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Originally built to the designs of architect James Murray and opened in March 1856 as a Corn Exchange, it was used mainly for concerts and lectures. Charles Dickens first appeared here in December 1857. It was screening films in 1901, showing Edison’s Animated Pictures of the Boer War.
In 1906, it was re-designed as the Empire Theatre to the plans of architects Harrison & Hatrell. The facade had an open balcony above the centrally placed entrance, framed by a Corinthian column on each side. On top was a arched window, which supported a pediment on top. Inside the auditorium, seating was proved in orchestra, dress circle and balcony levels. Bioscope films were being screened by 1908 as part of the variety programme. It became the first building in Coventry to hold a Cinematograph Licence after the new Cinematograph Act of Parliament came into force in January 1910.
New owners took over in January 1927, and in 1929, a Standaart 2Manual/4Ranks organ was installed. This Dutch made instrument had its console fixed in the centre of the orchestra pit, and was opened by organist Percy Milton. Disaster struck during the screening of a programme “Runaway Bride” and “Midnight Follies” on 23rd April 1931, when a fire began in the roof of the building, spreading to all parts (apart from the concrete projection box at the rear of the upper balcony). A new company Empire (Coventry) Ltd. was formed, headed by Leon Salberg & Capt. S. Clift, and they were bought into by the Associated British Cinemas(ABC) chain who employed their ‘in-house’ architect W.R. Glen to assist in the redesign the cinema internally, to the plans of the architectural firm Satchwell & Roberts.
The Empire Theatre was re-opened on 3rd September 1933 with “Radio Parade” and Ralph Bellamy in “Below the Sea”. The theatre was equipped with a Compton 3Manual/11Ranks organ with illuminated console, which was opened by organist Alex Taylor. Seating in the auditorium was now provided for 1,547, with 917 in the stalls and 603 in the single circle level. The proscenium was 42 feet wide, the stage 21 feet deep, and there were three dressing rooms. The front of the building received some serious damage due to German bombing in World War II. It was equipped for CinemaScope in 1954.
It was re-named ABC in 1969. The ABC was closed on 3rd July 1971 with “House of Shadows” and “The Travelling Executioner”. It was demolished and the area was redeveloped.
The new redevelopment included a new ABC cinema which opened on 23rd May 1973 with “Bequest To the Nation” This 840 seat cinema, equipped to screen 70mm films and since closed, has its own page on Cinema Treasures.
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