The Story of a Great Theatre
The changing face of London acquires a new landmark with the opening, in Leicester Square, of the New Empire Theatre-the most luxurious cinema in Europe. Built on the site of MGM's old Empire, which for 33 years gave pleasure to millions, the new theatre looks to the future secure in the knowledge of its established place in the hearts of the British people.
Left - Reconstruction Plan 1962 - Click to enlarge.
The old Empire was respected and admired, not only by Londoners for whom it was an obvious first-choice for film entertainment, but throughout the length and breadth of the country and by legions of visitors from overseas. The new theatre, opened tonight by His Rt. Worshipful the Mayor of the City of Westminster, Councillor P. A. Negretti, before a distinguished gathering of top personalities, takes over this privileged mantle of success and by the sheer splendour of its modern design, comfort of its seating and technical excellence of its presentation systems, will win from new generations of cinemagoers the devotion showered upon it by audiences of yesteryear.
Above - Three faces of the Empire 1884 - 1928 - 1959
It was the year that the Tyne
Bridge was opened, and Alexander Fleming made the first concrete discovery
which was to lead to the priceless boon of penicillin. Nineteen twenty-eight
was the year in which nudism got a boost with the formation of the Sunbathing
Society in Surrey.
Corinth in Greece was destroyed by a devastating earthquake and England was winning the Ashes in Australia (partly on account of a newish young man named Walter Hammond). Britain and the Colonies fell in with the Kellogg Peace Pact and the "tote" came into being. Talking of racing, 1928 was the year when only two nags finished in the Grand National. " Tipperary Tim " sneaked home past the finishing post in a fog.
Aviation history was being made. An Irishman named Fitzmaurice pulled off the first Transatlantic flight from east to west. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the North Atlantic and Bert Hinckler was the first aviator to go it alone in a plane from England to Australia. Meanwhile Captain Kingsford-Srnith successfully tackled the first Pacific flight from the United States to Australia.
It was a good year for entertainment. In the West End Noel Coward had a hit revue with "This Year Of Grace and we first heard "Ole Man River" sung in "Show Boat." John van Druten's "Young Woodley" and R. C. Sherrifr's "Journey's End" were solid drama successes. And the Empire opened in Leicester Square.
It was 8 November 1928. Although the Empire was fully geared for the sensational sound that had brought the wind of change to motion pictures and revolutionised filming, sound was still a fairly unknown quantity.
Right - This page features details of the Empire Theatre in its three major guises - 1884 - 1887 - 1962 - Click the image to view the page.
MGM compromised with a silent film, accompanied by an orchestra. The film was "Trelawney Of The Wells," starring a promising young actress named Norma Shearer. It would be nice to boast that "Trelawney" was a standout hit. In fact, it ran for nine days, a striking contrast to the old Empire's last film, "Ben-Hur," which notched 76 weeks before it moved on to the Royalty Theatre in Kingsway.
But since "Trelawney Of The Wells" there have been more ups than "downs" in the history of the Empire.
The Empire of 1928 had quite a lot to live up to, for it was built on a famous site. At one time it was occupied by Leicester and Saville Houses, where George III was proclaimed King. The two Houses were destroyed by fire and for a long time the site was derelict.
Came 1863 and the Eldorado was built; a combination of music hall and restaurant. This uneasy hybrid was not a conspicuous success and eventually this, too, was razed by fire. For newspapermen it must have been a field day, for it is recorded that on the first fire engine that arrived to tackle the fire were the then Prince of Wales (afterwards Edward VII) and the Duke of Sutherland, both of whom apparently found fire-fighting a bit of a lark.
That was in 1865. It was in April 1884, 19 years later, that a syndicate opened a new theatre on the site, the Empire. Three years later it switched from theatre proper to variety and became one of the most famous music-halls in the world. Every top line vaudeville star played the Empire and it also became the showplace of brilliant ballet, with such sparkling stars as Adeline Genee, Kyasht, Zanfretta and Phyllis Bedells. reigning in magnificence.
Above Left - Images of the opening of the Empire Theatre in 1884 - Click to enlarge.
Right - Click to see Empire Theatre Programmes 1894 - 1896 - 1897 - 1899 - 1908.
