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Theatres and Cinemas of Stourbridge, 1752 - 1952

4- Seventy years ago Stourbridge’s wooden theatre took its final curtain call

High up on the side of a derelict house, just off Stourbridge High Street in faded hand painted lettering, is the legend “Alhambra theatre”. Beneath a disembodied hand points across the yardway which links High Street with St John’s Road. The sign, almost invisible to the passer-by, is the last ghostly remnant of what was probably the last wooden theatre in Britain. It indicates the site where the Alhambra once stood – an area now enclosed by the original Stourbridge Post Office. Towards the end of its life the building, constructed entirely of pine, was in a poor state of repair and in the spring of 1929 it was condemned. The last proprietor, George Ray, had enthusiastic plans to build a new playhouse. But cinemas were rapidly ousting theatres as centres of popular entertainment and the finances for the project never became available. The Alhambra closed its doors and was demolished some three years later.
The early history of the Alhambra is vague. It was probably the third permanent theatre to be established in Stourbridge. It was built in an area to the rear of the old Coach and Horses Inn, known as Barlow’s Yard. Various travelling entertainers came to Stourbridge to set up their tents and they chose several sites, usually in the vicinity of public houses. During the early nineteenth century Barlow’s Yard, within comfortable distance of the Coach and Horses, became a favourite site for travelling showmen and there is evidence that an establishment, known as the Theatre Royal was based there. It is unlikely however, that this was a permanent building. It might have been a marqueeor could have been based on an old barn or similar outbuilding. The Alhambra was built, probably in the 1880’s by Bennett and Patch who previously had set up their travelling theatre in Barlow’s Yard.

After the death of her husband the theatre was managed by Mrs Eliza Patch who, by all accounts, was a great character. When she died the Alhambra came into the hands of Douglas Phelps, an actor of considerable experience who set about managing the playhouse with skill and success. During the early part of the 20th century moving pictures began to make an impact on small local theatres and in an attempt to fend off competition a projector was installed in the Alhambra. But during the last few years of its life, under the proprietorship of George Ray, the theatre went back to providing live entertainment and it became a centre for music hall and variety.
Technically the Alhambra had several faults. The back stage accommodation was sparse and entertainers often complained about the noise from the trains on the nearby railway line. But it had a charm and character all of its own. Stourbridge actor Chris Gittins recalled, in a lecture on local theatres: “It was always a joy to play in, for the tiniest whisper could be heard everywhere. With its low ceiling covered with painted canvas and the long horseshoe gallery which terminated only a few feet above the stage, it was an intimate place.”
A number of entertainers who were later to go on to greater things trod the boards at the Alhambra – including the Lye born actor, Sir Cedric Hardwick and singer Gracie Fields.

Last days of the Alhambra
The last days of the Alhambra are still vividly remembered by Mrs Eileen Cooke, of Poplar Road, Norton. Her father the late George Ray maintained entertainment at the theatre for about six years until it closed its doors in the Spring of 1929. Although she was a young schoolgirl at the time she had a close interest in the theatre and often, in her spare time, helped to book tickets and to do other jobs associated with the business. She met many of the artistes who played the theatre – often they stayed at the family home – and she kept a brief critical record of shows booked by her father. Today (1980) she has a collection of documents including financial records, which give an insight into the workings of the Alhambra in the 1920’s. Her father was a man who used his business acumen in several ways. At one time he ran a furniture removal business (later continued by Harold Jay Ltd) at Norton. He sold this firm and moved with his family into the big old house at 7 Lower High Street – which he named Sandford. (Later it became the offices of the local water board). It was at this time that the Alhambra came into his possession.

A dramatic licence was not available to the theatre in 1923. George Ray continued to show films, a practice introduced during earlier years and to put on “turns” between the reels. Subsequently, the films were phased out and full emphasis was placed on live entertainment. Revues, concert parties, circuses, road shows and the like became regular fare at the Alhambra, which, for a capacity house, could seat just over one thousand.
The procedure generally adopted at this time was for the entertainers to take fifty five per cent of the takings and the management take the forty five per cent – out of which tax and a regular wage bill of perhaps £21 had to be found. Sometimes the more famous entertainers demanded a guarantee fee. Business at the Alhambra waxed and waned from marvellous to downright terrible. One of the best weeks on record was at Christmas 1926 when takings totalled £275. One bad week only £39 was taken.

There was no guaranteeing how Stourbridge audiences would react but for a top-line entertainer they would normally turn out in their hundreds. When the great illusionist and hypnotist, Dr Walford Brodie, held the stage for a week, £190 was taken. Mrs Cooke has happy recollections of the friendly and colourful people who were associated with the Alhambra. The stage manager was Frank Squires and Mr Alf Homer looked after the paybox.

The orchestra included Sidney Heathcock (lead violin), Miss Lavender (second violin), Charles Heathcock (clarinet and saxophone), Leslie Heathcock (drums), Mr Foley (Cello), Tommy Warren (piccolo and flute), Mrs Hill (piano). A well known figure, particularly to the patrons, was the barker Charlie Carless, a man of military bearing and stentorian voice who, resplendent in blue uniform and peaked cap, would stand outside the theatre yelling such invitations as “Early doors this way”. Regular customers also came to know Tiny Timmins who sold oranges outside the theatre at a halfpenny each. His cry was “oranges like wine...”

Mrs Cooke tells a number of fascinating stories about events at the Alhambra, she recalls that one show featured a knockabout act during which the comedian had his baggy trousers ripped off. Normally all the audience saw was a pair of coloured trunks disappearing into the wings. But one evening by mischance, the poor man forgot to put on his trunks and when he lost his pants the audience saw far more than they bargained for. George Ray was worried in case news of the unwitting exposure reached the stern ears of the licensing justices but luckily the audience laughed off their embarrassment. One of the shows which appeared at the Alhambra in 1925 was a sort of dramatic rodeo entitled “Cattle Thief”. One of the stars was Madge Clifton, a buxom, imposing woman, wife of one of the entertainers, who liked her little drop of drink. Later the Ray family were shocked to hear that she had been murdered – somewhere in West Africa. The culprit, a Dr Knowles, was sentenced to death but for some reason he was returned to Britain and was acquitted.

When the theatre was finally forced to close, in the face of increased competition from cinemas, it was a sad day for the Ray family. Mrs Cooke says: “I thought it was a dreadful shame. For me, as a schoolgirl, it was a wonderful, exciting life. I was sorry when it all ended”. Main page >>>

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