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Theatres and Halls in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Grand Opera House - Palace of Varieties - The Mac - Lyric Theatre - Ulster Hall - Royal Hippodrome - New Vic Cinema - Alhambra Theatre - The Coliseum - Theatre Royal / Royal Cinema - Empire Theatre of Varieties - Imperial Colosseum - Buffalo Music Hall

The Grand Opera House, Great Victoria Street (formerly Glengall-place), Belfast.
Also known as The Palace of Varieties

The Grand Opera House, Belfast in a photograph taken  in June 2011 - Courtesy Allan Hailstone

Above - The Grand Opera House, Belfast in a photograph taken in June 2011 - Courtesy Allan Hailstone.

 

Programme for 'Paddy The Next Best Thing' at the Grand Opera House, Belfast in August 1943.The Grand Opera House, Great Victoria Street, in Northern Ireland's Capital City Belfast, was built by H. and J. Martin to the designs of the renowned Theatre Architect Frank Matcham. The Theatre opened on Christmas Eve, the 24th of December 1895 with Dottridge and Longden's Company in a production of the pantomime 'Blue Beard'. In the cast were Fred A. Marston as Blue Beard, Steve Cooke as the Sister Anne, H. J. Housden as Ibrahim, Frances Coventry as Selim, Cissie Moxon as Fatima, Leslie Clare as Demon King, and the Sisters Paris, Vera Grey, Wilford and Willis, and Geo Rydon. Preceding this was an overture and the National Anthem and speeches by Lord Arthur Hill, Captain M.'Calmont M.P., and the Theatre's manager, Mr Warden, who was also manager of the Theatre Royal in Arthur Square at the time, and introduced Frank Matcham, who was received with loud cheers.

Right - A Programme for 'Paddy The Next Best Thing' at the Grand Opera House, Belfast in August 1943.

Shortly before the Theatre opened the ERA printed a report on the new building in their 7th of December 1895 edition saying: 'This building, erected by Mr J. F. Warden, is now nearing completion, and will be opened to the public on the 23d of this month. The design is Flemish. Mr Frank Matcham, the architect, has succeeded in treating the elevations in a most artistic manner, the quaint gables, balustradings, minarets, &c., giving quite a Continental appearance to the building; and the great width of Glengall-place enables a capital view to be obtained of the whole.

The Grand Opera House, Belfast - From a 1943 Programme.The Glengall-street front has an imposing centre façade, flanked with square towers, crowned with boldly moulded and domed minarets, the centre portion having a richly designed pediment, finished at the top with a carved finial, from which an ornamental iron flambeau will cast a brilliant light at night, illuminating this and the adjoining streets. The pediment is filled in with beautifully designed ornamental strap work and foliations, surrounding a large panel containing the word " Cirque," and beneath the same a long frieze with the inscription "Grand Opera House." The word "Cirque" is an intimation that the building can be used for a circus performance at any time, the architect having by an ingenious arrangement designed a sinking stage, whereon the usual arena can be arranged.

Left - A sketch of the Grand Opera House, Belfast - From a 1943 Programme.

The centre facade is divided up with piers and arches, and over and between the same are the windows giving light to the different parts of the house. Carving is introduced, containing musical and other trophies, and panels with the words "Music" and "Arts." The angles of the frontage have canted corners, and these parts of the building are kept much lower than the centre façade, and are finished at the top with balustrading and large carved trusses leading up to the minarets above.

The back wall of the gallery is set and assumes a circular sweep. This wall contains a series of oval windows with ornamental pilasters dividing the same, and beneath this is a sloping tiled roof. The canted corner to the left is very handsomely treated, as this contains the principal entrance to the theatre. A large circular window lights the foyer over the entrance vestibule, and above this is a statue holding aloft an electric light.

Programme details for 'Paddy The Next Best Thing' at the Grand Opera House, Belfast in August 1943.The side elevation to Glengali-street is no less boldly treated, although not quite so elaborate in design, but the same beauty of detail occurs, and a clever method is adopted of obtaining effect by projections of the building and quaint corners and gables. The back elevation is plain, but three sides of the building being open, the architect has availed himself of the opportunity of providing a greater number of exits than usual. The principal entrances are at the corner of GIengall-place and Glengall-street. These serve for the patrons of stalls, dress-circle, and boxes. The upper circle entry adjoins this at the corner, and the pit next this, and then the gallery. Over the whole of these entrances a fine and handsome glass and iron shelter is being erected. At the corner opposite Glengall-place are the upper circle exit and early door entrance to the gallery, and these are shielded also by a glass and iron shelter. The whole building will be illuminated by the electric light, and with the beautifully painted and coloured glass introduced into the windows and shelter a very brilliant and striking effect will be obtained.' - The ERA, 7th December 1895.

Right - Programme details for 'Paddy The Next Best Thing' at the Grand Opera House, Belfast in August 1943.

The Theatre was renamed the Palace of Varieties in 1904 and this name survived until 1909 when it reverted to it's former title but Variety continued through the 1920s and 30s.

The Theatre has had various improvements over the years including a remodeling of the entrance and dress circle bars in 1950 but in 1961 the Theatre was converted for Cinema use. This continued for many years until bomb damage caused the Theatre's closure.

