Cineworld at the Empire Theatre

5 Leicester Square,
London, WC2H 7NA

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CF100 on June 12, 2015 at 11:34 am

FanaticalAboutOdeon—Good point on the “half dome” feature above the screen, although I liked that feature, particularly with, as you say, the fibre optic “starfield;” nonetheless, it did look somewhat disjointed.

There were hidden exits either side of the screen, behind the curtains. Also, towards that end of the Empire, there was a tank room above (now converted to offices), and it seems that at the far end the pitched roof grinds to a halt and there is a drop down to a flat roof section. So, to speculate, the lack of a “proper” proscenium may have been the price paid for converting an existent building.

If the tiles were mink and gold, when did they change colour? It seemed that there were two sets of tiles, one stuck on top of the other…

I would also be interested to know if there were any changes to the concealed lighting scheme over the years. AFAIK a new lighting control system was installed during the 1988 refurbishment, but—and I can’t find the reference right now—I gather that they were colour-sequenced right back to 1962.

As for which venue is the “zenith of cinema design,” there are of course a few candidates, but I think it’s fair to say both of those examples are great!

FanaticalAboutOdeon on June 12, 2015 at 10:28 am

CF100 I concur exactly with your view on David Atwell’s opinion, as I do with your own opinion of Lamb’s cavernous and overpowering Empire Theatre. Having often seen the new Empire’s auditorium under the cleaners' lights in the ‘60s and '70s, the description of the “tiles” you quote sounds to me to describe them perfectly. Although I’ve only seen live productions at Radio City Music Hall, for me, it wins by a very short head. The one element of the new Empire with which I was never at ease, architecturally, was the lack of a proscenium arch. It always seemed as though George Coles failed to find a more satisfactory way of marrying the coved ceiling and walls with the screen end. The plain plaster, slightly concave, elongated half-domed ceiling “bridge” appeared to me as something of a quick-fix although from the late '80s, the installation of twinkling stars (at about the time the contour curtain was removed) did make it more of a feature. This becomes extremely esoteric and subjective, of course, but the zenith of cinema design for me was the 1937 Odeon designs for their York and Leicester Square theatres – naturally!

CF100 on June 12, 2015 at 9:17 am

FanaticalAboutOdeon—thanks for the reply!

I should have made it clear that I am not in any way suggesting that George Coles could not be responsible for the design of the “new” Empire… just curious for the above reasons. Indeed, this plan was by his practice:

That said, a (non-cinema) example is Centre Point, which looms over Oxford Street. It had been attributed to Richard Seifert for many years but it is now considered to be designed by George Marsh, who worked for his practice.

My preference is for art deco and modernist designs; the 1928 Empire interior to me (my apologies to all those on this site who are enthusiastic about the work of Thomas Lamb) is absolutely hideous, albeit I can only find B&W photos and films of it.

For me, the 1962 Empire is, aesthetically, the high point of cinema design. Whilst the staggered walls/ceiling with bands of concealed lighting is clearly reminiscent of Radio City Music Hall, I consider the design to be more elegant, whilst producing the effect of massive spaciousness, and I think the tiled walls/ceiling added to this.

So, I wouldn’t agree with the opinion of the author of your quote! (Except regarding the seats—they were fantastic.) Incidentally, I have a copy of the book “The First Hundred Years: The Story of The Empire Leicester Square” by David High; unfortunately I don’t have access to it at the moment, but my recollection is that it discusses the trepidation around the 1962 reconstruction, but states that subsequent to opening, the public was “delighted” by what they saw.

Also, according to:

The “New” Empire had “ceiling and walls of plaster tiles finished in mink and gold.” Perhaps you know if this was the case?

FanaticalAboutOdeon on June 12, 2015 at 8:30 am

CF100, George Coles is widely credited with being responsible for the design of the 1962 Empire, Leicester Square (later to become Empire One). Whilst it may not bear resemblance to his practice’s other works, if you really want to see just how diverse schemes from his stable could be, just compare the Odeons at Bournemouth or Muswell Hill with the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle or Gaumont State, Kilburn. According to David Atwell’s “Cathedrals of the Movies”, Coles virtually came out of retirement to design the new Empire (he died in 1963). I think you might be interested in a passage from the 1980 publication.

