Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Empire's Magical Century of Entertaining in the North

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Empire's Magical Century of Entertaining in the North

Article excerpt

The sunderland Empire is 100 this year and there is a week-long programme of events planned to celebrate this centennial milestone from July 2.

But before we look to the future, let's take a look at the years of magic and history that have filled this beautiful Edwardian building.

It was July 1, 1907, when the Sunderland Empire first opened her doors to the general public.

Vesta Tilley had laid the foundation stone one year earlier and it was she who would start the proceedings of 100 years of entertainment.

Built for the princely sum of pounds 31,000 on the site of Sunderland Minster's old rectory, the theatre's crowning glory was its 90ft domed tower, headed with the iconic 7ft statue of Terpsichore, the Greek goddess of dance.

Together with theatre impresarios Edward Moss and Oswald Stoll, the father of the Empire was local man Richard Thornton.

Thornton had a vision of a new kind of theatre, where working class people would be able to afford to come and see the biggest and best shows for the first time, and priced his tickets accordingly.

That's not to say there wasn't room for the more affluent.

In fact, in the early days the auditorium's Dress Circle (so-called because you had to be well dressed to get in!) had its own entrance to ensure the well-to-do didn't have to mix with the riff-raff!

This was the golden age of theatre ( before television and pop music, stage stars were the pop and soap stars of their day and audiences flocked to see them.

This period saw legends like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, WC Fields and George Formby wow Wearside theatre-goers, and from as early as the theatre's second year, early highlights of Sunderland matches were also shown in the auditorium. The venue also showcased some very odd variety acts ( lady boxers, boomerang hat throwers and even a trick-cycling saxophonist!

The ravages of the Great War had little impact on the theatre, but the Second World War gave the Sunderland Empire its first major challenge.

Terpsichore was taken off the roof and placed into storage for her own protection.

She never went back as she was replaced with a look-a-like!

The original now stands watchfully over the theatre's main entrance.

Within minutes of the declaration of war, theatres across the nation were declared closed by the authorities, fearful of the danger of large numbers of people congregating in the same place.

A public outcry followed, and it was agreed several days later that theatres like the Sunderland Empire would be allowed to stay open, as long as they took every precaution (like offering air raid shelters and blackout banners) and closed by 10pm every night.

Apart from these changes, the Sunderland Empire continued to function normally ( and it even reported that some performances continued through air raids! …

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