Cineworld Cinema - Leicester Square

5 Leicester Square,
London, WC2H 7NA

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Empire Cinema

The Empire Theatre was designed and built as a music hall by architect Thomas Verity and could seat 3,000. It opened on 17th April 1884. The old Pit seating entrance can still be seen today if you go around to the left of the theatre into Leicester Street. In 1893 a new facade and foyer was built on Leicester Square, designed by Frank T. Verity. This facade and entrance is what is seen today, as on 22nd January 1927, the old Empire Theatre was closed, after it had been taken over by Loew’s Inc. in 1925. The auditorium was demolished and a new one built to the plans of Scottish born theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb (from the USA) assisted by F.W. Boettcher (from the UK) and associated architect was Frederick G.M. Chancellor of the noted UK theatre architectural firm Frank Matcham & Company.

The new Empire Theatre opened on 8th November 1928 with Norma Shearer in “Trelawney of the Wells” and for the following 33 years became the London premier home to MGM feature films. It housed 3,330 seats in its massive and decorative auditorium. There were 1,916 seats in the stalls, 180 loge seats in the front of the circle and the remainder of the circle seated 1,234. The Empire Theatre had a fully equipped stage and for a period in the late-1940’s until February 1952, it was put to full use when a stage show accompanied the main feature film. The proscenium was 54 feet wide and the stage 35 feet deep. It was equipped with a WurliTzer 4Manual/21Rank organ. The Leicester Square landmark also had an opulent lobby and all the normal regalia of an American movie palace, its interior resembled the Adam style Thomas Lamb designed Capitol Theatre in Manhattan, New York, its exterior is in the Italian Renaissance style.

Of course, as the Empire Theatre was Loew’s premier theatre in the UK, all the MGM films which opened at the Empire Theatre over the years were UK premiere presentations, as were the occasional productions from other studios, but there were also many special premieres: the first of these being a midnight charity premiere-4th September 1935 Eleanor Powell in “Broadway Melody of 1936”, gala late night premiere-31st March 1938 Robert Taylor “A Yank at Oxford”, evening premiere-concurrent with the Palace Theatre and the Ritz Cinema 18th April 1940 Vivien Leigh “Gone With the Wind” (which ran at the Empire Theatre for 12 weeks), Charity Premiere-10th August 1944 Irene Dunne “The White Cliffs of Dover”, Royal Command Performance (the first to be held)-1st November 1946 David Niven “A Matter of Life and Death”, Royal Command Performance-29th November 1948 John Mills “Scott of the Antarctic”, Royal Command Performance-30th October 1950 Irene Dunne “The Mudlark”, Royal Premiere-12th June 1952 Robert Taylor “Ivanhoe”, Royal Film Performance-27th October 1952 Mario Lanza “Because Your Mine”, Royal Film Performance-15th November 1954 Stewart Granger “Beau Brummel”, Royal World Premiere-16th May 1955 Richard Todd “The Dam Busters”, Royal Charity Premiere-16th November 1955 Jose Ferrer “Cockleshell Heroes”, Gala Charity Premiere-19th September 1956 Marlon Brando “Guys and Dolls”, Royal Charity Premiere-29th June 1957 Marlon Brando “Teahouse of the August Moon”, The Royal Film Performance-2nd February 1959 Alec Guinness “The Horses Mouth”.

A Gala European Charity Premiere-16th December 1959 Charlton Heston “Ben Hur” which ran for 76 weeks until 28th May 1961. This was the last film to be screened in the original auditorium. For this final presentation a new projection box was built in the centre of the stalls, beneath the front of the balcony (loosing half the stalls seating due to the projection box and bad sightlines of seating on the extreme edges). The projection had a straight throw of 78 feet to a new 52 feet masked wide screen which had been erected just in front of the proscenium arch. The seating capacity was reduced to 1,723.

