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The Empire Theatre, Leicester Square

It's history and a Special Feature on the opening night programme in 1884

Other Leicester Square Theatres and Cinemas

Leicester Square with the Empire Theatre to the left - From an early Postcard.

Above - Leicester Square with the Empire Theatre to the left - From an early Postcard.



Empire Theatre of Varieties seating plan - Click to EnlargeSee London's West End TheatresSee Theatreland MapsThis Special Feature is about The Empire Theatre Leicester Square and it's original opening night of April the 17th, 1884.

The Feature was first created in May 2004 but has been added to many times over the ensuing years, and in March 2015 it was all collated into this one page.

The feature includes the whole of the opening night programme for the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, with transcribed text, including a detailed history of the site, the Theatre itself, its construction, and accommodation.

A brief history of all the incarnations of the Empire Theatre also follows but you can dive right in to the original opening night programme feature by clicking here.


The First Empire Theatre

The first Empire Theatre was designed by Thomas Verity and opened in 1884 with a production of 'Chilperic' which was a 'Grand Musical Spectacular' by Florimund Herve. The Empire later became a Music Hall called 'The Empire Theatre of Varieties,' in 1887. A new vestibule and side entrance were added in 1893 by Frank Verity. The building was renamed The Empire Theatre again in 1898 but was closed and demolished on the 22nd January 1927.

The Second Empire Theatre

Cine-Variety Programme for the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square in March 1950 - Courtesy Alan Chudley -Click to see the Programme.See London's West End TheatresSee Theatreland MapsThe second Empire Theatre was built primarily as a cinema and opened on the 8th of November 1928 with the silent film 'Trewlawny of the Wells.'

'Cine-variety was presented at the Empire for several years during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the live shows were very elaborate affairs with a large cast and a large pit orchestra, and were similar to shows presented at Radio City Music Hall, New York. At normal West End Cinema ticket prices this type of entertainment was very good value for money. The programmes were issued free of charge.

Left - A Cine-Variety Programme for the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square in March 1950 - Courtesy Alan Chudley -Click to see the Programme enlarged.

The Empire had a large auditorium at that date, also a large stage, albeit, on a different axis to Leicester Square then the original Empire. Sir Alfred Butt, had insisted on the retention of a stage as a condition of sale when he sold the original Empire in 1927. The stage lighting for the shows was mainly overhead spot bars with Strand Patt 76 Acting area floods and booms of Stand Patt 50a pageant lamps from the wings, which gave very effective lighting. Unusually for a West End Theatre, the house stage lighting switchboard, was not the usual Strand make but a Blackburn & Starling job.' Text in quotes courtesy Alan Chudley.

This second Empire Theatre was closed in May 1961 after a 76 week run of 'Ben Hur' and the interior was completely reconstructed.


The Third Empire Theatre

Three faces of the Empire, Leicester Square.

Above - Three faces of the Empire, Leicester Square. Left: 1884 - the original Empire opens. Centre: 1928 - the MGM Empire opens with a Norma Shearer 'silent.' Right: 1959 - start of the 76-week run of "Ben-Hur," which closed the old Empire in a blaze of glory.

See London's West End TheatresSee Theatreland MapsThe Empire Cinema that we know today is actually the third incarnation of this iconic building in Leicester Square. The Theatre opened on the 19th December 1962 with the film 'Jumbo'. A ballroom was built below the Theatre in what was once the Stalls of the second Empire Theatre. This is now used as a Casino. The Theatre has since been split into two large cinemas but remains pretty much in its original form, and is one of Leicester Square's major Cinemas, currently run by UCI. See this July 2003 Special Feature on the reconstruction and opening of the third incarnation of the Empire Theatre.


