The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham Overview
The Alexandra was built in 1901 by William Coutts at a cost of £10,000 and was originally called the Lyceum. Its opening production was a play entitled The Workman, which ran from 27th May 1901, with tickets ranging in price from two shillings to four (old) pence. Unfortunately, insufficient public support resulted in the theatre being offered for sale just over a year later. The sale attracted no great interest, and the Lyceum was bought by Lester Collingwood for just £4,450.
Collingwood was a flamboyant personality who sported a magnificent moustache. He had extensive theatre experience and was particularly associated with the melodrama When London Sleeps, in which he toured for some time, playing the role of the villain. Many theatres at the time had a royal connection, and Collingwood bowed to tradition by renaming the theatre to honour Queen Alexandra.
The Alexandra opened in 1902 with a melodrama called The Fatal Wedding. Public taste greatly favoured this genre of entertainment, and the new manager quickly established his personality within Birmingham, such that the venue was soon tagged ‘The People’s Theatre’. Collingwood also initiated the Alexandra’s panto tradition, beginning with Aladdin, which ran for eight weeks. It is rumoured that Charlie Chaplin was one of the actors to have starred in these pantomimes.
Sadly, this golden age came to an abrupt end when Collingwood was involved in a traffic accident at the age of 56. On his way to visit an actress friend in Sheffield, his car collided with a milk float and he was killed instantly. It was revealed some time afterwards that he had amassed the considerable personal fortune of £12,000.
A new era in the history of the theatre began in 1911 when the Alexandra was bought by Leon Salberg in association with his two brothers-in-law, Joshua and Julias Thomas. Salberg had been born in Warsaw to a Jewish family and was 36 when he took over the theatre. He had great theatrical flair, coupled with acute business sense. He was especially good at discovering artists, and could usually tell whether a production would succeed, even though he hardly read a play himself.
With the outbreak of the First World War, the theatre’s output altered to reflect the national mood. Tommy Atkins and Home from the Trenches were two of the many plays produced. A few years later, shows such as The Tommy Came Home and Safe Again celebrated the end of the conflict.
Around 1921, melodrama was gradually replaced by touring reviews such as Flirts and Skirts and High Heels and Stockings. The post-war transformation in trends and public taste was the motivation behind Leon Salberg’s decision to change the Alexandra into a repertory theatre from 28th March 1927.
After a while, however, business declined considerably, and Salberg decided to introduce a form of entertainment known as ‘non-stop variety’, employing a basic permanent company and a resident comedian, Dan Leno Jnr. Prices remained the same and patrons could stay all day if they so wished. Sadly, this venture failed and provoked a drop in staff morale, but things improved drastically with the start of a new pantomime, Red Riding Hood.
As productions at the theatre became increasingly ambitious, it became clear that the old building could no longer cope with the demands placed upon it. Consequently, the theatre was rebuilt in 1935 at a cost of £40,000. Upon reopening, an association was formed with the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton. From time to time, the two companies exchanged their productions, and this alliance proved to be longstanding.
On 27th September 1928, during a performance of Devonshire Cream, Leon Salberg retired to his office and subsequently collapsed. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he was buried alongside his wife in Witton. Management of the Alexandra passed to his son, Derek, who became England’s youngest Theatre Director at the age of 26.
The ensuing repertory season was extremely successful, and was particularly notable for some exceptional individual performances. Derek Salberg was thus persuaded to extend the area of operations to include companies from further afield. Development of these plans was limited, however, by the outbreak of the Second World War.
At the end of the war, the Alexandra was turned into a Limited Company, with most of the board consisting of members of the Salberg family. In 1951, the theatre celebrated its Golden Jubilee with various presentations, luncheons and dinners. The messages of goodwill received included one from William Coutts, the original owner.
In November 1951, John Clements, who was appearing in Man and Superman, unveiled a beautiful eighteenth century French clock, which was hung above the Box Office until it was stolen in March 1977. It was eventually returned and fitted with an alarm, but this did nothing to deter the thieves – it was stolen again and has never been recovered.