“…he (George Coles) split the old theatre horizontally into two, with a new Mecca ballroom in the old stalls area, and a new stadium-style cinema auditorium on the site of the circle. The new cinema seated 1336 and, compared to his earlier work, finds Coles in very restrained mood. It is grandly conceived, but the blandly tiled walls and ceiling with their modest changing coloured light sequences create little sense of occasion. However, one great success is the luxuriously sprung seating. Typical of the new breed of plain, utilitarian post-war cinemas, it fails to achieve real distinction through either its decorations or its modernity”

This was an opinion of the Empire whose loss so many of us clearly mourn and shows how each generation tends to regret the passing of familiar and well-loved architectural styles. Some years ago now, I mentioned my affection for the Odeon, Leicester Square to an older London gentleman. He raised his eyebrows and said “Oh, you should have seen the Alhambra that used to stand there, it was wonderful!” He went on to say he’d seen “Scott of the Antarctic” at the Odeon and found it a great barn of a place – very plain. His one and only visit to the flagship Odeon had been prior to its 1968 modernisation!!

I’ve heard before the comparison of the new Empire to Radio City but have never discovered anything conclusive. The parallel lighting coves and long-removed gold satin contour curtain at the Empire were certainly reminiscent of the New York cinema/theatre. When I first visited the Empire during the ‘sixties, the contour curtain would rise to reveal the plain, satin house tabs at the beginning of the programme and usually unfurl again to the strains of the National Anthem. There was even a pair of legs in plain satin and a matching pleated border above the screen so that the image was always beautifully framed. The screen masking, at that time, was in maroon felt rather than the more common black.

CF100 on June 12, 2015 at 7:57 am

Mike… My Father was a Project Architect and so I know a little bit on how things work in that field, which is what lead me to ask the question.

Unfortunately (for me?!), he did not work on any cinemas but the most relevant projects he had some involvement with were Planet Hollywood London and Planet Hollywood Gatwick Airport. If I remember correctly, in both cases the designs were done by an American practice and sent to the practice he worked for, to produce final drawings, ensure that UK building regulations were met, etc. (e.g. Some of the materials the Americans had specified did not meet UK fire regulations!) Also, as you say, once building work commences supervision is required and in this example it was also undertaken by the same UK practice.

Also, in projects he worked on, the individual(s) whom the practice bore the name of (or rather the partners/bosses) had varying levels of involvement, but they would always be responsible for having contact with potential clients and getting in work. Design wise, their input varied from none whatsoever (one practice he worked for had 100+ staff…) to designing the building (but not producing detailed drawings… one of them apparently didn’t even know how to use a mouse!) Different parts of a building could be designed by different Architects… or others could be responsible for the interior design details/fit-out…

All of which is to say that, on a project of larger scale than a house extension, the idea of an Architect as “auteur” can be, I suspect, a bit misguided.

Mike_Blakemore on June 12, 2015 at 3:31 am

In answer to CF100. In law. It is practice when building or doing major alterations to theatres. there has to be a supervising architect.. not necessary the one that designed it. Its this that causes the problem of attribution of who designed the theatre. I have had a number of disagreements with armchair and local historians on the theatres we have had built or have been involved with..

CF100 on June 12, 2015 at 2:04 am

Speaking of George Coles, does anyone know who was actually responsible for the design of Empire 1? AFAIK it bears no resemblance to any other cinema designed by Coles' practice, and I can’t help but wonder if they were the UK architect for what was in fact an American design, or if MGM had instructed them to do something “inspired” by the Radio City Music Hall.

I can’t find the references right now, but my previous archive searches brought up articles which stated that, in 1961, MGM sold the Empire to Mecca, and their intention was to replace it with a new building incorporating offices, cinema, dance hall, etc. By 1962 this scheme had been shelved for the conversion of the existing building to what came to be known as Empire 1, and of course the dance hall below.

FanaticalAboutOdeon on June 11, 2015 at 2:53 pm

Couldn’t agree more. George Coles' wonderful swansong destroyed and such a high quality cinema experience lost forever to provide two unsatisfactory rooms in which to be dazzled. Such screens belong in theme parks, not Leicester Square. The IMAX brand is now being diluted by being applied to so many cinemas (including suburban locations) – it is no longer all that special except perhaps at the National Media Museum and Odeon BFI IMAX where the sheer scale is spectacular and where, unlike Empire’s single IMAX room, the seating configurations are much more conducive to viewing IMAX processed films. How silly to replace the word CINEMA on the Empire canopy with IMAX when only one room in the complex has the system. The cobbled together multiplex will not be seeing the colour of my money again!

CF100 on June 3, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Terry—My apologies if I misinterpreted what you had said regarding technology/presentation. Looks like we’re on the same page there!

terry on June 2, 2015 at 6:26 am

Hi Mike.

You have presented your credentials very assertively: good for you!

