be a little more “respectable” than its predecessor.  Over the next years it underwent a series of redecorations and reconstructions, and it became known for the quality and beauty of its dancing girls as well as the excellence of its productions. From 1911 it staged revues, and in 1916 George Robey and Violet Loraine starred in the hugely successful “The Bing Boys Are Here”.  Later it was used by  Diaghilev’s ballet company and in 1934 it even staged Shakespeare.

In its heyday, a typical Variety bill would start just before 8pm, and the programme would last over three hours.  It would contain two spectacular ballets (for which the Alhambra was famous) each lasting around half an hour, plus a twenty minute “bioscope” show and eight or nine variety acts, varying from performing monkeys to trapeze artistes.

In 1929 the Alhambra was bought by ABC Cinemas and became the leading “talking picture” cinema in London. For around two years it was used exclusively as a cinema with no live shows. In 1931 it came under the control of Oswald Stoll and reverted to variety.  But variety was no longer a draw. In  September 1936 the theatre was sold to Oscar Deutsch of the Odeon Cinema group. The Alhambra finally closed.  Ironically the last use of the stage was for the live theatre sequence in a film called “Men Are Not Gods”.    In November 1936 the Alhambra was demolished.

The site, together with some adjoining buildings formerly used as Turkish baths, became an Odeon Cinema, the flagship of the company.   The Odeon, Leicester Square, opened on November 2nd, 1927 with 2,116 seats.  It cost £232,755.  It has some limited stage facilities and occasionally presents variety acts and live shows as preludes and interludes in its film programmes. The Odeon still has its cinema organ which is played at many performances by the sole remaining resident cinema organist in the UK.

A Night at the Alhambra

Alhambra Prog 1902

 In its great variety days a typical evening at the Alhambra could offer everything from performing monkeys to spectacular ballet.  The performance started at 7.55 and ended around 11.30pm..  A bill from Monday 1st September, 1902 offered:

Acrobats – The Phoenix Trio

Singer – Miss Mary Desmond

A 25 minute ballet – “In Japan”

Comedian – Joe O’Gorman

10 minute orchestral selection from The Mikado (Interval?)

Krasucksi’s Performing monkeys

Bioscope Film show of the Coronation

A billiard act (?)

A bell-ringing act

Spanish dancer – La Belle Guerrero

A 45 minute Ballet – “Britannia’s Realm”

A banjo act – Polk & Collins

A trapeze act – Mlle Alice on the revolving trapexe

You most certainly got your money’s worth!

Empire Exterior 1895

EMPIRE THEATRE, Leicester   Square

 Opened as the Saville House of Entertainment   on a site used since 1809 for exhibitions and concerts.

1863    Renamed the CriterionMusic Hall

1864    Renamed the ImperialMusic Hall

1865    Destroyed by fire.

1881       New building opened as the Royal London Panorama.

1884    Opened as the Empire Theatre

1887    Renamed the Empire Theatre of Varieties

1893    New entrance and some building

1898    Reverted to name Empire Theatre

1927    Closed and demolished

1928    Re-opened as Empire Cinema

Closed for conversion

1963      Re-opened as cinema and Empire Ballroom

Empire auditorium 1884-1928

The Empire Theatre

In 1884 the Empire Theatre opened with a spectacular production of the comic opera “Chilperic”.  This was followed by similar lavish shows—”The Forty Thieves” and a magnificent version of “Round the World in Eighty Days”. However, these were proving too costly, and by 1887 the policy (and name) had changed to a Theatre of Varieties.


Through the Boer Wars and even the Great War it became the traditional haunt for soldiers on leave, and claimed to be the meeting place for Britons from all over the world and the most cosmopolitan club in the British Empire. The Empire became the centre of much controversy in 1894 when two visiting Americans complained they had been solicited by prostitutes in the theatre’s Promenade Bar.  They reported their shock and outrage to Mrs Ormiston Chant, the leading campaigner against vice, and she decided to take a look for herself.

She compiled a report for the London County Council, detailing the large number of prostitutes in the theatre, and complaining of the scantily-clad and provocative nature of the ballets on stage. She led a campaign to oppose the renewal of the Empire’s licence. Various newspapers took up the story, with the Daily Telegraph urging its readers to oppose the “Prudes on the Prowl”, and soon Mrs Ormiston Chant became a figure of fun.

However, the London County Council decided to impose some restrictions on the Empire. It ordered a screen to be erected between the promenade and the back rows of the dress and the upper circles, and banned the consumption of drink from the auditorium.  Despite his objections about loss of profits, the manager, George Edwardes, had no option but to erect such a screen.  The Empire was closed for a few days to enable a wood and canvas screen to be built. On the night it re-opened,  a crowd of gentlemen began to attack the new screen.

The crowd included well-dressed young aristocrats and even the young politician, Winston Churchill. The screen was demolished and pieces of it were handed to the audience to take home as souvenirs. The LCC immediately required the screen to be rebuilt in brick.

Empire Promenade by Will Owen  Empire Prog

During the First World War years revue proved to be very popular, and after 1918 the Empire reverted to use as a theatre, Sybil Thorndike, Fred and Adele Astaire were just a few of the major stars who appeared here.. In 1927 it closed, was demolished, and completely rebuilt as the Empire Cinema.

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