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The Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds

About the Theatre - All That Remains by John Grice - A Mystery Solved About The Leeds Empire - The Leeds Empire by Donald Auty

Leeds Theatres Index

The Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - From a postcard.

Above - The Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - From a postcard.

 

A poster for a variety show at the Leeds Empire in 1936 - Courtesy Michelle Cavanagh, whose father, Alfred Rupert Withey Shippam (stage name Rupe Withey), was on the Bill.The Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds was part of a large construction consisting of two Arcades and a Theatre seating over 1,700 people. The entire building was designed by the renowned Theatre architect, Frank Matcham for the Liverpool, Leeds and Hull Empire Palaces Limited run by Mr. H. E. Moss.

The Empire Palace opened its doors for the first time on the 29th of August 1898 with a Music Hall Bill featuring Lydia Adams - the Original Sally in our Alley, The Sisters Preston - duetists and dancers, W. E. Bates - a coronet soloist, The Nine Leopolds - acrobats, Mddle Mignonette - soubrette and dancer, Prince Koki - juggler, Will Hebden - comedian, Jessie Albini - comedienne and dancer, O' Gust - a ventriloquist, The Aglos Trio - novelty and specialty act, Harry Tate - 'the greatest mimic of the day,' The Brothers Onda - a comedy act, The Royal 6 Welshmen - Rhonda valley glee singers, Professor John Higgins - 'the human kangaroo,' and the Empire Grand Orchestra consisting of 25 musicians.

Right - A poster for a variety show at the Leeds Empire in 1936 - Courtesy Michelle Cavanagh, whose father (Shown Below), Alfred Rupert Withey Shippam (stage name Rupe Withey), was on the Bill.

Rupe Withey - Courtesy Michelle Cavanagh

Above - Rupe Withey - Courtesy Michelle Cavanagh

On its opening the owners of the new Empire Theatre boasted that it was one of the finest Variety Theatres in the country, with all the latest improvements, including Electric Light, a Sliding Roof, and a Fireproof Curtain.

 

A Postcard showing the Auditorium and Stage of the Leeds Empire Theatre - Courtesy Anthony Wood

Above - A Postcard showing the Auditorium and Stage of the Leeds Empire Theatre - Courtesy Anthony Wood who says:- 'I grew up in Leeds and in to 1940s and 50s saw many of the pantomimes and variety shows, usually from the "gods" at the top. I can always remember climbing the stairs and rushing to find my mother and front seat. It was a magical time, a respite from much of the day to day life in many parts of Leeds at the time. From about 1955 I saw the majority of the variety bills, right until just before the theatre closed, by that time I could afford to sit in the front stalls. What lovely magical memories I still have of that period.' - Anthony Wood.

The Theatre was restructured in 1931 so that it was able to exhibit Film as well as regular Variety but unlike so many Theatres of its day this one managed to carry on throughout the 1950s putting on Variety and Concerts with all the big musical names of the period.

The Auditorium of the Leeds Empire - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure of 1949

Above - The Auditorium of the Leeds Empire - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure of 1949

Sadly as the shows got bigger around the country, the small stage of the Empire became its Achilles heel. The last production at the Theatre was the Pantomime 'Babes in the Wood' starring Nat Jackley on the 25th of February 1961.

An auction was then held in the Theatre to sell off its fixtures and fittings, a visitor to this site, Anthony Wood, writes:- 'I went to the final auction of many Items, it was such a sad experience, the theatre had already been cleared of most of the lovely brass railings, the seats, carpets, and house lighting had been removed. The Joseph brothers, owners of the City Varieties were there, the assistant manager of the Empire looked stunned, I don't remember seeing Leo Lion the Manager, I'm sure it would have been all too much of a bad experience. I just thought for the final - why don't they play the march 'Washington Post'? It was played for many years immediately after the National anthem from a record until all the audience had left the auditorium. A sad end to a great and lovely theatre.' - Anthony Wood.

The Empire Palace Theatre was demolished in 1962 and a new Arcade called the Empire Arcade arose in its place.

 

All That Remains by John Grice

All that is left of the Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - Courtesy John Grice 2007.

Above - All that is left of the Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - Courtesy John Grice 2007.

All that is left of the Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - Courtesy John Grice 2007.Many know that the Harvey Nichols store in Leeds occupies the site that used to be Leeds Empire. Few notice that there is one remaining memory of the old theatre, if you look up. The rear exit of the store is what used to be the backstage entrance to the theatre - you entered an alleyway, the stage door was then on the left and the dock doors facing. High above this alley there remains a stone motif reading Empire Palace.

Right - All that is left of the Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - Courtesy John Grice 2007.


This entrance opens off Cross Arcade, which in turn leads to the spectacular County Arcade. The entire site, designed by Frank Matcham, comprises of many shops, and the Empire Theatre was at the heart. The complex is now named TheVictoria Quarter and is an amazing legacy from the great man, beautifully maintained and all the more interesting because it is a rare surviving example of his non-theatrical work.

Text Courtesy John Grice 2007.

 

Neil Sean - A Mystery Solved About The Leeds Empire...

Neil Sean Entertainment reporter for NBC News / MSNBC.I was fortunate enough recently to take afternoon tea at Harvey Nichols in Leeds... many will know of course that the famous store is right at the heart of the onetime epic theatre that was Leeds Empire… a place where the great Norman Evans, as his wonderful Fanny Fairbottom, held court in panto right from December to Easter in the early 60s & breaking box office records into the bargain too…

Right - Neil Sean Entertainment reporter for NBC News / MSNBC.

