Alhambra Theatre: 100 years of entertainment, from silent movies to stunning shows
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From theatre to cinema to bingo hall, and back again to a theatre, Fife’s biggest live venue is marking a colourful, ever changing centenary.
The Category-A listed building in Dunfermline has brought some of the biggest acts and shows to Fife which otherwise would have given the Kingdom a miss.
The rollcall of the big names which have graced the stage is lengthy enough to wrap itself around all 1200 seats in the auditorium.
From Kasabian blowing the electrics and pushing the grand old building to its very limits, to a record breaking run of gigs by Kevin Bridges, to the creation of a hugely popular family panto, the Alhambra has has thrived once more as a live venue after years of folk shouting ‘house’ during its bingo hall era.
It’s 15 years since it reverted back to being a theatre, now run by the Alhambra Trust. Among the centenary congratulations was a card from Carlton Bingo which once filled the venue nightly before decanting.
The sound of live performances echoing round its historic venue is also welcomed by the team at its helm after a two year pandemic enforced closure - 545 nights dark, said Bill Fletcher.
“We came back with a bang,” he said. “ We rescheduled all shows and it has gone well, but the Fringe has been a wake up call - we have to find new ways of engaging with people. That’s the challenge.”
Changing and adapting is something the Alhambra has done across the decades.
If the red brick walls of the venue could speak, they would have many tales to tell.
The theatre opened its doors for the first time on August 14, 1922 with a silent film called “Over The Hill.”
Its first theatrical performance was on 29 that year with a play called “A Little Bit of Fluff.”
By 1924 silent movies filled the seats, with only a handful of live shows and public meetings interrupting the hugely popular screenings - like many provincial towns, Dunfermline boasted a number of cinemas back then.
The Alhambra remained a cinema until 1965.
Bill recalled seeing Jason And The Argonauts, and 101 Dalmatians there as a kid - unaware it’d take over his life for 15 years.
His team now includes his son Simon and daughter Claire who oversee its programme and management.
“Fifteen years have just flown past” he said. “It’s great to see it back for its original use as a theatre after being a cinema and bingo hall.
“Continuous use for 100 years is also a rare event, and bingo was a huge part of that history - it played an important role keeping beautiful buildings like this going.
Those early years saw Gone With The Wind screened on a continuous loop to meet public demand, with audiences housed in a separate room waiting on the seats being emptied.
Scotland’s great stars have all graced the stage - everyone from The One O’Clock gang to Jimmy Logan, and Jimmy Shand - while August 11, 1928,saw the venue host a ceremony which granted the Freedom of Dunfermline to the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
The last bingo cards were daubed back in 2006 when Carlton Bingo moved to Fife Leisure Park, and a campaign to save the Alhambra saw its revert to its theatrical roots in 2008 with Nazareth playing the opening gig followed by fellow Fifer KT Tunstall.
Since then it has hosted everyone from Jimmy Carr to Alan Carr on the comedy circuit, plus opera, ballet, and a host of great bands whose signed tour posters adorn the walls around the building.
“It opened with big ambitions. The Alhambra wanted to bring the very best entertainment that it could to town,” said Bill.
That ethos remains to this day.
The Alhambra has witnessed many memorable nights, including gigs by Snow Patrol, and The Proclaimers, as well as catching Scottish band Biffy Clyro has they broke through.
But if you ask Bill and Simon to pick one highlight, they both opt for Blood Brothers.
“It was the first time we’d brought a West |End touring show to Fife. It was a huge London show and a with a great cast - and the performances were fantastic
“The atmosphere was incredible. The actors loved it. It was very special.”
Filling the schedules with the best shows possible remains the aim as the theatre looks ahead to 2023 and beyond.
Investment has also gone into its fabric with new seats, a stage rig, lighting, and now Fife artist Celie Byrne has started work on murals on the ceiling of the historic foyer which will represent the first century of its life
Said Bill: “We’re one of only three privately owned theatres in Scotland. We have formed an alliance with the Tivoli in Aberdeen and the Gaiety in Ayr that gives us a voice which we didn’t have before, and that has been vey encouraging.
“We are the number one touring house and we choose carefully which shows we put on.
“Who is theatre for? Everyone.
“We can’t open every night - that would be unsustainable - so we have to choose a real mix of shows and events as well as keeping strong links with amateur theatre companies and dance schools.
“The theatre is a physical point in a lot of people’s lives and that has been so heartening over the last 15 years.”
And that remit also includes its annual panto.
“We’re a receiving house where shows come to us and then move on. For six weeks in panto we’re producers as well.
“People who first came as children are now bringing their children along, and we want to get back to filling 25,000 seats again after lockdown.”
The three ghosts rumoured to haunt the Alhambra have had the best seats for a century ...