The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884

The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884

The First Empire Theatre 1884The EMPIRE Theatre (Shown Right) now stands on the site where once stood the stately Leicester House of 1636; whose architect, if not Inigo Jones himself, was certainly a pupil of his school; and in the neighbourhood lived the Sidneys, the Saviles, the Sunderlands, Newton and Swift, Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Hunter, Cruickshank, the surgeon, Chalks Bell, the author of "The Anatomy of Expression," Kosciusko and La Guiceiola and Dibdin, who did much for the navy with his fine sea songs; the home of the Sydneys, the last resting place of James the First's unhappy daughter, the - Queen of Hearts," the nursery and court of the first three Princes of Wales of the Hanoverian line, is swept away completely; Leicester Place standing on part of its site. The home of Hogarth, once the " Golden Head," has become Archbishop Tenison's Schools; and Sir Joshua's house, Puttick and Simpson's sale rooms.

Till the days of Charles II., Leicester Square, then called Leicester Fields, was open country the only building being Leicester House, on the north side of the square.

The grounds in which it stood were then most extensive, including on the south side all that part now occupied by Castle Street, Hemming's Row, &,c., as far as the King's Mews, and on the north the gardens reached to Gerrard Street, Soho.


Leicester Square in about 1750 - From 'Old and New London' 1897. The site of the Empire Theatre is at top centre of the image.

Above - Leicester Square in about 1750 - From 'Old and New London' 1897. The site of the Empire Theatre is at top centre of the image.


Early 20th century postcard of Leicester Square showing the Empire Theatre (top left) and the Alhambra Theatre (far right). This house was built between 1632 and 1636 by Robert Sydney, Earl of Leicester, whose father, Robert, was the brother of the famous Sir Philip Sydney, killed at the battle of Zutphen. Here, Lady -Elizabeth Princess Palatine, (Queen of Bohemia, whose fascinations earned her the title of Queen of Beauty, spent the last days of her unhappy and romantic life.

Right - An Early 20th century postcard of Leicester Square showing the Empire Theatre (top left) and the Alhambra Theatre (far right).

From 1712 to 1760, Leicester House was the palace of the Princes of Wales, and from their constant family quarrels was most happily named by Pennant "the pouting place of princes." During this period a passage was built connecting Leicester with Savile House. of which we shall speak directly.

In 1718, the Prince of Wales, afterwards George II, having quarrelled with his father and been commanded to quit St. James's, purchased Leicester House. Here in 1721, his son, the "bloody, butcher " of Culloden was born.

When George II, in his turn quarrelled with his eldest son Frederick, the latter took up his abode and held his court in Leicester House, doing everything he could to vex and annoy his father from thence. During his residence here the first performance was given within these walls which were soon to become the resting place of "shows" innumerable. The play given was Addison's " Cato," the Prince's eldest son, afterwards George III, sustaining the character of Portius. In 1751, Frederick died here.

The original site of Leicester Square - From 'Old and New London' 1897Leicester House was subsequently, occupied by private persons and then passed into the hands of Sir Ashton Lever, who there opened his "Holophusikon," which was a museum of curiosities of all kinds, including all the objects of interest collected by Captain Cook. He at first charged five shillings and threepence admission, then half-a-crown; but all to no purpose, the show was a failure.

Left - The original site of Leicester Square - From 'Old and New London' 1897.

He therefore applied to Parliament for permission to dispose of it by lottery in 36,000 shares, at a guinea a piece; he however, sold but 8,000 and the museum passed into the hands of the winner, Mr. Parkinson. He lowered his charge to one shilling, but all ill vain, it still had no success, and the contents were disposed of under the hammer.

Report for a magistrates hearing on the proposed use of Saville House for Musical Entertainments, Printed in the Globe newspaper, dated "Saturday Evening, October 13, 1849.' Courtesy Colin Charman. - Click image to Enlarge.Leicester House -was pulled down in 1791, and on part of its site was erected the famous Burford's panorama.

An artist, of the name of Bobert Barker, standing one day on Calton Hill, Edinboro', admiring the view, was suddenly struck with the thought of reproducing the panorama before him on canvas, making the spectator occupy. a central position similar to that in which he himself stood, and trusting to perspective to reproduce the distances. The result was an exhibition of the " Panorama of Edinboro' and its Environs," at 25, Haymarket, in 1791. The show was an enormous success, and was followed by another of "London and Westminster, giving a correct view of the three bridges," by the same artist, exhibited at 28, Castle Street. A building was now erected by public Subscription, at the end of Cranbourn Street, on part of the site of Leicester House, and opened in June 1793, by a panorama of the "Fleet at Spithead," which was succeeded in 1794 by another, entitled " The glorious First of June," shewing Lord Howe's great victory over the French, with the correct positions of all the ships. The panorama now became an institution, and all the important events of the times were reproduced there, including the wars of Napoleon, the final attack on the wars in China, the -Artic discoveries of Franklin and Parry, the explorations at Nineveh, by Layard, and many others. The panorama passed from the hands, of Robert Barker to those of his son, Henry Aston Barker, who was succeeded by his pupil and painter, John Burford, from whom it descended to his son Robert.