It is amazing how our words can be distorted, for example it was put to me that I was under the misapprehension that multiplexes had led to a change in fire and safety regulations. The regulations were not changed (at least back then); they were simply flouted with impunity. It was also said that I blamed the said multiplexes for bad audience behaviour when I actually said that the less than minimal staffing levels therein happen to facilitate the kind of misconduct referred to.

I also gave the impression that I blame modern technology for the lack of presenation standards when in fact I expressed my dismay that today’s state of the art technology does not go hand in hand with the presentation that you and I knew and expected.

I am also sure that your cinemas would have been well maintained as indeed were the ones in Newcastle where I spent a number of happy years as Manager & Licensee.

When I moved house nearly four years ago I gave many items, including photos of cinemas I managed, to an old Independent Circuit CEO friend of mine who went on to own and operate two of his own before retiring; what you have said about film renters he would back up. He did refuse to play films at times and he was threatened on more than one occasion with being deprived of further product but he stood his ground and won. Once multiplexes sprung up in the vicinity he no longer had this leeway and the renters conveniently forgot that he had provided them with outlets to their product in many North Eastern locations from where the circuits had retreated.

Re the photos, I shall ask him to scan some of the ones of ABC Westgate Road Newcastle (listed on here as Cannon) which we ran in conjunction with the Art Deco Haymarket Theatre and I shall upload them to the page devoted to it.

Best regards


Mike_Blakemore on June 1, 2015 at 9:49 am

My Last Theatre incidentally is still running Having had a complete refurbishment including a new roof floors seating stage rig tabs.. black box. sound complete and redecoration before I retired .. I changed it back to my families original starting point. a live theatre that also shows films before handing on to a trust…

Mike_Blakemore on June 1, 2015 at 9:44 am

Al Alvarez. A small point. The First six months of the Showcase being opened. Like for like a matched in business. But in real terms they where doing very poor for a multiplex. The Film companies assured us of our prints, when the planning application was being made.. Showcase had to give massive giveaways. still no good. So suddenly there where no prints available. except if it was a stinker.. They where supplied prints which where never used.. There was a documentary screened at the Prince Charles recently and Cannes that rattled the film companies.. I am told they are still using the same excuse of prints shortage with todays digital age.

I did 39 years in my own right in Theatres and Cinemas booking for 28 sites.. member of the Cinematograph Exhibiters Association. dealing with the Monopolies and mergers etc etc. and knew many of the principles involved at the time. In the Chains and renters..

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on June 1, 2015 at 7:58 am

Mike, I worked for an independent British cinema chain for twelve years. We were never denied a print at our full price cinemas. The distributor cannot deny you product if you can gross as much as your competitor. They cannot dictate your boxoffice price but they can use the intake results. Your cinema must have failed the test.

Mike_Blakemore on June 1, 2015 at 3:07 am

Hmm. It seems. Al Alvarez.. at the end of the day. You know nothing… about British cinemas. and the practice of the renters. The Independent never could beat the system.. You are right about audiences walking away. If they had to wait six weeks. When we closed in 1996 We where current with the trends of the time.. we had the same equipment as the Multiplex that caused the problem. and it maintained by Sound associates..

You really need to study the History of the relationship of British Cinemas and the Renters.. Makes the Mafia seem like a Vicarage tea party,

CF100 on May 31, 2015 at 9:20 pm

Up to date with trends… including modern B-chain sound equipment… or were still using Altec VOTT?

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 31, 2015 at 7:27 pm

“Our Birmingham Theatre was kept up to date with the trends..” Did you keep up to date with the boxoffice? If you did, and were still denied day-and-date prints you could still sue them today. But I know you couldn’t because the audience just walked away to them.

Mike_Blakemore on May 31, 2015 at 7:11 pm

Al Alvarez.. legality and what actually happened are two different things… Our Birmingham Theatre was kept up to date with the trends… along with the rest of our circuit.. Over the years we had proper Cinemascope 4 track mag 70mm … Dolby including Spectrum. on the promise of the 2nd print use. This never materialised. The cinema that caused us our problems in our area of Birmingham has since closed.. We Ran Theatres and Cinemas from 1890 to 2006. 3 sites are still in operation run by tenants ..

CF100 on May 31, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Terry—A lot of “ifs” there! When the multiplexes arrived, the greater choice and pristine interiors were a revelation.

Now I’m not saying I liked them—outside of venues such as the Warner West End, the ambience was often poor and the presentation could be sloppy (e.g. failure to do the anamorphic lens change!) I also remember being shocked to see slide projection with adverts for local businesses in a Cineworld… hardly the way to set the mood…

Regarding IMAX/laser projection—I fully anticipate it to provide superior picture quality.

