The very first pantomime staged at the Alhambra Theatre, which celebrates its centenary in 2014, was the now rarely performed Mother Goose in 1930/31. This was the 29th of 250 pantos that the proprietor of the venue, Francis Laidler produced, and it was the first one to be performed at the Alhambra, the name of which has since become synonymous with pantomime.
Francis Laidler was known as 'The King of Panto' and started the charming tradition of using Sunbeams (the juvenile dance troupe) in his pantomimes in 1917 at the Prince's Theatre in Bradford. It wasn't officially until 1930/31 that the Sunbeams came to the Alhambra, when Laidler switched his pantos to this venue. He even toured his Sunbeam troupes into Theatre Royal Leeds (which he also ran having taken over the lease in 1909). The Sunbeam tradition still flourishes today.
For half a century, Francis Laidler delivered panto after panto in his Bradford venues, as well as venues in Leeds, Keighley and London. His last Alhambra panto was Red Riding Hood, which opened on 27 December 1954. Sadly, just a few days after its opening, on 6 January 1955, Laidler passed away, just one day before his 88th birthday. In true showbiz style his widow Mrs Gwladys Stanley Laidler announced that the show must go on.
A plaque in memory of Francis Laidler was unveiled in 1956 by Mrs Gwladys Laidler, Norman Evans, Val Parnell, Alderman White and the Lady Mayoress of Bradford, Mrs R C Ruth. It reads 'A tribute to the King of Pantomime, Francis Laidler, A Philanthropist who loved to make children happy'. It once sat in the main foyer and now resides in the Laidler Room at the Alhambra Theatre.
The hallmark of Francis Laidler's pantomimes was colour and spectacle, but upon taking over after his death, Gwladys streamlined panto and 'took out the horror' and rewrote scripts herself, saying "I'm trying to make them topical, bright and free from time-worn gags. The aim is to make each pantomime one long laugh." (The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, May 1955)
Fast forward to 2014 and Qdos Entertainment are set to present Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, a title which only relatively recently made its debut on the Alhambra Theatre's panto title roster in 2001/2, starring a familiar face to current pantomime audiences, Billy Pearce. Interestingly this was Qdos's first presentation of pantomime at the Alhambra, but not Billy's debut. He was already on his 4th visit of the 15 he has made to the Alhambra in pantomime, with this year's being his 16th season.
Now 13 years on, Qdos Entertainment is the world's biggest pantomime producer, and was the company behind the hugely-successful production of Aladdin last Christmas at the Alhambra Theatre. Qdos Entertainment has built a reputation for bringing awe-inspiring special effects to the Bradford stage which have in recent years included a motorbike flying out over the heads of the audience and Aladdin taking a spectacular flying carpet ride out into the auditorium!
Michael Harrison, managing director of Qdos Entertainment's pantomimes division says:
"We're delighted that Billy Pearce will once again be leading the cast of the Alhambra's pantomime. Billy is a fantastic comedian who manages to capture the imagination of children and adults alike. We'll also be developing a script which celebrates the sensational singing talent of Joe McElderry, who will be offering the Wicked Queen some wise words of advice from aboard a giant flying mirror."
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is on sale now. The production runs from Saturday 13 December 2014 to Sunday 25 January 2015.