Right - A Report for a magistrates hearing on the proposed use of Saville House for Musical Entertainments, Printed in the Globe newspaper, Saturday Evening, October 13, 1849. - Courtesy Colin Charman. - Click to enlarge.

The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884Savile House, called also Ailesbury House, stood adjoining Leicester House on the west. In 1698, it belonged to the eccentric Lord Carmarthen, son of the Duke of Leeds with whom lodged Peter the Great, whilst he was in London. Indeed, these two seem to have been singularly fitted for each other's society, for Lord Carmarthen, besides being an amateur sailor and ship builder, was, like his guest, a most immoderate brandy drinker and altogether a rough customer.

The house passed into the Saviles by the marriage of Charles, third and last Earl of Ailesbury,with Lady Ann Saville, daughter of the second Marquis of Halifax. In 1790, the house was in the of that Lord George Savile who brought in the Catholic Relief Bill, which led to the Gordon riots, during which, Savile House was attacked by the mob and all the costly furniture books, and pictures, were buried in the square; they even tore up the railings of the house and used them for weapons.

Savile House was rebuilt early in the present century, and on the 14th February, 1806, Miss Linwood brought her famous gallery of pictures in needlework here, from the Hanover Square Rooms. The pictures, which numbered at last 64, remained here till April, 1846, when they were sold by, Christie and Manson the exhibitor just having died at the age of 90. These pictures were copies of some of the most famous ancient and modern masters, and, were all worked on linen in coloured worsteds, by the exhibitor; she had finished two or three before she was 20, and completed the last at 75 years of age.

Henceforward, all sorts of exhibitions occupied the premises from time to time; such as Mdme. Warton's unequalled tableaux vivants and poses plastiques. The title of the house was then "The Walhalla;" however the abode of bliss conducted its proprietor but to the Bankruptcy Court. Then came Risley's Panorama of the Mississippi, Gompertz'
Panorama of the Arctic Regions, in 1849 Cambon's Paris, Versailles and St. Cloud, and C. Marshall's Grand Tour of Europe in 1851. Moreover, the Lapland giantess, who stood 7 feet 2 inches-whether she was still growing, though, does not appear, -Joseph Grantonio, the Italian giant, who topped the lady by five inches, was 5 feet 5 inches round the waist, and could cover a crown piece with his thum, and a negro entertainment - precursor of Haverly's - by real blacks from the American cotton plantations, all appeared here in the Exhibition year. A collection of Greek and Etruscan antiquities was exhibited here in 1852, together with Madame Fortunne, a bearded Geneva woman, with her child. Cantelo's egg hatching apparatus, Auguste Reinham's industrious fleas, and Brees' panorama of New Zealand occupied the building from 1849 to 1853, when a Living Marionette Theatre," Professor Krosso and a German troupe of athletes appealed to the public for patronage. Here, too, came Reiner, with an anatomical and ethnological museum of wax works, similar to that of Kban. In 1854, George Payne exhibited his "Nights in the Land of Gold," and in 1855, Montari his royal waxworks.

This page features details of the Empire Theatre in it's three major guises - 1884 - 1887 - 1962 - Click the image to view the page.But alas! a lighted candle having been applied to an escape of gas in the cellars, Savile House, which was then called (1865) the " Eldorado " Music Hall was burned to the ground together with Ward's Furniture Manufactory; Stagg and Mantle's establishment which had formed part of the original Savile House was only saved by the great exertions of the fire brigade.

Right - This page features details of the Empire Theatre in its three major guises, including the ERA review of its openings - 1884 - 1887 - 1962 - Click the to view the page.