The building reopened as a Theatre again after extensive refurbishment in the 1980s when it was completely restored and modernised. The Theatres Trust says that the 'magnificent auditorium is probably the best surviving example in the UK of the oriental style applied to theatre architecture.'

The Theatre was again damaged by bombs in 1991 and 1993 and the dressing room block in Glengall Street, the stage door, and the 'get in' had to be extensively rebuilt, however the auditorium survived mostly intact with only a small amount of damage.

The Stage has a proscenium width of 39' 8", a depth of 45' and a newly increased height of 52', and this Grade II Listed Theatre has a capacity of 1,001.

You may like to visit the Theatre's own Website here.

If you have any information or images you are willing to share for this Theatre please Contact Me.

 

The Mac, Metropolitan Arts Centre, Saint Anne’s Square, Belfast

A Google Streetview image of Belfast's Metropolitan Arts Centre - Click to Interact

Above - A Google Streetview image of Belfast's Metropolitan Arts Centre - Click to Interact

The Metropolitan Arts Centre is a new building for Belfast incorporating two Theatres with 350 and 120 seats respectively, three Art Galleries, a Dance Studio, Rehearsal space, a Cafe and Bar, an Artist-in-Residence Studio, Education and Workshop Rooms, and Rehearsal Space.

The venue cost £18m to construct and took nearly ten years to complete, and was officially opened on the 19th of April 2012 when a large drape was ceremonially removed from the front of the building by abseilers, accompanied by a ten piece band.

In its first season the venue was advertising a variety of different pieces including their own production of 'Titanic (Scenes from the British wreck, commisioners enquiry 1912)', the Dance Shows 'LOL', 'In Search of my Father', and 'Straight to DVD, a concert by the Carducci Quartet and Michael O’Toole, the musical 'Sweet Charity', and several art exhibitions.

The Mac's opening weekend was attended by over 5,000 people.

You may like to visit the Mac's own website here.

If you have any images you are willing to share for this Theatre please Contact Me.

 

The Lyric Theatre, 55 Ridgeway Street, Southern Belfast

A Google Streetview image of Belfast's Lyric Theatre - Click to Interact

Above - A Google Streetview image of Belfast's Lyric Theatre - Click to Interact

The Lyric Theatre originally opened in the 1950s and was constructed by altering the rear of a private house owned by Mary and Pears O'Malley.

In the 1960s the Theatre was given a new home on Ridgeway Street beside the River Lagan in Southern Belfast and this new Lyric Theatre, costing £80,00 to build, opened the 26th October 1968.

In June, 2008 the Theatre was demolished to make way for the building of a new Theatre on the site.

On Thursday the 10th of September 2009 the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney unveiled the Threshold Stone which marked the beginning of construction for a new Lyric Theatre to be built on the site of the old one.

The new Lyric Theatre opened on the 1st of May 2011 with a series of special celebratory events.

You may like to visit the Lyric Theatre's own Website here.

If you have any information or images you are willing to share for this Theatre please Contact Me.

 

The Ulster Hall, Belfast

The Ulster Hall, Belfast in a photograph taken in June 2011 - Courtesy Allan Hailstone.

Above - The Ulster Hall, Belfast in a photograph taken in June 2011 - Courtesy Allan Hailstone.

The Ulster Hall was built by W. J. Barre for the Ulster Hall Company in 1862.

The Hall closed on April the 1st 2007 for major renovation but is now being promoted as 'the perfect venue for weddings, conferences and exhibitions.' For much more information on the Ulster Hall you may like to visit the venue's own Website here...

 

Above - Belfast street scene with advertising carts for the North American Animated Photo Company's film showings at the Ulster Hall in 1901. The film is part of the Mitchell and Kenyon collection from the BFI You Tube Channel.

If you have any information or images you are willing to share for this Theatre please Contact Me.

 

The Royal Hippodrome, Victoria Street, Belfast
Later - The Hippodrome Cinema / The Royal Hippodrome Cinema / The New Vic Cinema

The Hippodrome, Belfast from a postcard.

Above - The Hippodrome Theatre, Belfast from an early postcard.

The Royal Hippodrome Theatre was built next to the Grand Opera House on Victoria Street, Belfast and designed by the well known Theatre Architect Bertie Crewe. The Hippodrome opened on the 2nd of November 1907 as a variety Theatre with a stage 36 foot deep and a proscenium opening of 46 foot, and was equipped with fourteen dressing rooms.

In July 1931 the Theatre was taken over by ABC who renamed it the Hippodrome Cinema and ran it until 1938 when an independent operator took it over and renamed it the Royal Hippodrome Cinema.

The Theatre was taken over by Rank in 1960 who reopened it on the 28th of November that year. Rank later went on to modernise the building including hiding the original ornate facade under sheet metal cladding and reopening it as the Odeon Cinema in October 1961.

The Theatre was damaged by the IRA in 1974 and Rank then sold the building to an independent operator who reopened it as the New Vic Cinema later in the year. They showed films and the occasional variety show but this ended in 1987 when the Theatre was converted for Bingo use.

Bingo ceased in 1996 and the Theatre was demolished in 1998, an office building was constructed on the site.

