Empire Cinemas - London Haymarket
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Designed for either film or stage use by Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Pictures Inc., it was envisaged as a smaller version of their Plaza Theatre in nearby Lower Regent Street, also designed for Paramount Pictures Inc. by architectural firm Verity & Beverley. The Carlton Theatre opened on 27th April 1927 with a musical play “Lady Luck” starring Leslie Henson which ran for 324 performances. This was followed by a musical comedy drama “The Yellow Mask” by Edgar Wallace which transferred to His Majesty’s Theatre along the Haymarket. The next production was the American college life musical “Good News”. After this closed the Carlton Theatre screened its first film when, on 26th March 1928 “Wings” starring Clara Bow & Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers had its UK premiere run of four months. Returning to stage shows, a revue “In Other Words” starred George Robey at the end of 1928 and the last stage show to play at the Carlton Theatre was “Merry Merry” starring Peggy O'Neil which opened in February 1929 and later transfered to the Lyceum Theatre.
Seating was provided for a total capacity of 1,159 in stalls (which were below street level), a small mezzanine Royal circle at street level and a large upper balcony. There were boxes containing seating each side of the proscenium opening. The proscenium was 42 feet wide, the stage was 45 feet deep and there were 14 dressing rooms.
The Carlton Theatre was wired for sound in 1929 and went over to become a full-time cinema. The first regular film to be screened was Chester Morris in “The Perfect Alibi”(aka-“Alibi”). Paramount Pictures Inc. took over the Carlton Theatre fully in 1930.
On 1st March 1954 it was taken over by 20th Century-Fox and became the West End showcase cinema for their CinemaScope productions, opening with the UK premiere of “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” starring Gilbert Roland & Robert Wagner (the second CinemaScope production after “The Robe”). On 3rd June 1959 the ‘Exclusive London Presentation’ of the roadshow version of Millie Perkins in “The Diary of Anne Frank” had its ‘By Invitation’ premiere. It opened to the public the following day, with evening performances for the evenings of 4th, 9th, 10th, 16th & 18th June already ‘Sold Out’. The stage was brought back into use briefly in March 1960, when Anthony Newley performed in “The Anthony Newley Show”, a special show which was staged during the run of his feature film “Let’s Get Married”. The World Premiere of “Guns at Batasi” was held on 24th September 1964. The World Premiere of “The Flight of the Phoenix” was held at the Carlton Theatre on 20th January 1966. The Royal World Premiere of “A Countess from Hong Kong” was held on 5th January 1967. Directed by Charlie Chaplin and starring Marlon Brando & Sophia Loren, Chaplin, Brando & Loren were among the attendees at the premiere.
There were hopes that the Carlton Theatre would be designated a Grade II Listed building, but it was turned down by English Heritage. The Carlton Theatre closed on 20th August 1977 with Oliver Reed in “The Prince and the Pauper”(aka-“Crossed Swords”) being the last film to be screened in the original single auditorium. The stage and dressing room block was sold off to developers and were demolished for an office block to be built on the site, known as Samuel House.
The auditorium was split into three screens, with screen 1 in the old upper balcony seating 491 and screens 2 and 3 in the former stalls seating 201 and 222. The former mezzanine Royal circle was sealed off and became office and staff areas. Now operated by Classic Cinemas, it later came under the ownership of Cannon, MGM, Virgin, UGC, and latterly Cineworld until closing in January 2008.
On 2nd February 2008, the former upper balcony screen re-opened as the 440 seat Cinema Haymarket. It was converted into a live theatre with the play “Brief Encounter” based on the David Lean film. Sequences in the play use digital projection as well as the live performances on a new stage which has been built on the front of the seating area. The two mini-cinemas in the former stalls area initially closed, but soon re-opened, screening first run films again. The run of “Brief Encounter” ended on 21st November 2008 and the main upstairs auditorium reverted back to cinema use, with the building becoming the Cineworld again. When the Empire Leicester Square was taken over by Cineworld in late-July 2016, they also ‘exchanged’ the Cineworld Haymarket and it was re-named Empire Cinemas London Haymarket from 7th April 2017. On 2nd March 2018 the play “Brief Encounter” returned to the main auditorium for a planned extended run until 9th September 2018. However, “Brief Encounter” ended its run early on 22nd July 2018 and the Empire has re-opened as a cinema on 31st August 2018 with a new larger screen and new seats. Screens 2 & 3 will be refurbished in early-2019. The exterior of the building has been cleaned.
Following several attempts by the Cinema Theatre Association with the assistance of the Theatres Trust to get the building listed, it was given a Grade II Listed building status by Heritage England on 17th October 2018. The Crown Estates who own the building had been planning demolition, apart from the facade to build a shopping precinct. They will now have to rethink their plans for the site.
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