On 17th November 1952, the legendary play The Mousetrap opened at the Alexandra, starring Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sims. The show did not receive favourable reviews at the time, but is still playing in the West End today!
The Alexandra was sold in 1968 to the City. This was a time of great sadness for the Salberg family, but was a necessary move for the theatre. The same year, the Bridge extension was built, at a cost of £74,000. This extended the theatre across the road, placing it in a more prominent position. It was opened by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Neville Bosworth, before a packed assembly of patrons and well-wishers.
1964 saw one of the great highlights in the theatre’s history, when Sir Laurence Olivier appeared in Othello as the Moor, with Frank Finlay as Iago and a young Dame Maggie Smith also appeared in the play. On 31st July of that year, Derek Salberg retired at the age of 65, and Michael Bullock became the new Director of the Theatre.
For the next ten years, the theatre enjoyed mixed fortunes. Lack of funds and mediocre productions resulted in severe financial problems by the mid-1980s. A restructured Board of Directors was formed, who in turn appointed a new management team, under the direction of Steve Robinson. It was evident that the standard of productions had to be improved, and risks had to be taken in the form of gambling large sums of money to buy in top-class plays and substantially increasing ticket prices to cover these costs. Fortunately for the theatre, audiences responded almost immediately and the future of the venue was safeguarded.
Producers became convinced that Birmingham was an excellent proving ground for shows prior to a West End opening. This brought some wonderful shows to the theatre, and patrons were given exclusive previews of a variety of future hits. As a result of this success, a major refurbishment project began in 1989. The aim was to provide pleasant surroundings for a complete evening’s entertainment. This involved the redesign and decoration of the bars, foyers and public areas, and also the instalment of new mezzanine floors, on which a new theatre restaurant was built.
The second phase of the refurbishment began in 1991, embracing the total redecoration of the auditorium and backstage areas. The architects spent a great deal of time working on plans to restore the theatre to its 1937 state, and wall coverings and boards were removed to reveal a lot of original features. The total cost of the renovation was in excess of £2.5 million. The majority of this money was provided by Birmingham City Council, with the balance being raised by the Alexandra Development Trust.
It was at this time that the City agreed to sponsor the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to relocate to Birmingham, and the Alexandra was chosen to become its new home. In 1990, the company moved to new premises adjacent to the theatre. The D’Oyly Carte’s operettas were subsequently premiered at the Alexandra, before departing on national and international tours, resulting in much wider coverage for the theatre.
In 1992, Steve Robinson resigned and John Curtin took over as Chief Executive. The ‘new’ theatre was launched with a production of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, and the official opening was performed by the show’s leading lady, Joan Plowright (Lady Olivier). A host of wonderful productions ensued, including Beckett with Derek Jacobi and Robert Lindsay, Lost in Yonkers starring Maureen Lipman, and Sir Peter Hall directing Warren Mitchell in The Homecoming. Blockbuster musicals replaced the traditional Christmas pantomime, and each successive offering broke box office records – South Pacific with Gemma Craven, Susan Hampshire in James Hammerstein’s production of The King and I, The Sound of Music featuring Christopher Cazanove, and Paul Nicholas taking the lead role in Barnum.
The culmination of this second Golden Age was realised in the 1992 world stage premiere of the musical Scrooge, starring Anthony Newley, Jon Pertwee, Stratford Johns and Tom Watt. This turned the national spotlight upon the theatre and further boosted its reputation as a first-class venue. The show opened with a Hollywood-style extravaganza, the likes of which Birmingham had never seen before, and lines of stretch limousines brought city centre traffic to a standstill. Dozens of photographers, crowds of sightseers, five TV crews and a celebrity audience made it the biggest night in the Alexandra’s history.
Scrooge was followed by a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, and long queues became a common feature at the Box Office. In 1993, the Alexandra was named ‘Best Regional Theatre’ in both financial and artistic areas. In June of that year, plans were made to produce a version of Bertie, the story of Vesta Tilley, but unfortunately this was not a success. On 21st February 1994, the management of the theatre was taken over by E & B Productions.