Some of the information on this Theatre was gleaned from the excellent Cinema Treasures Website.

If you have any information or images you are willing to share for this Theatre please Contact Me.

 

The Alhambra Theatre, Belfast

The Alhambra Theatre was first built by Stevenson in 1871 as a Music Hall but didn't open as planned because certain people in Belfast didn't want it to be run as a Music Hall and paid the manager, James Moss, compensation to keep it closed. The Theatre was then rebuilt and eventually opened in 1873, and was said to have been designed by the well known Irish Comedian Dan Lowrey, but was later destroyed by fire. Lowrey then rebuilt the Theatre but let it go in 1879 when he went to run the Star Theatre, Dublin. The Alhambra was bought by Willy John Ashcroft, who was an American born singer, comedian and dancer who married the English actress Kitty Brooks, and relocated to England where he achieved fame and fortune. He purchased the Alhambra, when he and his wife visited Belfast during a tour in August 1879.

The Alhambra Theatre was destroyed by fire and demolished in 1959.

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed at the Alhambra Theatre, Belfast in 1892.

If you have any information or images you are willing to share for this Theatre please Contact Me.

 

The Coliseum, Belfast
Also known as The Alexandra Music Hall / The Palladium

The Coliseum was built in 1875 and was rebuilt in 1909 and renamed the Alexandra Music Hall. By 1958 only a fragment remained of this Theatre.

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed at the Coliseum, Belfast in 1861 and 1862

If you have any information or images you are willing to share for this Theatre please Contact Me.

 

The Theatre Royal, Arthur Square, Belfast

Later - The Royal Cinema

The Theatre Royal in Arthur Square Belfast had three incarnations and is known to have been running as early as 1793 when the first Theatre on the site was built for Michael Atkins. This first Theatre was eventually rebuilt, with construction starting at the close of the season in March 1870. The new Theatre was erected on the same site as the first with its frontage in Arthur Street but was larger and included land previously occupied by the Shakespeare Hotel. The Theatre was built to the designs of Charles Sherrie who was killed during the construction of the Theatre. Construction was then continued by Thomas M'Keown. During construction of the Theatre a roadway was discovered that was thought to have been the former entrance to the castle inhabited by the Chichester Family. This Theatre opened in September 1871 and played host to Sullivan Brooke and many other well known names of the time but was destroyed by fire on the morning of Wednesday the 8th of June 1881. The Manager of the Theatre at the time was J. F. Warden who would go on to open the replacement Theatre on the site, and later to also run the Belfast Opera House when it was completed in 1895.

A reversed image of Printing Plate which would have been used to print programmes for the Theatre Royal, Belfast - Courtesy Derek King. Despite the fire a new Theatre, the third on the site, was soon under construction and was completed just six months later for its opening on December the 22nd 1881. The designer for this third Theatre Royal in Belfast was the well known and respected Theatre Architect C. J. Phipps, and construction was carried out by H. and J. Martin who would later go on to construct the Opera House in Belfast in 1895.

Right - A reversed image of Printing Plate which would have been used to print programmes for the Theatre Royal, Belfast - Courtesy Derek King. See original below.

The ERA printed a report on the new Theatre Royal in their 17th of December 1881 edition saying: '...The new theater, although built within the same space as the late structure, is different in almost every particular. We will describe the various parts in detail, premising that the level of the various floors above the street have been reduced in height, so that every tier will be several feet nearer the street than formerly.

The elevation facing Arthur-square still retains the five entrance doorways, but their designations have been changed. The dress circle and the upper circle both enter by the three centre doorways into a large vestibule; thence the audience to the former turn to the left hand, and the latter to the right hand, up the respective staircases. There will be no confusion or mingling of the audience to these two parts of the house, as the vestibule will be divided by a low barrier, and when the performance is over the additional doorway to the extreme right of the façade will serve as the exit from the upper circle staircase exclusively; the corresponding doorway on the left, next to Mr Forrester's premises, being the entrance to the pit, which is entered up a few steps from the street. The gallery is entered in Castle-lane - first doorway from the angle of the facade. Farther along Castle-lane is another wide doorway which opens directly into the refreshment saloon, underneath the pit, and will be opened at every performance as an additional exit for the pit. The stage entrance is in the old position in Castle-lane.

Along the whole of the facade in Arthur-square a covered verandah or porch has been erected of iron and glass; so that the audience waiting for the opening of the doors will be protected when the weather is wet, and those coming in carriages will not have to cross a damp pavement previous to entering the theatre. The vestibule before referred to is level with the street, and in the wall opposite the entrances are the offices for booking seats and pay places for the dress and upper circles. A corridor in the centre leads to the acting manager's and Mr Warden's offices, and to lavatories for gentlemen. The floors of this vestibule and the corridor are laid with marble mosaic, from Mr Burke's manufactory, at Venice.

