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Opinion: The Empire Theatre

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At an event that I can barely imagine, the Italian Renaissance style auditorium of the Empire Theatre of Varieties opened on 4 July 1895 to the dulcet tones of Madame Levanti’s Bohemian Ladies. Google is not my friend in this instance, for I can find no trace of this fabulously named group of women. According to The Era, they were followed by a Mrs Maggie Duggan (male impersonator) and Mr Quinton Gibson (female impersonator). Is this starting to sound familiar yet? Other entertainment on the evening included comedy, song and dance. The evening was rounded off by an extravagant ball. Those Victorians knew how to party didn’t they? Although The Empire was built to host variety entertainment and dances, the license for this was not granted. A dramatic license was eventually obtained but after just five years the building was repurposed as a circus venue after making consistent losses.

In 1900 The Empire became The Hippodrome. As well as showing circus acts, Louis Tussaud’s waxworks inhabited the basement and bioscope shows took place. For the uninitiated such as myself, a little digging into this Victorian activity was required. Bioscope shows were linked to fairgrounds and combined moving images with organ music and lavish stages. There were dancing girls and, according to this video from the British Film Institute, the crowds outside were wowed by farcical feats of speed-shaving.

The appeal of the movies clearly out-paced that of the circus or even the speed-barbers because in 1910 the building was sold and remodelled to allow for a permanent cinema space. Silent films, such as this footage of Victoria Pier in 1904 (shot by local filmmakers James Kenyon and Sagar Mitchell) were shown throughout the day.

In 1929 Associated British Cinema made it the ABC Hippodrome and both films and live entertainment continued alongside each other. The list of famous names associated with this venue in its heyday is extensive but included Winifred Atwell, George Formby, Hylda Baker, Max Bygraves and Julie Andrews.

1960 saw the building close again, with much of the old building demolished. When it reopened it featured live shows during the summer with cinema and concerts taking place in winter. At this time the popular television show Blackpool Night Out was filmed at the ABC Theatre and the big names continued to come to Blackpool: Morecambe and Wise, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Cilla Black, The Beatles, Tommy Steele, Engelbert Humperdink and Jimmy Tarbuck.

The big screen finally trounced the live stage in 1981 when building was remodelled, making way for three cinema screens. In 1986 the name changed to Cannon Cinema, followed by MGM Cinema in 1993. At this point I will insert my own person recollection of queuing around the block and waiting on King Street in July of 1993 to see the terrifying Jurassic Park. The building was a little run down by this stage, as was The Odeon on Dickson Road. Both buildings closed in 1998.

After four years of planning, the building which had hosted Madame Levanti’s Bohemian Ladies (that name deserves at least two mentions) was re-born in its most recent incarnation. The Syndicate, described as a superclub, boasted a capacity in excess of 4,000 and had three floors of music. It attracted major club DJs to the resort but may have been a victim of its own success. Controversy over policing the popular venue caused it to close and re-open more times than *insert inappropriate metaphor here*. On 10th August 2011 the club closed for the final time. Today the building remains empty and is to be bought by Blackpool Council with the intention of razing the property to create a new car park. There is some substantial opposition to these plans.

What would Madame Levanti’s Bohemian Ladies have thought of the proposals? How would the entertainment and dance license of 1895 have affected the building’s history? Whatever the future of the building on the corner of Church and King Street, there is an abundant and varied history to the place. It is possible to track the resort’s entertainment fashions over the last 100 years with only a cursory glance at the guises of this one venue.

It is difficult to write a piece like this without revealing one’s partisan tendencies. With that in mind, I will finish by pointing to the saddening prospect that our addition to this colourful history, a story of song and dance, circus and cinema, is that of a concrete car park. The Empire building has survived two world wars and the economic crisis of the 1970s. It would be a shame to let such a resilient property perish now. Wouldnt it?

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This article would not have been possible without the extensive historical archives on these websites:

http://www.amounderness.co.uk/abc_cinema_blackpool.html

http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/BlackpoolTheatres/HippodromeBlackpool.htm

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/25501

http://www.bfi.org.uk/

  • Show Comments (3)

  • Steven Bate

    Hi Vicky, very interesting article. I have been trying to get people together for ages to set up some kind of conversation/ talk based local radio service on the Internet. Would you be interested in helping such a project?

  • Vicky Ellis

    http://vickyellis.weebly.com/contact-vicky.html
    http://www.signal1.co.uk/on-air/liz-ellis/

    Hi Steven,

    My sister is actually a successful radio presenter(see 2nd link)! I am pretty busy but I would love to hear about your project. You can contact me via my website above.

  • Fran

    First saw Roy Orbison at the ABC Hipperdrome in 1971 preceded by Manfred Mann.
    Remember well how all the different Acts who had played the summer season on the piers and other venues all came together at the end of the season to do one last show at the ABC for charity.
    Will be a shame to see it go.

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