If the all-star cast wasn’t enough, the production is also packed with an ensemble cast of performers and dancers, a live band and the traditional juvenile dance troupe, The Sunbeams, who appear on stage courtesy of Sara Packham’s Theatre School based in Cullingworth, Keighley. The Sunbeam tradition was started 100 years ago (in 1917) and still continues today.
The Alhambra Theatre’s name is synonymous with pantomime. Francis Laidler, who built the Alhambra Theatre over 100 years ago, was known as the King of Panto and for half a century, he delivered panto after panto in his Bradford venues, as well as venues in Leeds, Keighley, Manchester, Bristol and London.
Laidler started the charming tradition of using Sunbeams in his pantomimes in 1917 at the Prince’s Theatre in Bradford, which he was also running at the time. This first pantomime including The Sunbeams was Robin Hood starring Lily Vine, Winnie Goodwin, Fred Walmsley, May Sherrard and Adrian Ross. He even toured his Sunbeam troupes into Theatre Royal Leeds (which he also ran having taken over the lease in 1909).
It wasn’t officially until 1930/31 that The Sunbeams came to the Alhambra Theatre, when Laidler switched his pantos to this venue. The first Alhambra Theatre pantomime was Mother Goose, starring Norah Blaney and George Lacy in 1930/31.
Mrs Minnie Baxter wrote to tell us about her “life as a Sunbeam in 1936” and said:
“I’m sure everyone will remember the advert that used to be in the Telegraph and Argus every year early September – Sunbeams wanted, must be over 12 years, under 4 foot 3 inches, girls only. A man was at the stage door with a measure so that did eliminate quite a few.”
The Sunbeams were Francis Laidler’s “ray of sunshine in the darkness of the war years”. The girls, with matching bobbed haircuts, were an instant hit with audiences. All recruited locally, they added high spirits to the Laidler pantos, often joining in with comic capers on stage. Laidler selected the Sunbeams from open auditions, and each girl had to meet strict height criteria and be “in perfect health, with evidence of six months regular school attendance”. He considered their welfare of paramount importance.
The Sunbeams who performed in venues outside of Bradford lived in a boarding house with an “aunty” or house mother to look after them, although parents were allowed to come every Sunday for a visit. The girls had a private teacher, but all their work had to go back to their school when they got home after the panto run. As well as free accommodation, food and pocket money, an amount was paid weekly into each girl's Post Office savings account and the book was handed to the girl's parents at the end of the pantomime's run. As Mrs Baxter recalled they were given “clothing (a uniform of sorts) including a green outdoor coat with a cap to match, a Sunday dress and school clothes and a red check cotton rehearsal dress.”
Laidler said: "The Sunbeams appearing in my last season's pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Leeds, attended my Leeds school with regular punctuality; in fact with almost full attendance. The Sunbeams in my Bradford pantomime attended their own schools in Bradford." Laidler added that during school term time the Sunbeams did not appear at every matinee, but only at one matinee a week plus the Saturday matinee.
In 2012, former Sunbeam Mrs Jane Wood visited the Alhambra Theatre to watch the pantomime and meet the Sunbeams performing that year. Mrs Wood recalled at that time she queued for hours to audition, aged 12, in the 1920s. She said Laidler ran a tight ship: “We were well cared for but he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. There was no talking in the wings, and we had to be out of the theatre by 10pm. We had our hair cut the same length, some of us played boys. Mr Laidler measured me for my costumes. They were lovely, my favourite was a headdress made of feathers and a pair of trousers with one leg shorter than the other.”
Sara Packham’s Theatre School in Keighley has provided Sunbeams for the Alhambra Theatre pantomimes for 14 years (not consecutively); the first Alhambra Theatre panto her students performed in was Aladdin starring Cannon & Ball in 2000. There are two teams of Sunbeams (each team has eight children) who will take it in turns to appear in a performance during the six week run of the panto this year.
Sara Packham comments:
"The tradition of the Sunbeams at the Alhambra Theatre pantomime is well-known to people in the local area. It's very rewarding to see the children from my Dance School performing to such a high standard, enjoying themselves on the Alhambra stage and maintaining this wonderful tradition.”
Sara continues:
“These days it’s not so strict on the height restrictions and we have both girls and boys in the Sunbeams. The children’s dance and performance skills are still expected to be of an extremely high calibre and there’s a rigorous audition process for them to be selected to appear in the Alhambra Theatre pantomime.”
This year’s panto is once again produced by Qdos Entertainment, the world’s biggest pantomime producer and the same team behind the annual Alhambra Theatre pantomime for nearly 20 years. Cinderella will be directed by Ed Curtis, returning for his seventh consecutive Alhambra Theatre pantomime, reuniting him with Billy Pearce.
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