 

A Printing Plate which would have been used to print programmes for the Theatre Royal, Belfast - Courtesy Derek King. Ascending the staircase, to the left of the vestibule are the dress circle and balcony stalls, with a cloak-room on the top of the landing. The balcony stalls have six rows of seats all fitted with the architect's patent arm-chairs, with lifting seats. This part of the theatre is arranged somewhat after the model of the Gaiety, at Dublin (also designed by Mr Phipps), with small private boxes on either side, behind the second row of seats. The back of the circle is enclosed from the corridor by a series of elliptical arches, filled with plate-glass sashes, which can be either opened or kept closed, thereby keeping the circle warm and snug, when not entirely fall, and affording means for those standing in the corridor on a full night to both bear and see the performance. Behind the corridor is a refreshment saloon, adjoining the cloak-room. There are two private boxes in the proscenium, also, on this level, and on the pit tier, the upper circle and the gallery tier. The front of the upper circle tier recedes about two rows of seats behind the dress circle, the front rows of which form a balcony. The gallery tier also recedes again from the upper circle.

Left - A Printing Plate which would have been used to print programmes for the Theatre Royal, Belfast - Courtesy Derek King.

The mode of construction is good for sound, and also prevents the well-like appearance which small theatres present when all the fronts of the various tiers are on one perpendicular plane. The upper-circle has six rows of seats, and a spacious corridor behind for standing - and the same arrangement of refreshment saloon and cloak-room as on the tier below. The gallery, or top tier, has ten rows of seats. It has two means of access from the two staircases above those of the dress and upper-circle, with a communicating corridor arranged between the two, so that each side of the gallery has a good entrance and exit. All the entrance staircases are made of cement concrete, and are supported at either end by brick or concrete walls, with handrails. The stage is also separated from the auditory by a solid brick wall, carried by an arch over the proscenium, and entirely through the roof, thereby rendering the stage and audience portions of the house entirely distinct from each other; in fact, forming two separate buildings, the only communication between them being two iron doors.

Water is laid on from the high-pressure mains to several parts of the theatre, both before and behind the curtain. The gas meter and supplies are entirely distinct for the stage and auditory, so that the failure of one supply will not affect the other. In fact, every possible means have been taken, that experience could devise, to insure both the safety and comfort of the audience.

The auditory is thus arranged:— The stage opening, which is 28ft. wide, by 31ft. high, is surrounded by a frame, richly moulded and gilded; above this an arch is formed, in the tympanum of which is painted an allegorical subject, by Ballard, representing "Apollo end the Muses." On either side of the proscenium are private boxes, one on each of the four levels of the auditory, inclosed between Corinthian columns, richly ornamented and fluted. The three tiers rise one above the other, and the whole is surmounted by a circular ceiling, inclosed in a circular moulded cornice - very richly modelled and gilded. The flat part of the ceiling is painted in Italian Renaissance ornament, in colours, on a pale creamy white ground. Each of the fronts of the several tiers are richly modelled in ornament of the Renaissance period, and are painted and gilded - the general tone of the ornamentation being cream white and gold. The effect of this is enhanced by the rich colour of the wall-paper, of a warm Venetian red tone - while the hangings to the private boxes are of silk tapestry, a deep turquoise blue colour, embroidered with sprigs of flowers in colour. The whole scheme of colour has been very carefully arranged by the architect, and the paper and curtains have been specially manufactured for this theatre.

Although the holding capacity of the theatre has been only enlarged by a trifling number, yet it will look much larger and more open than the late theatre, and will be decidedly more ornamental and convenient. A very charming act-drop, painted by Mr Harford, of the St. James's and Haymarket Theatres, London, represents a classical landscape, with satin draperies enclosing it. The whole of the new and beautiful scenery has been executed by Mr Swift, Mr Beilair, and assistants. The stage occupies its old position, and the roof over it is carried up sufficiently high to admit of the large drop scenes being taken up in one piece, without any rolling or doubling. At the back of the stage, high up even above the second tier of flies, is the painting gallery, with two frames. The theatre is illuminated with a powerful sunlight, with a ventilating shaft round it. Subsidiary lights are also placed at the backs of the several tiers, all under the control of the gas man at the prompter's box, and capable of being turned down simultaneously when the exigencies of the scene requires a subdued light.

The various contractors who have been engaged upon the works are as follow:— Messrs H. and J. Martin, of Belfast, for the whole of the builders' work, including stage (under the direction of Mr Owen); Messrs George Jackson and Sons, of London, for the patent fibrous plaster work of box fronts, proscenium, and ceiling; Messrs Strode and Co., for the sunlight and the special gas work for stage; Messrs Riddel of Belfast, for the general gas-fitting; Messrs Dale have erected the limelight apparatus; Mr E. Bell has executed the whole of the decorative painting and gilding; Messrs George Smith and Co., of Glasgow, have erected the iron and glass verandah porch; Burke and Co., of London, Paris, and Venice, have laid the marble mosaic to vestibule; Wadmen, of Bath, has manufactured the patent chairs for the dress circle; Messrs N. A. Campbell, of Belfast, have executed the curtains and upholstery generally in and about the theatre. Mr William Browne has been clerk of works.' The ERA, 17th of December 1881.

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed at the third Theatre Royal, Belfast in 1890, and his father in law, the Drury Lane Tragedian T. C. King appeared in the earlier one in 1858, and again on the 24th of December 1863 in 'Othello'.