As a child my father, himself a performer, had gone along to see shows at the Empire including the great Max Miller on a rare trip back to Yorkshire to see his fans… sadly like many of the wonderful Matcham Gems it was demolished in parts as a theatre & suddenly the need for shopping space grew in the 60’s or so they say... But is that all there is left of the Empire now? How would a simple meeting over tea result in me finding out? The hosts of the Expresso bar in the arcade from the store began to tell me quite a few secrets & in particular on how the dressing rooms & tunnels leading to them were in fact still intact & around.

Did anyone else know I pondered... After a wonderful bash of cakes, sandwiches & the best Yorkshire tea brewed, I dared asked the question if it were possible to take a view... Ashley & Kate were great & instantly summoned someone important who took me to the bowels of the store & sure enough I was able, in the dark, to see long corridors that were once filled with Tiller girls running about, or the great Hutch swirling past in his fine attire prior to winning over the infamous tough Northern Crowd on a Monday night first house… Little has changed in fact & yes I plan to go back & take snaps further but for now the secret is out, not quite all is gone from the Leeds Empire & while the council seem insistent on wiping out the great history of the theatre its pleasing to know as you walk down the arcade beneath you & if you are listening very carefully can you… really still hear the ghosts of the band striking up one more time... Ghosts oh yes there are those too... I just wanted to share with you this wonderful secret for now... Kindly sent in by Neil Sean, February 2013.

 

The Leeds Empire - From Moss Empires in the Fifities by Donald Auty

Photograph of the Leeds Empire during it's demolition which clearly shows the stage and the dock doors at rear centre that are now the exit / entrance to Harvey Nichols store. See images above for how it looks in 2007. Photograph from the Yorkshire Evening Post - Courtesy John Grice.This was my favourite Moss Empire. It was one of the earlier ones and built on four levels. It opened in 1898 and was owned by a subsidiary company Hull and Leeds Palaces of variety Ltd. Matcham was the architect and he was responsible for the adjoining arcade that still exists and is a fine example of Victorian building splendour and listed. The theatre was one of the smallest houses seating only 1500 but was full of atmosphere with acres of brass rails that were polished each day. The stage was quite small and during pantomime some of the scenery had to be kept out in the arcade. Leo A Lion a nephew of Walter De Freece was the manager and he used to stand in the foyer prior to every performance dressed in immaculate evening dress and smoking a cigar as he welcomed the audience with his faithful commissionaire Jack Allen beside him in a uniform covered in gold braid. He did the same thing after the performance bidding everyone good night and asking them if they had enjoyed the show.

Right - Photograph of the Leeds Empire during it's demolition which clearly shows the stage and the dock doors at rear centre that are now the exit / entrance to Harvey Nichols store. See images above for how it looks in 2007. Photograph from the Yorkshire Evening Post - Courtesy John Grice.

Neil Brookes who later became Manager at the Liverpool Empire and the London Palladium was assistant there at one time. It was a January matinee day during pantomime and they had a terrible morning. The previous night's bar takings would not balance, there was a burst in the gents toilet that flooded the back of the pit stalls and there was no ice cream delivery. When the curtain went up on the matinee the first eight rows of the stalls were empty because a party was late. They arrived half way through the first scene. Leo was standing at the back of the stalls with Neil as the late comers disrupted the performance and he turned to Neil and said do you know today we have been f****** by the finger of fate.

Programme for the Leeds Empire Theatre in 1949 - Courtesy Alan Chudley - Click for details.Ronnie Roberts was the musical director and to my mind the finest variety musical director in the country. The orchestra was the smallest on the circuit only 11 but what a sound. It was an education to sit behind Ronnie at the first house on a Monday night and watch him nurse the variety bill through his frequent remark to the pit pianist, seated at his side was knock it out Bob.

He was a great personality though he could be bit hot headed at times. When Owen Walters became music supervisor for the circuit in the late fifties he decided he would cut out all the violins in all the pit orchestras. Ronnie disagreed with this and promptly gave his notice and took a pub in Halton. He never conducted again, a sad loss to the business.

Left - Programme for the Leeds Empire Theatre in 1949 - Courtesy Alan Chudley - Click for details.

The Chief electrician was Billy Kaye. He always wore a suit with a rose in his button hole. This sartorial elegance was somewhat spoiled by his habit of taking vast quantities of snuff that was liberally deposited on his suit lapels and waistcoat. Billy moved to the Grand Theatre after the Empire closed and after a gap of a few years in the middle east I went in with a tour. I asked Billy what had happened to Ronnie Roberts and discovered that sadly he had died.

The only fly in the ointment was the resident stage manager who was a foul mouthed objectionable Scotchman. He caused continual discontent amongst both artistes and staff and I used to wonder how he kept his job. Leo the manager was a kind man and the stage manager took advantage of this. Leo should have sacked him but did not. He was moved to the Winter Gardens Morecambe when the Empire closed in 1961, that was a bit of a backwater by then.

The Empire was well loved by the citizens of Leeds but it was sold for its site value that was prime in the middle of Briggate. There was a token sit-in by the audience on the night that it closed.

From Moss Empires in the Fifities Kindly written for this site by Donald Auty.