Empire Theatre

410 Westminster Street,
Providence, RI 02903

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Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Sarah Bernhardt at the Empire Theatre (the one at Westminster and Empire streets), as reported in the Evening Tribune, June 13, 1911:
Sarah Bernhardt

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on February 24, 2007 at 8:51 am

In December 1914 the Italian silent film spectacle Cabiria proved so popular at the Empire during its first week that it had to be held over, according to THIS AD. That was not a normal occurence in those days.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on September 24, 2005 at 10:10 pm

The small Providence Journal ad for the Empire’s last day on January 16, 1915 stated:

THIS IS GOOD-BYE WEEK
at the
EMPIRE
A Wonderful Scenic Production of
THE SPOILERS
PHOTOPLAY IN NINE PARTS
With William Farnum, Kathlyn
Williams and Cast of over 200
Time Table
12:30, 2:30, 4:30, 6:30, 8:30

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on September 16, 2005 at 10:03 am

Life of the Empire Theatre: September 4, 1899 to January 16, 1915 (last program).

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 27, 2005 at 9:39 am

The theatre’s life went from 1899 to 1915. Excerpts from Roger Brett’s Temples of Illusion and the building of the Empire follow:

“The Empire Theater stood on the same side of Westminster Street as the Westminster Theatre and Music Hall and just a few yards from them. Its minuscule entrance was built next to the store which had housed the short-lived Nickelodeon two years before. Empire Street, named for the theater [!!!], now climbs the hill from Westminster toward Weybosset Street where the theater once stood….

“Spitz and Nathanson built their Empire in four hectic months. Work started in May [1899]. (…)

“A short article in the Providence Sunday Journal of August 2th said,
‘There is no longer any doubt as to the date of the opening of the Empire Theater. It will be Monday, September 4th….The interior is finished in Nile green, cream, and yellow, with ornamentation in gold.’ (The carpeting was dark red.) ‘There are reproductions of mythological scenes, and the fibrous plaster work around the boxes and on the proscenium arch is a feature.’ (…)

“In seating capacity it placed somewhere behind Keith’s, and very close to the Providence [Opera House], ahead of the Westminster and far ahead of their own Olympic [Nickel].(…)

“The proper word to use in descrbing the interior of the house is ‘nice.’ Neither extravagant nor drab, it was not too large for the most intimate of plays, not too small for the biggest of musicals. The house was divided into orchestra or parquette, balcony or family circle, and gallery….

“On the morning of opening day, board fencing still blocked the Westmnster Street entrance and seats were still being placed…. At five in the afternoon, the last seat was bolted to the floor. When the Empire opened that evening of Labor Day, 1899, with Johnstone Bennett in A Female Drummer, Abe Spitz became the first Providence showman to have two theaters running simultaneously.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 27, 2005 at 8:30 am

In addition to City Lights , my favorites are The Kid, The Gold Rush and Modern Times. When Modern Times was re-issued in 1959, I went to Boston to see it at the old Capri (Copley) and I later bought a copy of the soundtrack, which I still have and which is now rare. I also love many of his later films. Limelight with Claire Bloom knocks me out. I now have most of them on video.

Roland L.
Roland L. on June 27, 2005 at 2:55 am

That is some awesome due diligence on this and other Providence theaters! I love the story about Chaplin when he was a relatively unknown at the time. I only have one Chaplin movie in my collection “City of Lights” and he was splendid.

Oh what I would do to go back to the heydays of opera/vaudeville/theater/silents/talkies entertainment districts. I’ve often wondered if Chaplin and others of his time including Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd knew the tremendous impact and contributions they were making to other aspiring comics.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 25, 2005 at 8:49 pm

In an essay in The Providence Journal-Bulletin from December 26, 1964, Marc Greene recalls seeing Charlie Chaplin, live, on the stage of this theatre!

Chaplin at the Empire

He played a drunken lord here before he became a famous tramp.

“Sometime back…in the dim mists of antiquity, I was a kind of assistant theatre critic on these papers…
"My job was the old Empire on upper Westminster Street, operated by Spitz and Nathanson, devoted to lesser artists and productions and in the summer to a stock company. One winter I also covered Keith’s vaudeville theatre, and that is a pleasant memory.
"During my tenure at the Empire, there appeared a company presenting a skit, "A Night in an Old Music Hall.” One of the company portrayed a kind of tipsy, down-at-the-heel English lord. He sat in the right-hand lower box, and at one point in the doings he climbed unsteadily over the rail of the box onto the stage, where he proceded to take a clown’s part, mainly in pantomime.

