Rue d’Alzon is a small side-street off Rue Judaïque where one of Bordeaux’s most iconic music and entertainment venues once stood: l’...

L’Alhambra: the iconic Bordeaux venue which hosted some of the most iconic artists of the 20th century

Rue d’Alzon is a small side-street off Rue Judaïque where one of Bordeaux’s most iconic music and entertainment venues once stood: l’Alhambra. Today, the façade remains but the theatre itself is long gone.

The Alhambra story began in the early 1870s when a tree nursery made way for a permanent circus structure, le Cirque-National, which in turn became a “café-concert” in 1878. Soon after the turn of the century, local architect Tournier conceived a veritable entertainment complex that comprised a 1,500-seater theatre, an 800-capacity “summer casino” and, peculiarly, a rollerskating rink (the city’s 21st-century “roller parks” are therefore nothing new).
Europe's biggest "skating-ring" showcased on an old postcard, source:
The Alhambra went on to become a multi-purpose unit, putting on concerts, revues and plays, early films ahead of purpose-built cinemas being built in the city (trading as Alhambra Cinéma Gaumont) but also hosting boxing, wrestling, dances, school fêtes, corporate Christmas parties, conferences, debates and political rallies. Its significance as a backdrop to political action peaked from September to December 1914, when it became the temporary wartime home of French members of Parliament who had relocated to Bordeaux: the Alhambra deputized as the country’s Chambre des Députés while the upper house, le Sénat, moved into the Apollo-Théâtre over near Place Gambetta.

1914: The theatre becomes
a parliamentary house.
According to a report which featured in L’Intransigeant dated September 19th 1914, MPs had to make do with far less comfort than in their usual environment at Palais-Bourbon; for some time they had to find their way between boxes and crates, and endured the constant noise of carpenters hammering together planks of wood to build a platform which resembled a wine-merchant’s counter, and a stage for the chairman and secretaries to sit on. The writer noted that all this was not especially “engaging”. (“Nos parlementaires sont loin de jouir, à l’Alhambra, du confortable auquel ils sont habitués au Palais-Bourbon […] Il faut circuler au milieu des caisses et des paniers, entendre le bruit des marteaux des ouvriers qui, après avoir installée sur la scène du théâtre une tribune qui ressemble à un comptoir de marchand de vins, montent maintenant une estrade pour y placer le bureau du président et ceux des secrétaires. Tout cela n'est pas très engageant.”)

The Alhambra was also the setting for rallies led by local political figures Jacques Chaban-Delmas, disgraced 1930s and wartime mayor Adrien Marquet (who died just after a meeting held at the Alhambra in 1955) and, in 1969, Georges Pompidou, shortly before he was elected president of France.

The view from the stage during a 1950 Confédération Générale de l'Agriculture congress. Source: Sud Ouest.

Chuck Berry on stage at
the Alhambra, February 9th 1966.
Picture courtesy of the photographer,
Christian Perez.
For many in Bordeaux, the fondest memories of the Alhambra are as the place where they saw variety shows put on by the Tichadel company, a touring unit founded by the Bordelais Pierre Tichadel that combined music, dancers and comedy sketches. Above all, the Alhambra became the go-to venue to witness live performances of some of the true greats of the 20th century: during the period when the venue was managed by one Paul Chevenot, the renowned singer Luis Mariano made his first breakthrough performances here. Artists who graced the Alhambra stage in the 1950s alone include Charles Trénet (1951), Louis Armstrong (1952 and 1955), Yves Montand (1953), Lionel Hampton (1956), Count Basie (1957), Georges Brassens (1956), Jacques Brel (1957), Edith Piaf (1958) and Charles Aznavour (1958). The 1960s were bookended by the inevitable Johnny Hallyday (1961), the chanteuse Barbara (whose 1969 set has become a much sought-after recording) and UK band Pink Floyd (1969), who performed in front of 300 people as part of the Sigma arts festival. When the Roger Waters-less band returned to the city in 1994, 40,000 turned out on the Esplanade des Quinconces...

Poster promoting the 1969
appearance of les Pink Floyd
and their "light shaw".
After years under private ownership (most notably that of local businessman Éric Bocké), the Alhambra was acquired by the city in 1970, but within a decade – in spite of renovation work – the venue had become a precarious structure that was prone to flooding and considered to be a fire hazard. In 1978 the “casino d’été” annex was demolished and the main hall was not set to last much longer. It closed permanently in 1984, mayor Chaban-Delmas citing those safety issues as the main factor, although the decision was also triggered by the 1981 completion of the Patinoire, a skating rink in the revamped Mériadeck quarter, which Chaban-Delmas now regarded as the primary venue for A-list artists passing through the city.

In 1987, the building was sold on to property developers. The theatre was demolished although the listed façade was retained by the Bordeaux architects Brochet/Lajus/Pueyo who designed the apartment complex which now stands where the Alhambra once was. 

This France 3 report ran in 1982 shortly ahead of the Alhambra closing for good:

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: L'Alhambra, rue d'Alzon, Bordeaux
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français!
> Local music authority Philippe Serra shares his memories of the Alhambra in this sister piece.

Further reading:
> Les salles de spectacles bordelaises (
> Ainsi sombra l'Alhambra, haut lieu du spectacle (Sud Ouest)
> Parlementaires à Bordeaux - septembre 1914
> La vie culturelle à Bordeaux 1945-1975

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