E & B Productions
The new managers were part of a London-based company which was responsible for over thirty pantomimes throughout the country during the Christmas period, and had also produced Buddy, the musical based on the life of Buddy Holly, which played for many years in the West End. E & B already owned two regional theatres – the Opera House in York and Lincoln’s Theatre Royal. Their first venture at the Alexandra was a Gala Night on 24th April, with a line-up of stars including Jim Davidson, Vicki Michelle, Bobby Davro and Hinge and Brackett.
The Spring Season began with Su Pollard in Little Shop of Horrors, and Brit Ekland and Eric Sykes in Run for Your Wife. The Autumn programme opened with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and continued with Peter Bowles in Present Laughter, An Evening with Peter Ustinov (the Alexandra being one of only three theatres selected for the tour), Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Buddy. In 1995, the theatre had further success when Topol returned to Fiddler on the Roof to recreate the role which he made his own on stage and screen.
Apollo Leisure Group and SFX Productions
On 7th August 1995, the Alexandra was taken over by the multi-national Apollo Leisure Group. The company was founded in 1977 when Paul Gregg and his wife Nita purchased the New Theatre in Oxford. From humble beginnings, Apollo Leisure gradually expanded into to realms of theatre, cinema, bingo clubs, hotels, licensed premises and catering.
The new owners already managed a string of West End and regional theatres, and were able to attract many major musicals to the Alexandra. Scrooge made a welcome second visit to the venue, followed by Copacabana, Great Expectations and Grease. Summer Holiday, starring Darren Day, enjoyed a very successful run, and a critically acclaimed production of West Side Story subsequently transferred to the West End. Paul Nicholas returned to the theatre at Christmas 1998 to star in the premiere of the musical A Tale of Two Cities.
In recent years, the Alexandra has benefited from further investment, enabling the stage and front of house areas to be improved in order to accommodate first-rate productions. Two of Cameron Mackintosh’s productions – Oliver! starring Gary Wilmot, and the world’s most popular musical, Les Misėrables – were among the first to take advantage of the new facilities.
In August 1999, the Apollo Leisure Group was bought by the American company SFX Entertainment for around £160 million. The world’s largest and most diversified presenter of live entertainment, SFX now runs twenty-three theatres in the UK, including four in London’s West End. The company also has interests in concerts and sports, representing many top players and artists. The principle of Entertainment Excellence seems set to continue, with the added bonus of an improved link between the best in British and American theatre.
Since the SFX takeover, the theatre has twice welcomed the captivating production of Doctor Dolittle, starring Phillip Schofield/Russ Abbot and the scene-stealing animatronic creations of the Jim Henson Workshop. Christmas 2000 saw the return of pantomime, with a sell-out version of Peter Pan featuring the talents of Leslie Grantham and Joe Pasquale. New ventures include some of the greatest works of opera staged by the Chisinau National Opera & such unique productions as the growing “cult” event Sing-Along-A Sound of Music. The future of the Alexandra, therefore, seems to be in safe hands. Despite a somewhat chequered history, the theatre has proved itself to be a valuable contributor to entertainment and culture in Birmingham and the Midlands as a whole. A justly earned reputation for presenting first-rate musicals has been consolidated in recent years with acclaimed comedy, dance, opera, concerts, plays and children’s productions. In its centenary year, the Alexandra continues to provide the very best in entertainment.
2001 saw SFX merge with Clear Channel Entertainment which became the number one owner and operator of theatrical venues in the UK including three premier London Theatres as well as twenty other venues across the country and in January 2006, the Alexandra changed owners again, this time the Alex was to be owned and managed by Live Nation a company consisting of five businesses: concert promotion and venue operations, sponsorship, ticketing solutions, e-commerce and artist management. Live Nation seeks to innovate and enhance the live entertainment experience for artists and fans: before, during and after the show.
Today the Alex is owned and managed by The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) who are the largest theatre operator in the world combining international stature with core local venues. As a successful and respected theatre provider, ATG has years of experience helping millions of customers enjoy the very best theatre and live entertainment.