He was Chaplin.

Nobody paid any particular attention to this, but if you had the gift of dramatic discernment and understanding you gathered at once that this minor character in the play had, as the vernacular goes, ‘something.’ You would have been right, because he was Charles Spencer Chaplin….
“Not long after the foregoing episode he was ‘discovered’ by Hollywood, (Mack Sennett to be specific,) and in no time at all he was a world-figure. This was because his art appealed to all ages, from children to aged and decrepit.” (…)

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 23, 2005 at 6:16 am

The Providence Journal Almanac from 1914 gives the seating capacity of this theatre as 1460. Proscenium: 36x36 feet; footlights to back wall, 60 feet; between side walls, 70 feet.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 22, 2005 at 1:05 pm

Movies continued to be shown here through 1914. The theatre finally shut down on January 16 of 1915. Roger Brett writes in Temples of Illusion:
“The final performance by the Empire Stock Company had signaled the end of this large and popular theater. Old age or failing attendance were not the cause of its demise, but rather city planning.
"With traffic increasing as autos outnumbered horses, it was discovered that the city lacked a broad cross-town thoroughfare to link Washington, Westminster,and Weybosset Streets…"
"The Empire Theater facing Westminster Street, Central Baptist Church facing Weybosset Street and Warner’s Lane, which meandered along side them, was exactly where the highway department proposed to establish this link in the city’s traffic system.”

This photo shows the front of the Empire and, drawn in, the path that the Empire Street extension would take and result in the theatre’s destruction in 1915.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 22, 2005 at 11:12 am

Yes, the Empire did run movies, but not for very long. Roger Brett in his book Temples of Illusion wrote:

“The Empire had a summer stock company for ten of its fifteen year existence, the exceptions being the summer of 1910 when the theater played its only season of vaudeville, and its final summer of 1914 when movies were exhibited.”

The Empire had been built in 1899 and was demolished around 1914 to make way for an extension of Empire Street.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 21, 2005 at 10:33 pm

Alas, I can’t yet ascertain whether this theatre, which came down in the 1910s to make way for a street extension, ever showed movies or not.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 18, 2005 at 7:38 am

PROVIDENCE THEATRES: “TEMPLES OF ILLUSION"
A book called "Temples of Illusion,” by Roger Brett, was published in 1976. It is Mr. Brett’s detailed history of all the old downtown area theatres of Providence from 1871 to 1950. It includes numerous rare photos, a list of theatres with name changes, and a map to show exactly where they all were. The book is an invaluable resource and is owned by many libraries in the R.I. CLAN system. I found a copy for sale online and will use it as a reference for future postings.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 15, 2005 at 7:33 pm

All right. We can now straighten this out! First off, there were THREE theatres in Providence that were called “Empire” at different times.

This post should refer to the original Empire which was located at 410 Westminster Street (not 440, which was Modern – Playhouse – Victory and never an Empire.) Now, 410 Westminster Street was where Empire Street ended in the 1910s. The city wanted to extend Empire Street out a block further to Weybosset Street, and so the Empire had to be demolished to create the thoroughfare. This was the original Empire. It never had another name.

The address in the listing should be changed to 410 Westminster Street, which was the address for the first Empire and which I found in the 1913 Providence City Directory. This one had never been nor would ever become a Victory Theatre. It didn’t even survive World War I. So my previous entry is to be ignored.

(2) Lows – Keith’s – Victory – Empire. This was located on Westminster Street at Union Street. (Listed under “Victory.”)

(3) Westminster – Empire – Bijou. This one was on Westminster Street at Snow Street. (Listed under “Bijou.”)

Clear?

I found a map of downtown Providence theatres (1871-1950) and their name changes in the files of the Rhode Island Historical Society. That clears up a great deal of confusion for me.

Somebody please update the address to 410 Westminster Street.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 13, 2005 at 7:54 pm

A Providence Journal Almanac from 1940 says that the Empire was formerly known as the Victory and had a seating capacity of 1603.