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The Empire Theatre - A History

The Empire Theatre that we all now know, on Lime Street in Liverpool, opened on the 9th March 1925, with the opening production of 'Better Days', starring Stanley Lupino, Maisie Gay and Ruth French. Prior to the building of the present day Empire, another theatre once stood on the site, The New Prince of Wales Theatre and Opera House which opened on the 15th October 1866. It was, at the time, Liverpool’s largest theatre, but it was only about three-quarters of the size of the existing Empire. On July 29th 1867 its name changed to the Royal Alexandra Theatre and Opera House to honour the Princess of Wales

The New Prince of Wales Theatre and
Opera House Lime Street Liverpool

After closing in 1894 the theatre opened in 1895 under the ownership of Empire Theatre (Liverpool) Ltd, although it still remained Alexandra. It was not until 1886 that the theatre changed its name to the Empire after it was sold to Messrs. Moss and Thornton for £30,000. It opened on the 19th December 1896, with Oscar Barrett’s famous pantomime Cinderella.

The theatre then closed its doors on Saturday 16th February 1924 for the building of the new theatre which can be seen today. The new theatre opened its doors to the public in 1925. The theatre was designed by W. and T. R. Milburn for Moss Empires; the carving and the ornamentation in the auditorium were carried out by E. O. Griffiths. The building is constructed on a steel frame, with a Portland stone façade and brick elsewhere. The architectural style of the façade is free Neoclassical. The front of the theatre is in five bays, the central three of which have an attic, rising above the two lateral bays. The ground floor of the central bays contains the entrance doors, and over them is a steel canopy decorated with medallions and guilloché bands. The storey above ground level contains the balcony, with single and paired Ionic columns, between which are recessed windows. Over this is a dentilled cornice and the attic. In the first floor of the side bays there are windows in architraves that are flanked by shallow pilasters, above which is a plain parapet.

On 24th May 1961 the Theatre played host to the 'Royal Gala Performance' before her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. The Beatles performed at the Empire, famously in l965 at the height of their fame, following in the footsteps of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many other internationally known stars. Once again in the 1970s, it was host to two Royal Command performances for the Queen and Prince Charles.

In July 1977 Moss Empires reviewed plans to dispose of the theatre after making a loss over the previous five years, and two years later in April 1979 Merseyside County Council saved the theatre.

By October 1979, £330,00 had been spent on the back stage and a further £350,000 in 1980. The improvements included new lighting facilities, sound system and new dressing rooms. The theatre has 2,350 seats and has now been extended across Coal Street, the small side street that once separated it from the Legs of Man Public House, and a new extension has been built on the site of the former pub.

Liverpool Empire, photograph Joe Bleasdale

The Empire, the largest two tier theatre in the country, is still home to a wide variety of entertainment, from opera to West End shows.

Performers in the original theatre included George Formby, Sr., Harry Tate, Dan Leno, Florrie Forde, The Two Bobs, and Wilson, Keppel and Betty. The first production in the present theatre was Better Days, starring Stanley Lupino, Maisie Gay and Ruth French. Subsequent performers have included Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy, Roy Rogers and Trigger, Charlton Heston, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Irving, Vesta Tilley, and Arthur Askey. More recent artists include Johnny Mathis, The Carpenters, Neil Sedaka, The Osmonds, Tommy Steel, Adam Faith, Bruce Forsyth, Victoria Wood, Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Shirley Bassey, Kate Bush, and Cilla Black. In 1957 a local pop group called The Quarrymen appeared at the theatre. They returned in 1959, having changed their name to "Johnny and the Moondogs". They returned to the Empire again in 1962, now named The Beatles. The Beatles gave their last performance in this theatre on 5 December 1965. During the 1970s two Royal Command Performances were held in the Empire, and in 2007 the theatre was the venue for the Royal Variety Performance. marking Liverpool's being a European City of Culture the following year.

Among the many acts that appeared at the Empire where Liverpool’s own ‘The Vernon's Girls’ a singing choir in the 1950s, made up of employees, mainly the girls who checked the pools coupons at Vernons Pools.

The Vernon's Girls at the Empire circa early 1950s.  Audrey Satterley is 4th in from the left 2nd row back
(Photograph courtesy of  Heather Foreman)

Later signed to Decca Records The Vernon's Girls reached No. 16 in the charts with ‘Lover Please’. They also had minor hits with ‘Locomotion’, ‘You Know What I Mean’, ‘Funny All Over’ and ‘Do The Bird.’

The Liverpool Empire Theatre welcomes royal guest  Prince Edward to lead a celebration of 150 years of live performance on Thursday September 29th 2016. Prince Edward will be the guest of honour at a special Royal Gala performance of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers

Another piece of Liverpool History sits just behind the Empire Theatre, Ma Egertons, originally the Eagle Public House took its name from former Irish-born landlady Mary Egerton, who arrived in Liverpool in around 1890. The pub has played host to numerous stars of stage and screen over many years and is still open today.


By Robert F Edwards
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