The space cleared by the fire remained unoccupied till within the last few years, when the ground was acquired by some enterprising foreigners and a Panorama was erected thereon, which however did not prove a pecuniary success. It was then decided to convert the building into a Theatre, from designs by Mr. Thomas Verity, F.R. I.B.A., who proposed carrying out the work in the Moorish style of architecture, with Japanese fittings, and the Theatre was partially built. Messrs. J. & A. E. Bull, Architects, 35, Craven Street, were subsequently .commissioned to complete the work, and are to be credited with having produced one of the most palatial, comfortable, elegant and safe theatres that the metropolis can now boast of, comprising in all its details, every modern improvement and device for securing comfort, convenience and safety. The elevation towards the square (but for the exception of a crown placed immediately under the large pediment surmounting the building and the words, "The Empire Theatre" in gold, and a light iron verandah and shelter of tasteful appearance), remains as originally designed by the French architect to the Panorama Company, and is bold and characteristic. The Entrance Hall and Vestibule, with its staircase, are strikingly beautiful; the latter, with its column, pilasters and dado, are of scagliola, relieved with gilt capitals and panels in the renaissance style of architecture, which indeed is that in which the whole of the interior of the building has been designed.

Images of the Empire Theatre from an Empire Programme - 1886 - Click to enlargeThe Grand Tier or Dress Circle is on the same level as the Vestibule. This tier consists of four rows of seats, surrounded by Private Boxes, the rich crimson velvet hangings of which give a warmth and richness to the lower portion of the theatre.

Right - Images of the Empire Theatre from an Empire Programme - 1886 - Click to enlarge.

The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884The design of the curve at this level with one row of seats projecting beyond the line of the tier above it, is very much like a horse-shoe, the size of the Auditorium and Proscenium opening being both ample, the line of sight is not interfered with, and from every seat a good and complete view of the stage can be obtained. Behind the Private Boxes there is a corridor 8 feet 6 inches wide, but it is on the Balcony level where the most ample space is allowed for promenade. This indeed is a noble area, with a magnificent Foyer, elevated a few steps above and behind it. This level is approached by the Grand Staircase direct from the Entrance Hall and Vestibule, and will undoubtedly prove a most popular portion of the building. It is estimated that at least 300 people could promenade here with an entirely uninterrupted view of the stage. The Foyer is, as we have said, at the rear, and is approached from this level by another handsome staircase. It is a magnificent apartment, 45 feet by 43 by 30 feet high. Its ceiling is supported by marble columns and pilasters with gilded capitals, and surmounted by marble entablatures, the whole of the room has a dado of the same material, the floor is of tiled mosaic pavement of suitable design. Very excellent stained grass windows with portraits and ideal representations, overlook Leicester Square. The panels and entablatures of ceiling are painted with subjects representing Comedy., Tragedy, &-c. A novel effect to this charming Foyer has been obtained by inserting at each end between...


The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884

Above - Cast Details from 'Chilperic' On The Empire Theatre's Opening Night , Thursday, April 17, 1884


The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884

Above - Cast Details from 'Chilperic' On The Empire Theatre's Opening Night , Thursday, April 17, 1884


The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884...the pilasters, large panels of plate glass from floor to ceiling, thus giving the effect of interminable dimensions. In the angles of the Foyer are tastefully fitted Refreshment Buffets. Altogether the effect on first entering this charming and unique gallery is most pleasing, and it will without doubt, excite the keenest admiration. The Gallery tier is approached by a corridor from Lisle Street, 8 feet 6 inches wide, arid a single flight of stairs, and strange as it may appear, is only about 15 feet above the level of Lisle Street. There is a fireproof exit from the Gallery on the opposite side, carried right across, but not communicating in any way with the Stage. This will only be used as an extra exit. Descending, on either side of Proscenium opening immediately behind the Stage Boxes, is a staircase with steps five feet wide, which communicates with every portion of the building from the Gallery to the Orchestra Stalls, thus precluding any possibility of crushing. The more than ample arrangements for exit will enable the audience from every part of the house to leave the Theatre without inconvenience in the space of about three minutes. The Orchestra Stalls are 180 in number, whilst 106 seats are reserved as Pit Stalls, leaving a capacious Pit proper, and Promenade 12 feet wide, accomodating 550 people. The Pit is approached by a wide corridor and from Leicester Square front. In connection with this portion of the Theatre, and immediately under the Vestibule Hall and principal staircase to Foyer, is a large Pit Saloon, with spacious Retiring Rooms and Lavatories. These, as a matter of fact, are supplied on each level or tier, and fitted with every convenience.

