Formerly - The Royal Panopticon of Science and Art / The Alhambra Theatre
Above - The Odeon Leicester Square in April 2014. The Cinema was built on the site of the former Alhambra Theatre and Royal Panopticon of Science and Art - Photo M. L.
The Odeon, Leicester Square was constructed on the site of the former Alhambra Theatre and opened on the 2nd of November 1937 with the film 'The Prisoner of Zenda.' The Cinema was designed by Harry Weedon and Andrew Mather and is today Britain's largest single Screen Cinema, although it does also include a multiplex with five smaller screens in an attached building. A good article on the Odeon Cinema can be read here, and the Cinema's own website can be found here.
The first building of entertainment on the site of the present Odeon however, was the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art, which opened on the 18th of March 1854 and closed just two years later in 1856. The building was then converted into the Alhambra Palace, and a Circus Ring was installed, opening on the 3rd of April 1858.
With a new license in 1871 the Theatre was able to produce Drama and reopened on the 24th of April that year as the Royal Alhambra Palace of Varieties. Many changes of name followed, the first being the Royal Alhambra Theatre on the 20th of May 1872. Other names were the Royal Alhambra Palace, the Alhambra Theatre, the Alhambra Theatre Royal, and the Theatre Royal Alhambra. The Theatre was further altered in 1881 and reopened on the 3rd of December that year as the Alhambra Theatre. This Theatre was destroyed by fire on the 7th of December 1882.
Left - The Odeon Leicester Square, decked out in a temporary red facade in April 2009.
After a complete rebuild a new Theatre opened in its place on the 3rd of December 1883 as the Alhambra Theatre Royal with a production of 'The Golden Ring.' The following year the building was renamed the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties and reopened as a Music Hall on the 18th of October 1884. A second entrance was built for the Theatre in Charing Cross Road in 1897.
Right - A Testimonial Matinee for Charles Morton at the Alhambra Theatre in March 1891 with Arthur Lloyd and all the big Music Hall Names of the day on the Bill - Click to see entire programme enlarged.
The Alhambra Theatre finally closed its doors for the last time on the 1st of September 1936 and was subsequently demolished. A new Cinema with stage facilities, the Odeon, Leicester Square, arose in its place and opened on the 2nd of November 1937 with the film 'The Prisoner of Zenda.'
More detailed information on all the various buildings on the site of the present Odeon, Leicester Square, in chronological order, follows:
Text from 'The Builder' Volume 9, December 1851, page 802
Above - The Panopticon: Predecessor of the Alhambra - From 'Fifty years of a Londoner's Life' by H. G. Hibbert, Published in 1916 - Courtesy Alfred Mason.
The space on the east side of Leicester Square, long vacant, is now being covered with a building, as our readers have already heard, for the Panopticon of Science and Art, and in our present number we give a view and plan of the intended structure.
Above - Plan of the Panopticon - From 'The Builder' Vol 9, December 1851
The objects which it is the intention of the council of this institution to carry out are principally the promotion of science and the useful arts, by the means of popular lectures, and the illustration of history and literature by pictorial views and representations, to be accompanied by music. In addition, however to these attractions, the Panopticon, it is said, is to afford the opportunity of observing, in all their varied ramifications, the industrial and mechanical arts, from the first state of the raw material up to the most highly-finished stage of perfection. The council propose to secure in all respects the most efficient auxiliaries, both as regard music and science; and the orchestral instrument which is now in process of construction by Messrs. Wm. Hill and Co., will. it is stated, be second to none in the metropolis, while the scientific apparatus will embrace among other novelties, a stupendous electrical machine, with a glut plate of 10 feet diameter, which it is proposed to work by means of a steam engine.
Right - Another article on the proposed Panopticon - From 'The Builder' Vol 8, 1850
An important feature in the intended arrangements of the Institution is a plan whereby a great impediment to the success of Mechanics' Institutes, particularly in the country, may be removed: it has been found that the funds of such societies are seldom sufficient to procure the requisite apparatus for the illustration of their lectures, which are consequently divested of much of their interest, and in order to obviate this difficulty the council of the Panopticon propose to form a large collection of apparatus, suitable for lectures in every branch of natural and experimental science, which will be lent out on hire upon moderate terms.
It is proposed to have two daily exhibitions, one in the morning devoted more especially to scientific information and research, while the evening entertainments will partake of a lighter and more amusing character.