Of course, the Empire was also famous-or notorious for its promenade at the back of the royal circle. On the Empire promenade foregathered the young and old blades of the town and the courtesans, the aristocrats of their profession. It was like a most extraordinary club and though pressure was put on the authorities from many sources to close it down they did not succeed till 1916. Till then the Empire promenade remained a world-renowned symbol of the "Naughty Nineties"
Above - The Empire Theatre Leicester Square - From a postcard
Later still the Empire again reverted to theatre with artistes such as George Grossmith and Edith Day holding sway.
But new buildings were needed to cope with the growing up of films. It was decided to raze the Empire and re-build a temple to the movies which was to be unsurpassed in the West End.
As a live theatre the Empire closed in 1927, with "Lady, Be Good!" In it was Fred Astaire, that light comedian with the educated feet who, later, was to be seen often on the Empire screen.
The men behind the scheme which boldly invested the then tremendous sum of £750,000 in launching the Empire consisted of Mr. Sam Eckman, jun., who had not been long over in this country from America and who was to be the helm of MGM in this country for many years before being followed by Mr. Morris Davis, Mr. Charles Goldsmith, the late Sir William Jury, Mr. Harry Portman and Mr. Stanley Wright.
Portman was a director of the oustanding new Empire which seated 3,500 people and he was also general manager of all MGM's European theatres. David Goldenberg was switched from the Tivoli to become Portman's assistant and Vivian Van Damm, later to run the Windmill for many years until his death, was appointed general manager.
The Empire was then without doubt the last word in palatial opulence. With its gilded dome, sweeping staircase, huge foyer, elaborate chandeliers, the hand-made carpet for the entrance hall and foyer (it measured 43 feet wide, 100 feet long, weighed a ton, took six months to make and needed 20 men to lift it with difficulty), the three coloured velvet pelmets, marbles, gleaming wood, mirrors and superbly decorated ceiling, it offered just that luxury touch that helps to make a night out.
It was selected seven times as the venue for the Royal Film Show as well as for many other charity occasions. In 1946, with "A Matter Of Life And Death," it was the scene of the first Royal Film Show, and subsequently the Royal Film Show was played at the Empire in . . . 1948 ("Scott Of The Antarctic") . . . 1950 ("The Mudlark") . . . 1952 ("Because You're Mine") . . . 1954 ("Beau Brummell) . . . 1956 ("Battle Of The River Plate") and 1959 ("The Horse's Mouth ").
Such royal evenings were always electric in their atmosphere and their excitement and almost every "occasion" provides its own special story.
There was King George VI in two contrasting moods at Royal Film Shows. Nineteen forty-six, the first Royal Show. Again big rubber-necking eager crowds caused the problem. Though the Royal car, as always, had left Buckingham Palace to time, the loyal sightseers held it up and it arrived 20 minutes late.
The Royal Party hurried into the Empire and the welcoming committee could see by the King's clouded face that he was angry and upset. He always hated, like all Royalty, to be a moment late. But he saw the uncomfortable faces of those awaiting him and realised that his mood might discomfort them.
His face cleared. He smiled that gentle smile and said "Of course it wasn't your fault. The arrangements must have gone wrong outside." And everybody relaxed.
There was the year of "The Mudlark" and comedian Ted Ray, whose young son Andrew was in the film, was waiting to be presented to the King. To Ted's surprise, the King suddenly said to him: " My have you changed your radio show ? You've dropped one of your catchphrases . . . what's happened to ' Look at your big, red conk ?' Pity, I always looked forward to that." As Ted Ray said afterwards, "You never know who's listening !"
Since Vivian Van Damm's day, in 1928, the managers have all set a high standard right up to Charles Penley, who retired in 1958 after 13 years, and the present manager, Albert Sidi.
But no matter how magnificent the structure of a cinema, how happy the staff, how lavish the furnishing, how well the place is put over by the backroom publicity boys ... the real success of a cinema is in the quality of its films and the magnificence of its stars.
The Empire can hardly have been better served.
Some years ago the old Empire frontage was given a new showy shell. A huge, neon-lit, swagger "front door" was built over the old facade to make the imposing entrance that beamed attractively over Leicester Square for several years.
It was all part of the Empire showmanship. For instance when the cinema opened, they signed up the two greatest cinema organists of the day, Reginald Foort and Sandy Macpherson, both to become star radio names.
