29th November 1954. Fallen Empires.
Many early variety theatres were owned by Moss Empires and designed by Frank ‘Matchless’ Matcham.
Today in 1954 the death was announced of Music Hall entertainer Sir George Robey in a decade which saw the decline of the variety theatre, the offspring of the 19th century music hall.
Variety acts which would have been on theatre circuits for years, were now seen by millions in one night, by growing television audiences. Entertainment once enjoyed in the many ‘Empires’ of British cities now became a front-room experience.
However the advent of cinemas forced many to change as with The Empire in Leicester Square, London which always had a varied programme, including ballet, plays and early films. In 1927 it became a full-time cinema.
Other London ‘Empires’ suffered a similar fate when 1955 saw the closure of the Wood Green Empire, opened in September 1912, and until the late 1940s where Tommy Handley, Vic Oliver and Sandy Powell were popular.(1)
The two towers of the façade were eventually incorporated into the Halifax Building Society offices.
The Chiswick Empire was opened during the variety theatre boom in September 1912 and which after a fire was re-opened in November 1913 under the paternal and autocratic management of Sir Oswald Stoll.(2)
The varied fare was always in good taste with Saturday performances of Shakespeare and during World War II saw many touring productions, including King’s Rhapsody and Song of Norway.
It did good business up to the late 1950s then closed in June 1959 to make way for a 11-storey office block called ‘Empire House’ later renamed IBM House. Liberace was the last artiste to appear there.
Finsbury Park Empire stood at Seven Sisters Road and was opened September 6th 1910 becoming the principal out-of-town variety theatre of Moss Empire. It was here that Gracie Fields bought the song ‘Sally’ from an impoverished songwriter at the stage door.
It closed on 7th May 1960 after keeping its doors open with revues and pop stars it was demolished in 1965 and replaced by a block of flats ‘Vaudeville Court’.
The Hackney Empire still stands. Closed as a theatre in 1956, it was taken over by television company ATV until 1962, when bingo took over.
Shepherd’s Bush Empire, ‘the ‘Bush’ opened in 1903 and could seat 1,650 but closed in September 1953 to be taken over by the BBC for a studio; ‘Variety Parade’ with Max Bygraves, being transmitted in October.
Up to 1953 variety was twice -nightly with Elsie and Doris Waters, Donald Peers, Wilson, Keppel and Betty (sand dancers) and Jewell and Warris.
It was a time when radio celebrities such as Wilfred Pickles could still be offered £75 per week to tour the Halls by impresario Lew Grade, when the average working man’s wage was £3 or £4 per week.
The Islington Empire opened 1901 after previous fires, was the 4th theatre on the site of the original Philharmonic Hall of 1860. At first it specialised in melodrama and operetta, but later variety. It was also used for political meetings.
It became a cinema in late 1930s until another fire in 1962 and then became the site of a bank.
(1) January 31st 1955.
(2) Sir Oswald Stoll amalgamated to form Moss Empires.
Ref: wikipedia.org/empire_leicester_square/Pic Image.