I was brought up in the north east of England and between the ages of 13 and 18, I went to school in Middlesbrough. One of my delights was to visit the town centre every Saturday to scour Alan Fearnley's record shop, buying up imported American jazz-funk albums and 12" singles (remember those) before meeting friends to go and eat burger ands chips in the Wimpy Bar and sometimes sneaking into the Masham or Lord Raglan pubs for a sneaky pint of scotch - that's bitter beer in the north-east, not whisky. I recently returned after many years and discovered most of these old haunts (and several others) gone or being used as a sweet shop in the case of the Masham. That's for another post but it was good to see Middlesbrough's glorious Empire Theatre still standing. Amazingly I had somehow managed to forget about the theatre.
Standing proud on Corporation Road in the centre of the town, and originally called the Empire Palace of Varieties, this imposing pile had its foundation stone laid in 1897 and opened two years later. Designed by architect Ernest Runtz in what has been described as the Spanish Renaissance style it had seating for 450 people in the stalls, 150 in the grand circle and a whopping great 750 in the gallery. Not only was the theatre impressive in size and style it also attracted top notch performers. Singer and friend of royalty Lily Langtry and comedienne Kitty Beresford were amongst the 17 acts who took part in the opening night's programme as well as contortionists, acrobats, musicians, dancers and singers. In later years Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Harry Houdini all appeared at the Empire!
The stage was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War and later, like many theatres, the Empire came on hard times. From the late 1980's it was used as a bingo hall before becoming a nightclub and live music venue in 1991. The Empire is a grade two listed building. I particularly like the red exterior and the colours from the stained glass signs hanging from the canopy which carry the original "Theatre of Varieties" name. Its good to see the Empire still standing and still in use. It would be great to see theatre, dance and other music forms showcased here, complementing the current nightclub use and widening Middlesbrough's cultural offer.
You can read more about the theatre on the Empire website.