The general effect of the Auditorium on ascending the principal staircase leading from Vestibule is most pleasing. The soffit of the Gallery, divided into panels by the girders, and tastefully painted - representing figurers - first attracts the eye; and then, as one glances round, one cannot, but be struck with the warmth, cosiness, and general comfort of the whole building.


The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884The acoustic properties have been proved to be admirable. The height of the tiers appear to be exactly correct, thus obviating what has proved to be so many mistakes in many of our more modern theatres, through a fallacious notion that ventilation is accelerated by a higher soffit. The Proscenium arch and frieze are very elegantly decorated, and its solid gilding is a conspicuous feature. It is 32 feet wide, and 35 feet high. The ceiling of the Auditorium is circular, and surrounded by an elaborately decorated cornice and arcade, and supported by caryatides and columns. From its centre hangs a sunburner containing 510 lights. This is ample for illuminating the entire Theatre, but extra gas brackets are provided for the Balcony tier and the outer walls of each corridor and staircases. This, of course, gives additional security to the public in case of any disarrangement of the gas apparatus. The ceiling is skilfully arranged to appear domical, and is painted to represent the " Triumph of Love." The entire length of the Auditorium from Proscenium front to back of Pit is 83 feet and the width from wall to wall 88 feet, whilst the height from Orchestra Stalls to centre of ceiling is 51 feet. The system for properly ventilating the Auditorium and Foyer is that of Tobins, and the sun burners which most materially assist to exhaust the vitiated atmosphere.

All the Tiers and Corridors are of fire-proof construction. The wood-framing dividing the boxes, and also all combustible materials have been coated with the Cyarite or Asbestos fireproof liquid, and with the exception of the Upholstery, the entire building may thus be said to be fire-resisting. All the requirements of the Board of Works have been most strictly carried out, and there will not be found in the whole of the metropolis, a Theatre safer or more easily understood in regard to its exits, than the Empire Theatre.

Click to see More Empire Theatre Programmes 1894 - 1896 - 1897 - 1899 - 1908Right - Click to see some Empire Theatre Programmes from 1894, 1896, 1897, 1899, and 1908.

With regard to the stage and the appointments generally behind, it appears that everything has been done for the comfort and convenience of each person engaged in the building. The dressing rooms, with water laid on and fitted with lavatories, lockers, and other conveniences, are numerous and airy. The property-room, scene docks, music and ballet rooms, flies, gridiron, &c., are all models of their respective kinds, whilst the stage itself is one of the largest and best in London, being 77 feet wide by 50 feet deep. The green-room is at the back of the stage, but when required for any particular spectacular display, it can be added to the stage.

The Empire Theatre's Opening Programme, Thursday, April 17, 1884Messrs. G. H. and A. Bywaters were contractors for the whole of the works under the able assistance of their manager, Mr. M. A Taylor, and Mr. Clarke as Clerk of Works.

The Decorative Plastering has been executed by Jackson & Sons.

The Scagliola by Bellman and Ivey.

The Stained GIass by Bell and Beckham.

The, Mosaic by Simpson and Sons.

The Painted Decorations, Draperies, and Upholstery Work by Jetley.

The Gas Fittings by Vaughan & Brown.

The Sun Lights by Strode and Co.

The Candelabra by Joubert & CO.

Oil Lamps by Browne & Co., Piccadilly.

The Chairs and Upholstery by Stewart and Co, and Storey Bros.

The Floral Decoration by Dick Radclyffe & CO., High Holborn. The Sanitary fittings by George Jennings. The Firemains by Shand and Mason.

The Stage and Fittings by Charman.