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Tyne and Wear HER(4474): Sunderland, High Street West, Empire Theatre - Details

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Sunderland, High Street West, Empire Theatre




Music, Speech and Dance Venue




Extant Building

Empire Theatre, 1906-7 by W & TR Milburn, with c1989 rear upper bar extension and 2004 replacement fly tower. Ashlar entrance building, rear auditorium and lobbies are brick with ashlar dressings, copper dome, slate roof. L-plan. Free Baroque style. Two storeys with three storey corner entrance tower. Projecting corner tower has paired Ionic columns. Dome supports lantern of 4 angled pairs of Ionic columns framing niches with top open-work sphere supporting a statue of Terpsichore (replica - the original is inside the theatre). Plaque on right return commemorates laying of foundation stone by Vesta Tilley on September 29th 1906. Interior - rich Baroque detail. Main entrance has circular lobby with painted classical scenes, terrazzo floor. Auditorium wide with two curved balconies, the lower with side arcades to stairs. Boxes project in round turrets at second-balcony level, with paired Ionic columns supporting balustraded cupolas. Rectangular proscenium arch. Ribbed coved ceiling with stucco decoration. All balconies have richly moulded fronts. A remarkably unaltered interior, carefully restored by the Borough Council. Originally called the Empire Palace and opened by Vesta Tilley, music hall entertainer and male impersonator. The 90 feet high tower featured a revolving sphere topped by a statue of Terpiscore, the muse of music and dance. The theatre closed in 1959. Sunderland Council bought it and reopened it in 1960 when the Beatles played during their first UK tour. On 26 April 1976 the 'Carry On' actor Sid James suffered a fatal heart attack on stage during 'The Mating Season'. The theatre is said to be haunted by the ghosts of Vesta Tilley and Molly Moselle, assistant manager to a touring company {Kirkup 2009}. The foundation stone was laid by Vera Tilley, a star of music hall, on 29th June 1906 and open a year later; 1st July 1907. William and TR Milburn architects were commissioned by local man Richard Thornton to create the “Empire Palace”. The empire was opened as a partnership between Richard Thornton, Edward Moss and Oswald Stoll. It is a splendid example of Edwardian architecture, it has a 90ft round tower crowned with a dome and a revolving sphere which originally bore the statue of Terpsichore. The statue has been removed but can still be seen in the hallway of the theatre with a replica taking its place on the dome. There is a grand main entrance originally for well-to-do classes but there is a separate entrance on a side street that would have been for lower class movie goers. The building close in 1959 after low attendance figures. In 1960 it was taken over by the local authority and re-named the civic theatre (though it quickly reverted back to the Empire). It re-opened in 1960 and has since has several refurbishments. The building is still in use as an entertainment venue and is now the largest theatre in the region. In 2004 it received a £4.6m refurbishment and now has state of the art equipment as well as a luxurious four level auditorium seating 2250. It is in brilliant condition, surpassing even its newly built grandeur. Recent renovations also revealed the original marble walls and paintings which are proudly on show in its original Edwardian interior.




<< HER 4474 >> Dept. of National Heritage, of Buildings of Special ... Interest; Rob Kirkup, 2009, Ghostly Tyne and Wear, pages 92-95; Anderson, A. (1995) A century of Sunderland Cinemas, Sunderland: Black Cat Publications; Northern Archaeological Associates, 2015, Sunderland Empire Theatre - Historic Buildings Recording

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