The plan of the building, which was designed and is being carried out by Messrs. Finden and Lewis, comprehends a grand central hall, 97 feet diameter, domed over for the exhibitions of machinery, manufactures, works of art &c., and for exhibitions of various descriptions. There will be a lecture room, laboratory, &c. All the buildings are designed in the Saracenic style, after models and details, chiefly from the existing remains at Cairo. The contour of the dome is taken from a daguerreotype of a dome at Cairo. It will he formed of glue and iron on the ridge and furrow principle. The facade will he formed in cement.
The above text was first published in the Builder - Volume 9 - December 1851.
See also: Ernest Woodrow on the Alhambra Theatre
Above - An early Postcard showing the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square
...The site has played a crucial part in the history of public entertainment in London, having been occupied in turn by the Royal Panopticon and the Alhambra (a conversion of the Panopticon) in a series of guises, as the Alhambra Circus, Alhambra Palace Music Hall, etc., rivaling the Empire as a variety palace and, for a time, a home for the otherwise neglected art of the ballet.
Right -An Early 1900s Postcard for the Alhambra Theatre.
The Odeon which replaced the Alhambra in 1937, does not at once spring to mind as a theatre, but it was, in fact, built with a big stage. In some ways, its history has been an architectural tragedy. The striking black granit exterior with its 36.5m (120ft) high cubist tower has had some minor alterations, but the interior was all but destroyed in 1967.
The above text is reproduced with kind permission of The Theatres Trust from their indispensable book - 'The Theatres Trust Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950' John Earl & Michael Sell. Available from the publishers, A&C Black (tel 01480 212666).
Above - An Early 20th century postcard of Leicester Square showing the Empire Theatre (top left) and the Alhambra Theatre (far right).
Above - A Postcard showing the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square and also to the left the Empire Theatre.
The Alhambra by Charles Dickens's (Jr.) - From Dickens' Dictionary of London, 1879
Right - Click for a review from Punch for the Alhambra Theatre in Jan 1873
Comic operas of the broader type are here given in English, the low comedy element being usually developed to the utmost extent. The specialty of the performance, however, is ballet and spectacle, in the mounting of which no expense is spared. The band is large and good. The house is spacious.
Left - Alhambra Programme for 1873. The cast includes Kate Santley and Rose Bell who were to have an extraordinary falling out in 1874 while appearing at the Alhambra - Courtesy Leon A. Perdoni. - Click to see entire programme.
All the best portion of the floor is allotted to stalls, which occupy a square space from the orchestra very nearly to the line of the boxes; the pit, which is not much more than a promenade, skirting it-on the three sides; an entrance being obtained through a recently constructed passage which passes along the right hand side of the promenade from the private box entrance.
The pit and promenade run back under the box tiers, the lowest of which is occupied entirely with private boxes, having a separate entrance in the extreme southern corner of the façade. Above these comes the dress circle, which communicates with the large refreshment saloon, in which smoking is allowed.
NEAREST Railway Stations, Charing Cross (Dist. & S.E.); Omnibus Routes, Regent-street, Piccadilly, St. Martin’s-lane, Strand.
Right - An original fan from the Alhambra Theatre given away free to members of the audience. Click to enlarge.
The above text is from Charles Dickens's (Jr.), Dickens' Dictionary of London, 1879
Left - A Testimonial Matinee for Charles Morton at the Alhambra Theatre in March 1891 with Arthur Lloyd and all the big Music Hall Names of the day on the Bill - Click to see entire programme enlarged.
Above - A Postcard showing the Alhambra Theatre Leicester
Above - The Alhambra Theatre Auditorium from the Illustrated London News April 24th 1858
Above - Front cover and first page from a Programme
for 'Paquita' at the Alhambra Theatre October 12th 1908
showing both the Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road frontages of
the Alhambra Theatre
Above - The Charing Cross Road Entrance to the Alhambra - From The Building News and Engineering Journal of October 30th 1896. The accompanying text reads:- 'This building, now being erected in the Charing Cross-road, will shortly be completed. The ground floor will be used as entrances to the boxes and reserved fauteuils to the Alhambra Theatre, with additional scene-dock and stage entrance. The upper floors are reserved as boardroom and offices of the company. The style chosen by the directors is to harmonise with the present interior. The works are being carried out by Mr. Holloway, of Deptford, general contractor. Doulting stone is being used for the front. The whole of the works are being carried out under the personal superintendence of the architect, Mr. W. M. Brutton, 171, Queen Victoria-street. It is intended to shortly publish the interior designs for decorations to the corridor, vestibule, board-room, &c.'