It is not the “fault” of the technology but the operator if there is a failure to achieve a good standard of presentation in all respects. The Empire’s IMAX auditorium may lack tabs, but the colour-changing concealed lighting, suitable “non-sync” music, etc., and of course the very attractive foyer, remain.

As for the Chinese, it’s a world-famous landmark theatre in a “megacity” which also happens to be the movie capital of the West. They were fortunate enough that the building/site constraints did not stop them from digging a large hole in the ground. The Empire LS was more constrained, but in upgrading to meet today’s expectations, was fortunate enough to have a steeply racked circle which works well for IMAX, and that modern acoustic absorption could be applied to the walls/ceilings without annihilating the interior look and feel.

In most cases, it’s surely easier and presumably cheaper to sell out to a developer looking to build flats or similar and do a new-build on another site…

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 31, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Mike, denying you a print day and date would have been illegal unless you were running a discount house and your grosses were much lower than at the multiplex. Multiplexes hardly caused fire safety changes and unruly audiences. They just happen. Warner Bros. and Cineworld also opened in many towns where the local cinema had been shut for years and many others where the local flea pit had not been invested in and was therefore falling apart. I love the old cinemas but they were not keeping up with the audience demands most of the time.

terry on May 31, 2015 at 1:18 pm

Hi Mike – as you say sometimes there was no choice for the public and I remember Warner Bros ‘concern’ about having nowhere to exhibit their product as I was Manager at Newcastle ABC when they decided to come along. It had a capacity of 973 within 2 auditoria of 600 and 373 seats; the building had once seated 2200. It had 70mm and 6 track mag in both auditoria, ‘Sensurround’, Dolby Stereo and a Licensed Bar whilst the 25 feet deep stage was retained in the larger stalls auditorium for Personal Appearances at Regional Premieres etc. A more comfortable theatre I have never experienced either as a paying customer or as an employee in the Industry.

We were just recovering (Cannon having acquired us did not help) from AMC’s onslaught on Tyneside when WB decided to land in the city which also had a huge Odeon with auditoria ranging from 1228 seats down to 150. There was also the Art House, The Tyneside with a large auditorium of 390 seats and a ‘mini’ of 120 seats within adjacent property. There were still one or 2 decent sized and well run suburban independents. So Newcastle really was in need of outlets for WB to screen its product, wasn’t it?

It is also strange that over the years we had to really ‘watch our backs’ regarding manning levels in case of a visit by the Fire Dept and yet when these multiplexes appeared they seemed to be able to disregard every Home Office Regulation and Local Authority Licensing Stipulation relating to staff – as they do to this very day.

The few people I know who still visit a cinema occasionally – invariably a multiplex because there is nothing else – tell me that they cannot hear the film because of rowdy behaviour in the auditorium and that, upon trying to alert staff re the matter, there are simply none to find. Consequently, it is a very long time before they decide to pay another visit – and then only to find that the same circumstances prevail. As an illustration, people having loud and protracted conversations on mobile phones with their friends in another part of the auditorium seems to be one of the most popular activities.

Re WB in Newcastle ; this closed in 2004 having been bought by the University Of Northumbria as a site for a new campus. My Brother In Law is a Programme leader/Senior Lecturer there and he said to me at the time -albeit with a sardonic tone in his voice – that I would be delighted to learn that 90 percent of the building materials of the Warner had been recycled in the construction of the new University and I replied, using the same amount of irony, that I was most elated to learn this!

Mike_Blakemore on May 31, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Hmm I was a Birmingham independent That had a 3 screen Cinema… The Multiplex took my first run prints… Delaying me showing them for 6 weeks. The British Audience had no choice if they wanted to see it quickly..

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 31, 2015 at 11:51 am

Warner Bros. started building multiplexes as outlets for their product since they lacked the screens in many smaller markets and many towns had no cinemas left at all. The market evolved as it had to or it would have died altogether as it had in eastern Europe due to neglect by the major chains.

terry on May 31, 2015 at 10:45 am

I know some retired independent cinema operators who did precisely that and managed to get away with it as, having the only venue in a particular locality, the big boys, UIP, Col-War etc had no option but to play their product there. As you say, once the multiplexes came along that was no longer an option as people defected to them anyway regardless of whether they were an improvement on existing theatres; they often were but in many instances were certainly not.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 31, 2015 at 10:15 am

And that would have been the last of their films you ever played. Without product variety no cinema could survive. Anyway, British audiences chose multiplexes over older cinemas, not Americans.

terry on May 31, 2015 at 10:10 am

No – but I would have told UIP what to do with it…..