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.