And when films went through a temporary slump the Empire jumped in and used its stage to good purpose. Nat Karson, a brilliant, energetic, likeable American producer, was hired to produce scintillating stage shows that supplemented the films. The girls ? They feared no competition with either the Tiller Girls or the New York Rockettes in their dancing precision. The shows had colour, pace, vigour, and they lasted from Boxing Day of 1949 until March 1952, then increasing costs and a slight threat to artists that, if they played the Empire, they had "had it" as far as the main variety theatres were concerned, took effect This gay adventure folded.
But, again, the Empire had the films . . . and the, stars.
Name any big one and the chances are that he or she would have been seen at some time on the Empire screen. But let's just look back in nostalgia on just a few who have had particular links with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and therefore, automatically, with the Empire.
The incomparable, aloof, ex-barber's assistant from Scandinavia who became Garbo. Greta, the "I Want To Be Alone" inscrutable beauty . . . "Anna Christie," "Romance ... .. The Rise Of Helga," "Queen Christina," "Camille," " Ninotchka ... .. Grand Hotel," "Anna Karenina," etc. Garbo the Enigmatic ; Garbo the Great....
Greer Garson : The Birmingham schoolmistress who became a star and, eventually, a millionaire's wife. Remember "Mrs. Miniver" (Shown Right) Valley Of Decision," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," Random Harvest," " Madame Curie," Pride and Prejudice," etc.?
Judy Garland : The bubbly kid star who sparkled in so many musicals. Remember "The Wizard Of Oz" "Broadway Melody Of 1938," "Strike Up The Band," " For Me And My Gal " ... and, later, "Meet Me In St. Louis" (oh, that Trolley song !) "Ziegfeld Follies" "Easter Parade" (Shown Left) and "Words And Music" ? And she was no slouch, either, in some straight roles like one or two of the Andy Hardy pictures.
This could go on for ever. . . .
But just to tickle your memories there was Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series, and Mickey Rooney, who played Andy Hardy. And Arm Rutherford was in and around that series.
There was Robert Taylor who heroed through a lot of films that played the Empire, notably "A Yank At Oxford" and "Quo Vadis?" Remember elegant Norma Shearer of "Smilin' Through" fame, and she also starred in "Barretts Of Wimpole Street" as well as dozens of others.
The roll-call includes the magnificent Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler in the "Min And Bill" series, John and Lionel Barrymore, The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy.
Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy sang and romanced gaily through some splendid musicals such as "New Moon," "Bitter Sweet," and "Girl Of The Golden West " -an unforgettable musical team.
Clark Gable : This great, husky, sadly missed actor was a regular at the Empire, notably in "Gone With The Wind," (Shown Left) "Mutiny On The Bounty" and "San Francisco." Spencer Tracy was in that one, too, as well as other Empire favourite., such as "Pat And Mike."
There was Lassie. . . .
There were Walter Pidgeon and Margaret O'Brien. William Powell and Myrna Loy made "The Thin Man" series memorable. We recall Lana Turner, and, way back, blonde exciting Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer.
Later came other names that thrilled the fans, Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Arm Blyth. . . .
There was the golden voice of Mario Lanza, so suddenly and prematurely cut off. There are Glenn Ford, Elizabeth Taylor and Deborah Kerr. . . .
Van Johnson, Stewart Granger, Pier Angeli, dancing, delightful Leslie Caron, long-legged Cyd Charisse, Vera Ellen and Doris Day, Gene Kelly and Grace Kelly-no relation, but a prince and a princess in personality. Oh, yes, and Arm Miller, Jane Powell and that swimming delight Esther Williams. . . .
The list of stars who have graced the Empire stage is endless.
Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd who, with a few chariots plus Hugh Griffith and a lot of directorial know-how, helped the old Empire to finish in a blaze of cinematic glory with " Ben-Hur." (Shown Below)
Jose Ferrer, the Champions (Marge and Gower), Robert Ryan, the not-easily forgotten Robert Montgomery . . . and let's not forget Jimmy Cagney and John Gilbert . . . and those great cartoon animals Tom and Jerry.
The names are endless and they've all helped to build up the stardust pageant of the Empire, just as new talent will write the history of the new Empire Theatre which opens tomorrow with Billy Rose's " Jumbo," a big colour musical starring Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: