The Empire Theatre, Cleethorpes is virtually invisible. When I checked out the resort to run a visit there I discovered textbook references to its existence but it took a great deal of finding. The building stands on the sea front and attracts visitors as an amusement arcade. It doesn’t have the obvious decorative faience façade of a Frank Matcham variety theatre, and indeed the only exterior clue to its origin is round the back, where a very tall doorway in the back wall is clearly the scene dock.
When I contacted the owner, Rosie Armitage, she was more than ready to give me access and to allow me to bring groups to see the remains of the interior. What was the stalls is now unrecognisable, but at balcony level – amidst the paraphernalia of Lazer Quest – the proscenium arch and plasterwork remain largely intact, though painted matt black and only visible under working lights.
It’s a spooky time-warp experience to find a late-1890s interior, as it were frozen in time and virtually forgotten.
The place has its share of theatrical stories.
Sidney Carlton, the lessee in 1899, was “known as much for his frequent court appearances as for his management of the theatre”, and left town abruptly in August of that year.
A subsequent proprietor, James Carter-White, a chemist who was also a local councillor and a Freemason, established Cleethorpes’ first independent Masonic lodge in the upper rooms.
The most illustrious performer to appear at the Empire was Charles Coburn, “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”.
The place was still playing to full houses as late as the 1950s, but abruptly closed after Jimmy James & Co played there in 1960, and has been an amusement arcade now for nearly as long as it was a theatre.
Update: Since I first posted this article in May 2010, Lazer Quest has gone and there are admirable schemes to reclaim the building. See About us – The Empire Cleethorpes and Empire Theatre, Cleethorpes, England – shared interest | Facebook.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces: the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.
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