Above - Howes and Cushing's American Circus at the Alhambra - From 'Fifty years of a Londoner's Life' by H. G. Hibbert, Published in 1916 - Courtesy Alfred Mason.
Above - A slide show created by Jaap van Rossum for Annet Duller and Charles Barten who have very kindly had it made from the original slides and sent to me for inclusion on the site. Annett Duller says 'For a long time I have performed magic lantern shows. As a researcher for Filmmuseum Amsterdam many a slide has passed my hands during the years. In a wide range of slides are sets designed to dissolve into each other with a double or sometimes a triple lantern. One of my very first slides was a number three of such a dissolve set. It was scenery of a building just burned down with a few firemen making the last preparations to leave the scene. This slide is of an outstanding quality and therefore it was a pity to have no references about the background of this scene. I supposed there was one, in a diversity of subjects a good fire was rather captivating to the public. So I treasured this slide for about thirty years and than a very rare occasion happened, I found numbers one and two, in collection of a gentleman who was so kind as to hand the slides over to me, complete with the title: ALHAMBRA in fire. A small step on your supersite led to the complete indication of story and location, which is unbelievable as you might understand now! Slide one: people leaving the Alhambra; slide two: the big fire and firemen activity; slide three; last movements in front of what is left of the Alhambra.'
The Alhambra Theatre - From George Augustus Sala's 'Living London 1882'.
'LONDON. The Alhambra Theatre destroyed by fire. No victims.’ That was the startling announcement which I read in the telegraphic intelligence of the Fanfulla. But, respected Fanfulla, many scores of’ victims’ must necessarily be made through the burning down of the great theatre in Leicester Square. It is towards Christmas-time that ‘ the ants behind the baize’ are most laboriously busy. Scene-painters and scene-shifters, stage carpenters and property men, supernumeraries, ballet-girls, and ‘extras’ are all toiling and moilng night and day, with the intent of diverting you and your children at Christmas-time; and all for a little bit of bread. The burning down of a great theatre means not only the throwing out of employment of a great tribe of industrious and harmless folk, but the destruction of workmen’s tools and the dresses of poor young women, and the spreading far and wide of misery and destitution.
Right - The charing Cross Road entrance to the Alhambra Theatre.
But there is no calling more thoroughly
and spontaneously charitable than the theatrical one; and if there are
any victims in purse through the burning of the Alhambra, they will
be helped at once, I hope and believe.
I mind it as a circus, under the lesseeship of the late indefatigable E. T. Smith, and as an arena for Mr. Rarey’s exhibition of horse-taming every stage in which process is represented on a repousse vase more than two thousand years old, found in the tomb of one of the ancient Scythian kings, which is now in the Kertch Museum of the Palace of the Hermitage at St. Petersburg.
Left - A 1960s Office Building, Alhambra House, stands where the Alhambra Theatre's charing Cross road entrance once was. Photo M.L.
And I think that I once attended a revivalist service at the Alhambra. Its career as a Music Hall, and its disestablishment as such at the hands of the Middlesex magistrates, are matters of more recent history. - George Augustus Sala 'Living London 1882'.
Above - Programme for 'Ballets De Monte-Carlo' including 'Le Lac des Cynges', 'Carnaval', 'Aubade' and 'Prince Igor"' at the Alhambra Theatre for the week of June the 8th to the 13th, 1936. - Courtesy Dominic Holzapfel.
The Alhambra Theatre - From 'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908.
The Royal Panopticon was intended to serve as an institute for scientific exhibitions and for promoting discoveries in the arts and manufacturing. When built on the east side of Leicester Square in the early 1850s, the Panopticon had a frontage of 104 feet with a Moorish style out of character with the neighborhood. The facility was opened in 1854, had limited financial success, and was sold in 1857 for conversion to the Alhambra Music Hall.
No place of amusement has passed through so many convulsions as the edifice now known as the Alhambra. Erected in the sixties, it began life as a species of polytechnic, where it was hoped that the instruction afforded by the contemplation of two electric batteries and a diving bell, in conjunction with the exhilarating air of the neighborhood, would attract sufficient audiences to meet rent and expenses; but the venture not having fulfilled the expectations of its youth, its portals were closed,and it next came into prominence during the Franco-German war.