The third incarnation of the Theatre Royal, Belfast opened on December the 22nd 1881 and then went on to run as a live Theatre for just 34 years before it was demolished and replaced with a new cinema building. The 'Building News' carried a short piece on the demise of the Theatre Royal in their August 18th 1915 edition saying:- 'Operations have been commenced in connection with the demolition of the Theatre Royal, the site of which is to be utilised for the erection of a picture house on a large scale. Messrs. Warden, Ltd., the owners of the Theatre Royal, intend to erect a building which will bear comparison with any other structure of the kind in the United Kingdom. The plans have been prepared by Mr. Crewe, who designed the Royal Hippodrome, and the contract has been let to Messrs. H. and J. Martin, Ltd., of Belfast. The whole of the ground floor will be devoted to stalls, with upholstered chairs, and there will be a large and well equipped circle. Accommodation will be provided for an audience of about 1.500. It is expected that the building will be ready about Christmas.' - The Building News, August 18th 1915.

Construction continued into the following year and the 'Building News' carried another short article in their April 1916 edition saying:- 'A picture house is being built in Arthur Square, Belfast, from plans by Mr. Bertie Crewe, of London. The contractors are Messrs H. and J. Martin, Ltd, of Ormeau Road, Belfast.' - The Building News, April 1916.

The new building opened as the Royal Cinema in the spring of 1916. Designed by Bertie Crewe the building is said to have resembled his Princes Theatre in London, built some 5 years earlier, and was somewhat smaller than originally advertised, with 900 seats in its stalls and circle levels, and a cafe for refreshments.

The Royal Cinema continued for many years but is said to have become very run down in its later years and was eventually demolished and replaced with shops in 1961.

If you have any more information or images you are willing to share for this Theatre then please Contact Me.

 

The Empire Theatre of Varieties, Victoria Square, Belfast

Formerly - The Imperial Colosseum / Travers' Musical Lounge / The New Colosseum / The Buffalo Music Hall

The Empire Theatre, Belfast during the run of Dr. Hunters Christmas Circus - Courtesy Bill Stilling

Above - The Empire Theatre, Belfast during the run of Dr. Hunters Christmas Circus - Courtesy Bill Stilling

The Empire Theatre of Varieties in Victoria Square, Belfast first opened on Monday, December the 3rd 1894 with a Music Hall Bill including Little Tich, The Great Karno Troupe, and Chirgwin, the celebrated pantomimist. The Theatre was a reconstruction of the former Buffalo Music Hall which had opened in 1879 and was itself constructed on the site of the former Imperial Colosseum, a small Hall which had been opened by George Wallace in the 1860s. The Imperial Colosseum had several changes of name under the later ownership of Lindon Travers who first tried "Travers' Musical Lounge" and then "The New Colosseum" before it was eventually rebuilt as the Buffalo Music Hall, which ran until it was rebuilt as the Empire Theatre in 1894.

An advertisement carried in the ERA of the 25th of October 1895 publicising the Grand Reopening of the Empire Theatre, Belfast.The Empire Theatre would have a successful first season in 1894 but it was decided that it was still too small and so the following year it was altered and enlarged and then reopened on the 28th of October 1895, with a Grand Reopening production including a variety of acts, including Fanny Wentworth, Jessie Burton, Horace Wheatley, Lily Marney, Fred Millis, the Barra Troup, George M'Culloch, Zarmo, and Chrissie Angus (See Advertisement Right).

The ERA reported on the newly reconstructed Theatre in their October 5th 1895 edition saying: 'The rebuilding of this house is now rapidly approaching completion, and it is hoped to open it on the 21st inst. The directors decided in May last on the enlargement, and engaged as architect Mr R. Henry Brunton of London, his plans involving taking out one side of the house and extending the building laterally. While the exterior of the theatre, with the exception of a small addition to the front in Victoria-square, remains as before, almost the whole of its interior arrangements are altered.

Right - An advertisement carried in the ERA of the 25th of October 1895 publicising the Grand Reopening of the Empire Theatre, Belfast.

The stage is now 60ft. wide by 30ft. deep, instead of 45ft. by 20ft. The proscenium opening is 30ft. wide by 25ft. high, against 21ft. square. The width of the new house is 76ft.; of the old one only 46ft. From the curtain line to back of pit is 58ft., and from curtain line to front of balcony and gallery 31ft. The height from floor to ceiling is only 37ft., which is about 2ft. 6in. more than in the old house. This could not be extended because of a peculiarity of Belfast, which is that at a few feet below the surface tidal waters rise through the soil, and because, owing to neighbouring ancient lights, it was impossible to make the roof higher. The three floors, however, have been arranged so that the view is not cramped from any of them.

There were twelve private boxes in the old house, but, as this number was not considered necessary, four only have been provided in the new, two on the balcony level at each side. Additional wide granolithic staircases have been built leading to the gallery and balcony, and the old staircases to these floors will be used as emergency exits. The old pit entrance has been enlarged and refitted, and a new entrance to the stalls in Victoria-square has been formed, so that there are two exits from every floor. At the inside of the staircases and entrance lobbies there will be swinging glass doors.

