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Preston’s Empire Theatre, a palace of dreams?

Posted on - 28th November, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Nostalgia, Preston City Centre, Preston News
Empire Theatre in 1920 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
A staff picnic arrives at the Empire Theatre in 1920. Note the ultra-safe charabancs Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The history of the Empire Theatre in Preston reflects all the changes in 20th century culture and entertainment. Beginning as a music hall and ending as a short lived bingo hall, the Empire went through many guises. Unfortunately the building in Church Street lasted less than a century and was demolished in 1976.

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The Empire opens with early films

The Empire Theatre opened in 1911, when music hall acts were popular. You could pay 4d to see such wonders as clog dancing, singers and comedians. The wealthy could pay 10s 6d for a four seat box, equivalent to more than £100 today!

It was a large theatre, with seating for 2,500 people. Films were shown from the beginning, between the acts. The Blackburn film company of Mitchell and Kenyon made films of local people and these would have been shown here.

Music hall was booming and two shows a night could be had.

A still from a Mitchel and Kenyon film Pic: Centuries of Sound
A still from a Mitchel and Kenyon film Pic: Centuries of Sound

Twice nightly

Edwin Bush architect drawing 1911 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Edwin Bush architect drawing 1911 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Get the habit twice nightly was a marketing double entendre, used in the Victorian era to promote music hall performances. This tactic was used to increase profits and utilise performers more. Henceforth, two shows a night were to be shown. The times were 6.40pm and 9pm. Matinees in the afternoon were aimed at the more leisured classes and shift workers.

Styles of entertainment

Originally only music hall acts were allowed in theatres, however this changed in 1912, when reviews (sketches) were allowed. Next, aspirational middle and upper class productions appeared by writers such as Shaw and Shakespeare.

Empire Theatre promo Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Empire Theatre promo Pic: Preston Digital Archive

After World War I, a more restrained programme of touring acts that included opera and melodrama took over from the raucous music hall.

Throughout the 1920s the Empire featured touring companies performing the plays of the day, such as The Call of the Road and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Nevertheless, times were changing and cinema was making inroads into traditional theatre.

1930 conversion to a cinema

Theatre attendances began to drop off in the mid 1920s and the ownership found it difficult to make a profit. More controversial plays were tried. George Bernard Shaw’s,¬†Mrs Warren’s Profession¬†debuted in 1928. The subject covered was the social conditions that brought about prostitution.

Variety shows ended, big draws like George Formby came in 1929, With the show Formby Night Out.

By 1930 the writing was on the wall, and the Empire became the third Preston theatre to covert to a cinema. Talking pictures had arrived and the new equipment was installed.

Cinema is King, 1964‚Äď76

In August 1930 the first film to be shown was Phantom of the Opera, oddly, this was a silent horror film made in 1925! It has no connection with the musical version. Red Cross nurses were on hand in case someone fainted.

The Phantom of the Opera Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The Phantom of the Opera Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The 35 years from 1930 to 1964 saw great changes, a major war had been fought and the British Empire had gone, making the name of the theatre antiquated. TV dominated entertainment and, as a result, it became increasingly difficult to fill such a large auditorium. Also, custom built art-deco cinemas, built in the 1930s, were competing with the Empire. Sadly, the last film shown, in 1964, was appropriately, The Last Frontier.

Empire Theatre Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Empire Theatre Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The end of an era

Empire Bingo Club promo Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Empire Bingo Club promo Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The Empire bingo club was opened in August 1964, by Coronation Street’s Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner). This shows the role of the now dominant television in the culture of the nation.

The bingo hall was short lived, and the entire building was demolished in 1976. The site is now occupied by flats.

Read more: Discovering Preston’s former cinema sites (part three)



Read more: See the latest Preston news and headlines

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