Lost Empire

Empire Theatre, Garston, Liverpool (2000)

Empire Theatre, Garston, Liverpool (2000)

The invaluable newsreel of the current Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin reports that the former Empire Theatre, Garston, in south Liverpool, is threatened with demolition – apparently to make way for a hospital car-park.

That would be a pity.

This modest suburban music hall, with a seating-capacity variously recorded as 876 or 1,040, was built, after several false starts, and opened in 1915.  It lasted as a theatre for barely three years, before becoming a full-time cinema, bravely advertised as “The Scala of the South”, with a local news Gazette and an augmented orchestra.

Ironically, for an enterprise with such shaky financial foundations, it prospered in the absence of any nearby super-cinema in the surrounding suburbs.

It eventually closed as a cinema, with a final double bill of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock and Glenn Ford in The Fastest Guns Alive, on December 8th 1962.  After that it went over to bingo until 2009 – three years of theatre, forty-four years of cinema and forty-seven years of bingo.

When I photographed it in 2000 the auditorium was undivided;  by the following year a suspended ceiling had been inserted between the balcony and the proscenium, presumably to make the place easier to heat.  Nevertheless, the Theatres Trust website http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/1956-empire-garston
reports that the building is well-maintained and retains many original features.

The existing building, by an unrecorded architect, was designed as a full-scale theatre, with a thirty-foot proscenium, a stage fifteen feet deep and a tower of seven dressing rooms, and because neither cinema nor bingo required any substantial alteration, it survives as a virtually intact Edwardian music-hall/variety theatre.

It’s the classic setting for Mickey Rooney’s line, “Let’s do the show right here.”

It’s hard to estimate – because I’m not a Garston resident – whether there’s any community need for a compact auditorium with everything needed to return it to live performance.

It’s a shame if the car-park can’t go somewhere else.

The Cinema Theatre Association website is at http://www.cinema-theatre.org.uk.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s ‘lectures’ Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry and Liverpool’s Heritage please click on the links.

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