All the most recent devices for the prevention and extinguishing of fire have been adopted. The balcony and gallery floors are formed of iron and concrete, and the pit and stalls floor is of cement, An asbestos curtain on an iron framework working in channel irons is hung in the proscenium opening. Two water hydrants are placed in the pavement opposite the stage door for the use of the city fire engines, and pressure water-mains are laid through the building, connecting with a hydrant on each floor of auditorium, one on each side of stage and one on each fly platform.

The building is to be heated on the hot-air system. A heating chamber is placed in a house adjoining the stage, and ducts are led from it to the auditorium, to the stage, and to each dressing-room. The air, being driven through this chamber by means of an electric fan, is heated during the passage and imparts the required warmth to the air in the various parts of the house. For purposes of ventilation a gas sunbumer is placed in the ceiling, and the ornamental ceiling is pierced to allow air to escape by means of several large ventilators in the roof. Over the roof of the stage is a louvre ventilator with glass top which, in accordance with recent requirements of the authorities, is one-tenth of the area of the stage.

The lighting of the theatre will be entirely by electricity; gas, with the exception of the sunburner in ceiling not being used at all. The electric lighting is supplied by two twenty-horse power gas engines, either one of which is sufficient to keep the lights in the theatre going; while, for additional security, a series of accumulators have been placed in connection.

The dressing-rooms, numbering six in all, are situated in a house adjoining the stage, but are separated from it by an iron door, and a means of escape from them is further provided by a circular iron stair placed in an open courtyard at back. In the floor above the dressing-rooms, but separated from them by a concrete floor, is a kitchen for the convenience of attendants, and from this hot water is supplied to the dressing-rooms and to every floor of the house.

As regards the accommodation of the new house, the actual seating will be as follows:— Private Boxes. say 16 persons; stalls, 115; balcony, 310; pit, 450; gallery, 426. Total, 1,322 persons. The painting and decoration has also chiefly been done by local men, directed by Mr Carpenter, of London, and is of as elegant a character as can he found in any part of the country.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the ERA, 5th October 1895.

The Empire Theatre reopened on Monday the 28th of October 1895 with a Music Hall production and was in business for a great many years after that. Indeed, it celebrated its Diamond Jubilee with a grand Gala Show on Monday the 14th of February 1955, and the programme for that event, which included a brief history of the Theatre and its site, is transcribed below:-

A Backward Glance

Short as may be the span of sixty years to the historian, to us, with no greater expectancy than that of three-score-years and-ten, it is a veritable lifetime. For six decades now the Empire Theatre has served its public - and who is there will deny that those six decades have probably been the most momentous in modern history?

 

The Diamond Jubilee Souvenir programme for the Empire Theatre, Belfast on Monday the 14th of February 1955 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.The Board of Directors of the Belfast Empire Theatre of Varieties Ltd., met for the first time on December 14, 1894, but to find the origins of the association of Entertainment with the actual site the Empire Theatre stands it is necessary to go hack even further.

Left - The Diamond Jubilee Souvenir programme for the Empire Theatre, Belfast on Monday the 14th of February 1955 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.

Back, indeed, to the 1860s, and to one George Wallace, who built a small hall on the site, which he called the Imperial Colosseum. Around 1878 the management of this enterprise was taken over by Lindon Travers, who made the most strenuous efforts to raise the status of the hall. These efforts resulted in the name of the hall being changed, first to "Travers' Musical Lounge" then to "The New Colosseum, the Select Musical Lounge." But all the time it was apparent that it was not the name that was at fault, but rather the size of the building. Mr. Travers gave up the unequal struggle, and in 1879 the building was re-modelled and opened as "The Buffalo." This it was when it was taken over and re-built in 1894, to open as "The Empire," very much as we know it to-day.

The Empire opened its doors for the first time on Monday, December 3, 1894, and as the packed house waited for the first item on a star-studded bill, they expressed great admiration for the finish, comfort and general appointment of the whole theatre. Outside, an even vaster crowd had assembled, at first with high hopes of securing a vacant seat for the performance, and afterwards, as these hopes dwindled, on seeing the apparently endless procession of theatre-goers, to watch while the hansoms and stately carriages deposited their occupants at the doors of this new palace of entertainment.

 

An early sketch of one of the Empire Theatre's previous incarnations - From The Diamond Jubilee Souvenir programme for the Empire Theatre, Belfast on Monday the 14th of February 1955 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.It was a tremendous opening, the bill including the world-renowned Little Tich, The Great Karno Troupe, and Chirgwin, the celebrated pantomimist. These were to be the forerunners of other performers whose names were known throughout the world and whose appearance at "The Empire" were to be milestones in the history of the building.

Right - An early sketch of one of the Empire Theatre's previous incarnations - From The Diamond Jubilee Souvenir programme for the Empire Theatre, Belfast on Monday the 14th of February 1955 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.

Many of them are known by name to-day to countless thousands of Empire fans who were not even born when the owners of the names were at the height of their fame. To name but some - Harry Lauder, who played at The Empire for £8 per week; Shaun Glenville, who, while appearing at The Empire, took time off to get married to Dorothy Ward; Marie Lloyd; Charlie Chaplin, who stalked the stage as "The Dude" in the "Mumming Birds"; Gertie Gitana; Talbot O'Farrell; Rob Wilton; Belfast's own Willie John Ashcroft, "The Solid Man"; G. H. Elliott, and, of more recent memory, Flanagan and Allen, who first agreed to team up while appearing in revue at The Empire.