Here "patriotic songs" were the piece de resistance, and towards 11 o'clock a dense throng waved flags and cheered and hooted indiscriminately the "Marseillaise," the "Wacht am Rhein" and everything and everybody. Jones, calmly smoking, would, without the slightest provocation, assault Brown, who was similarly innocently occupied, and who in turn resented the polite distinction. Stand-up fights took place nightly, and as was anticipated, drew all London to the Alhambra towards 11 o'clock.
These indiscriminate nightly riots attracted, as may be assumed, all the bullies and sharpers in London, amongst whom stands prominently the "Kangaroo", a gigantic black, who was known to everybody in the sixties. This ruffian, who was admittedly an expert pugilis, was the biggest coward that hovered round Piccadilly. No place was free from his unwelcome visits, and his ubiquity showed itself by his nightly appearance at the Pavilion, the Alhambra, the Cafe Riche, Barnes's, the "Pic", the Blue Posts, the Argyll, and Cremorne.
From such places as Evan's and Mott's he was absolutely barred, and the moral effect of the reception he would have received deterred him - in his wisdom - from making the attempt. His modus operandi was simplicity itself; seating himself at some inoffensive man's table, he helped himself to anything he might find within reach; if remonstrated with, he knocked the remonstrator down, and coolly walked out the room.
On other occasions he would demand money and if refused, applied the same remedy; if a party were seated at the Alhambra watching the performance, a black arm would suddenly appear over one's shoulder, and glass by glass was lifted and coolly drained. Occasionally he met his match, when, having pocketed his thrashing, he commenced afresh in an adjoining night-house.
Above text from - 'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908.
Above - Members of the demolition crew standing on what was left of the stage of the Alhambra Theatre during the Theatre's dismantling in 1936 - Courtesy Andrea Taylor (nee Fellows) whose grandfather George Fellows is shown in the photograph and would later become the subject of a scandal involving a bracelet found on the site, more on this below.
The Alhambra Theatre closed its doors for the last time on the 1st of September 1936 and was subsequently demolished. A new Cinema with stage facilities, the Odeon, Leicester Square, was built on the site, and opened on the 2nd of November 1937 with the film 'The Prisoner of Zenda.'
During the demolition of the Alhambra Theatre one of the demolition crew found a gold and platinum bracelet under the floor of the circle of the Theatre. George Fellows, who was 34 at the time, and Harry Chandler, 29, were subsequently charged with stealing the bracelet after they had shown it to a jeweler.
Above - Harry Chandler and George Fellows - Courtesy Andrea Taylor (nee Fellows) whose grandfather was George Fellows.
The case went to court and Fellows said that he had found the bracelet and given it to his baby as it didn't seem to have been of much value, but later decided to show it to a jeweler who subsequently phoned the police. The men were charged at Kilburn Police Station and kept in custody for 8 hours. The case was eventually thrown out of Wilsdon Court and the men were acquitted because it was said that they couldn't reasonably have known who the original owner of the bracelet had been, or indeed have any way of finding them. The police had returned the bracelet to Fellows after no one had come forward to claim it after three months and Fellows had then sold it for £7. Someone who claimed to be the bracelet's original owner contacted the police after seeing a report of the first hearing, saying he had lost it at the Theatre some years earlier but by this time the bracelet was long gone and has never been seen since although someone probably still owns it to this day and has no idea of its history.
The above information was gleaned from newspaper reports and details kindly sent in my George Fellows' Granddaughter Andrea Taylor.
Right - Demolition of the Alhambra Theatre in 1936 and the Odeon Cinema's construction in 1937 - From the archives of the Cinema Theatre Association.
Above - The Charing Cross Road Entrance of the Alhambra Theatre in 1936 - Note the Hudson's Demolition sign - From the archives of the Cinema Theatre Association.
Above - The Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, during its demolition in 1936 - From the archives of the Cinema Theatre Association.
Above - The Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, during its demolition in 1936 - From the archives of the Cinema Theatre Association.
Above - The Odeon Leicester Square in December 2008, the Cinema was built on the site of the former Alhambra Theatre and Royal Panopticon of Science and Art - Photo M.L.
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