 

Show details from the Diamond Jubilee Souvenir programme for the Empire Theatre, Belfast on Monday the 14th of February 1955 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.In this long history The Empire has resounded, on many occasions, to the great songs which marked three great wars of the time. At first the songs sang of the South African War, then of the World War of 1914-1918, then of the Second World War. In this last epic, battle was brought nearer to the people, and the first enemy bombs descended on Belfast in 1941, just as the last of the audience was leaving the theatre. That night the entire cast was accommodated in the theatre.

Left - Show details from the Diamond Jubilee Souvenir programme for the Empire Theatre, Belfast on Monday the 14th of February 1955 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.

Soon afterwards, an even heavier air raid on Belfast resulted in the theatre being closed for one night because of damage to the municipal electricity supply. That was the only occasion on which the theatre closed its doors during the last war. When the doors were re-opened, it was to an audience of only 10 people that the artistes performed. Slowly, however, perseverance on the part of the artistes brought full houses again, and the theatre settled back into its important role of keeping the people happy and helping them forget, for the time being, the tension of the times.

In this connection, it is worth recording that the Second World War brought to The Empire a special problem. Because of travel restrictions, it was not possible to continue presenting famous cross-Channel artistes, so a resident company was engaged and, under the title: "Come to the Show," played to wartime audiences throughout the period.

Keenly alive to the impact of other forms of entertainment, The Empire has, while maintaining its tradition of presenting Variety to the people, never been afraid to explore the new mediums. As long ago as 1896 the famous Dan Lowry, then manager of The Empire, had presented a great novelty - the first living picture to be seen in Belfast, super-styled: "The Marvellous, Perplexing and Original Luminiere Cinematographe" Since that time the presentations have ranged through ballet, circus, operetta, drama, comedies, revue and variety.

 

A variety programme for the Empire Theatre of Varieties, Belfast for 6th May 1911Nor has the microphone been overlooked, and there have been many occasions when the audience "attending" a performance at "The Empire" has been vastly widened by broadcasts of actual stage performances by the B.B.C. It was from "The Empire" stage that the first theatre broadcast in Ireland took place in 1927. In 1936 the then Governor of Northern Ireland, the late Duke of Abercorn, was present when the 50th broadcast was made from "The Empire." In 1938 "The Empire" had the distinction of providing No. 6 in the B.B.C. series of Famous Music Halls, the commentator on that occasion being the then comparatively unknown Raymond Glendinning...

Right - A variety programme for the Empire Theatre of Varieties, Belfast for the 6th May 1911 - On the Bill were C. J. Johnson, Edwards & Espinosa, Mona Denvil, Mona Garrick, Ethal Bourne, John Lawson & Co, and Grand Cinematograph Pictures. - The Programme is part of a collection of material from Ethel Bourne and Mona Garrick who were solo performers but also performed as part of their family act 'The Five Sisters', see card below.

The Five Sisters - From an early Postcard

Above - The Five Sisters - From an early Postcard and part of a collection of material from Ethel Bourne, a contralto vocalist, and Mona Garrick, a character actress, who often appeared individually or as part of their family act 'The Five Sisters'

...Perhaps, above all other memories, will stand out the memory held by theatregoer, artiste and management alike of "The Empire" as a "friendly" theatre. Ample evidence of this attitude comes to the management in almost every post - and it is a reputation we would be most reluctant to lose. Among our regular patrons are many who first came to The Empire as children accompanying their parents, and who to-day come as parents bringing their children. Such friends as these have their part in the history of The Empire, for we like to believe that it is, really, their theatre, and that our part lies in accepting the responsibility of providing them with Happy Memories.

The above text is from the Empire Theatre's Diamond Jubilee programme for Monday the 14th of February 1955 and is Courtesy Bill Stilling, whose uncle, Herbert Stilling was the Theatre's Electrician from 1927 and is mentioned in the article below.

 

Their purpose is your service

In our historical notes (transcribed above) special mention is made of the "family" atmosphere which has always been associated with The Empire. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the long and devoted service given by many members of the staff of the theatre. Because they are so much part of the Empire scene, we take this opportunity of appending a few brief details of the services rendered by:

MR. THOMAS DAVEY, Stage Manager.MR. THOMAS DAVEY, Stage Manager (Shown Right). It was away back in 1908 that a a boy called Tommy Davey joined the staff of The Empire. In those days he served as usher and general factotum. In time his diligence and industry brought him to the proud position of stage manager and when you learn that he has occupied this situation since 1924 you will appreciate why he is frequently consulted on all matters appertaining to The Empire. "Tommy's" recollections of Empire history would fill a good-sized and very readable book. He could tell you about the night when, as the bombs were falling on Belfast, he found himself acting as "landlord" to the entire cast of the programme who became his "boarders" for the night; or of the night when he fulfilled the dual role of stage manager and usher! He could tell you about the panic that arose one night when a performer, having just been paid £100 for his work, promptly proceeded to lose his money - it was Tommy who suggested that he should look in his stage clothes, and so brought peace to Victoria Square once more. Not without reason is Thomas Davey sometimes referred to as "Mister Empire."

MR. LESLIE BERESFORD, Musical Director.MR. LESLIE BERESFORD, Musical Director. (Shown Left). Leslie Beresford has been with The Empire for almost 20 years and, as musical director, is responsible for interpreting music, the very essence of variety, to our patrons. One of Leslie's proudest memories of his time at the Empire is of the night in June 1945, when he conducted his orchestra during a Gala Performance which was attended by H.R.H. The Princess Royal. Leslie's interest in music is such that his "Musical- Library" is probably one of the most comprehensive collections in Ireland, ranging, as it does, over, the whole musical panorama from grand opera to be-bop - (You can read and anecdote about Leslie Beresford below).

MR. HERBERT STILLING, Theatre Electrician.MR. HERBERT STILLING, Theatre Electrician. (Shown Right). Herbert Stilling first came to us in 1927, his task at that time being to assist the then electrician in installing a switchboard on a perch at the side of the stage.

(An article entitled 'The Switchboard Illusionist' about Herbert Stilling operating the Switchboard at the Belfast Empire can be seen here.)

He started as electrician two years later and since that time has been responsible for the installation and supervision of the electric fittings and apparatus in use ever since, including one of the most modern switchboards. He recalls that microphones were first installed as permanent fittings in 1938 and that the first artiste to use them was Gertie Gitana. He also recalls that a "Keepolite" Emergency Battery System was installed in 1946 and that in the following year the gas supply was removed from the theatre.

His recollection is that the record house" for "The Empire" was made during a two-week run by a stock drama company playing "Maria Marten, or Murder in the Red Barn" back in 1932. He conceded however, that the following attracted by this spine-chilling thriller was probably broken about two years later with a show with a completely different appeal - Jimmy O'Dea in "Blarney..."

 

Leslie Beresford and the Elephant

Every Christmas, for many years, the Empire had a circus on the stage. One year they had an act by three elephants. At dress rehearsal, without orchestra, the elephants performed their tricks without much comment by anyone.

For the last trick a round wooden plinth with two large solid wooden milk bottles attached to it was placed almost touching the footlights, and about a foot from the orchestra pit. The largest elephant came forward, climbed onto the plinth, put his two front feet on the top of the two milk bottles and, while facing the audience, did a "footstand".

All the staff exchanged worried looks and said "Leslie isn't going to like this". (Leslie Beresford was quite a nervous and highly strung person)

Come the first performance. The elephants do all but their last trick. The plinth is placed, the elephant comes forward and Leslie has his head down conducting and following the musical score. The elephant mounts the plinth, places his front feet on the "milk bottles", and gently adopts his balanced position.

Something dawns on Leslie, it is getting dark. He lifts his head and just above him is a long, thick trunk attached to a giant head.

Now, the pit has a waist-high gate, for the use of the conductor, and which opens on to an aisle going straight through the audience to the back wall of the stalls. Leslie hurdles the gate and keeps running until he is half-way to the back from where he continues to conduct until the elephants leave the stage. For the next week or so he conducts from the stalls until he gains confidence.

The above anecdote was kindly sent in by Bill Stilling, nephew of Herbert Stilling, electrician at the Empire for 27 years.

 

Empire Theatre FOH Staff...So much for those who look after our patrons while "The Show" is actually in progress. But during the Interval, as you seek refreshment in the bar, there, too, you will find old friends waiting to attend your comfort. (Shown Left).

Take for example, Mrs. Nan Stirling who came first in 1915. Left us for a short time, only to return in 1921, and remain with us ever since. During all of that time Mrs. Stirling has been late "on the job" on only one occasion - and that was when, indulging her fondness for "The Sport of Kings," she was delayed in getting back from the Maze Racecourse.

 

A letter written to the Empire's electrician Herbert Stilling after the closure of the Theatre in July 1961 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.Then there are the sisters Miss Gertie McDowell and Miss Kathleen McDowell, both of whom have been with The Empire since 1923. Over the years they have made a host of personal friends among our regular patrons. High in the list of memories which Gertie has of Empire days is the memorable occasion when, at extremely short notice, she was given a walking-on part in a show to overcome an emergency. It is, perhaps, a matter for regret that no "local girl makes good" story followed this brief appearance, but at least Gertie achieved her ambition of playing in a show at The Empire. Also on our Bar Staff, as she has been for the past 20 years, is Miss Tess Devlin who, like her colleagues, is known to all.'

The above text is from the Empire Theatre's Diamond Jubilee programme for Monday the 14th of February 1955 and is Courtesy Bill Stilling, whose uncle, Herbert Stilling was the Theatre's Electrician from 1927 and is mentioned in the article.

The Empire Theatre continued in business for another six years after its Diamond Jubilee but it's end came when it was closed in July 1961 and then demolished a few years later in 1965.

Right - A letter from Dermot Findlater written to the Empire's electrician Herbert Stilling after the closure of the Theatre in July 1961 - Courtesy Bill Stilling.

If you have any more information or images you are willing to share about any of Belfast's Theatres please Contact me.

Some archive newspaper reports for Theatres in Belfast on this page were kindly collated and sent in by B.F.