With its attendance already declining before the “Ben Hur” run, and mounting criticism of the theatre’s technical quality, it had been decided to ’re-do' the theatre. It was closed and totally gutted internally. The building had been purchased by Mecca Ltd.

It re-opened on 19th June 1962 with Doris Day in “Jumbo”. The cinema had a completely new look inside the shell of the old theatre. Designed by noted cinema architect George Coles, his last major project, it was in a ‘modern’ style for the 1960’s. Seating was provided for 1,330 on a single floor which was formerly the circle, now extended forward. There were 688 in the front seating section and 642 in the former stepped section of the circle. The former stalls area became a Mecca Dance Hall (which in 2006, became a casino). The original facade was entirely covered by a new advertising hoarding. On 25th November 1965 the World Premiere of “Lasy L” was held at the Empire Theatre. On 26th April 1966 a Royal European Gala Charity Premiere of “Doctor Zhivago” was held at the Empire Theatre.

Later incorporating two other spaces, the adjacent Ritz Cinema and another small space off the foyer which opened as the 80 seat, Screen 3, on 29th November 1985 with Harrison Ford in “Witness”, the Empire Cinema was now a triplex. Many more premieres were held in the Empire Cinema’s magnificent main auditorium (Screen 1), which in 1989 was refurbished and was THX certified.

Seating 1,330 in the main Screen 1 (with a huge 60 feet wide by 25 feet high screen) and 77 in Screen 3. (Screen 2 in the former adjacent Ritz Cinema is listed seperately as ‘Cineworld at the Empire Theatre – Screen 2’ on this site, and has a current seating capacity of 349). The facade has since been restored. After many years being operated by UCI it was taken over by the Irish based Empire Cinemas Ltd. as part of a new circuit they are now operating in the UK. On 20th June 2008, two new screens 4 & 5 opened in spaces that had originaly been a toilet area and green room. In August 2009, a further four screens were created in the building, giving a total of eight screens, plus one screen in the former adjacent Ritz Cinema which was known as ‘Screen 2’.

The final world premiere held in Screen 1 was the One Direction film “One Direction:This Is Us” on 21st August 2013. George Coles designed Screen 1 was closed for redevelopment on 26th August 2013 with the horror film “Big Bad Wolves” screening as part of the annual weekend ‘Frightfest’.

Screen 1 was then sub-divided to provide a 398-seat ‘Impact’ screen with Atmos sound, which has a stadium seated main floor and also seating provided in a balcony (in the former Empire Theatre’s stage house). It opened on 16th May 2014. It is located in the screen end of the former Empire 1, with its huge ‘Impact’ screen now back to back with the new IMAX screen next door.

The 751-seat IMAX screen which opened on 30th May 2014 is located in the former rear seating area of Screen 1, and has retained some of the cinema’s 1962 George Coles designed decoration, with illuminated troughs across the ceiling and down the side-walls which have ever-changing colours. The conversion was carried out to the plans of architectural firm UNICK Architects.

The Empire was one of five Empire cinemas purchased by Cineworld in July 2016, the others were Basildon, Hemel Hempstead, Poole and Bromley. The deal also included that Empire Theatres would take over the Cineworld Haymarket. The Cineworld Cinema Leicester Square was closed on 7th January 2018 for refurbishment and re-opened 9th February 2018.

Contributed by Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 685 comments)

CF100 on December 20, 2018 at 8:25 pm

The columns in the 4DX are actually between the seats and the sidewalls. From photos, this was also the case when the auditorium was originally built; however, IIRC, the sidewalls were moved in at some point? By the time I first visited the auditorium, this was not the case, and some of the seats were positioned “behind” the columns!

The 4DX installation needs all the space it can get to be shoehorned in, with the “environmental effects” gear between the columns and the sidewalls, the suspended ceiling being omitted in those areas.

Lionel on January 24, 2019 at 3:10 pm

Archival footage briefly showing the entrance, shown from the street, of the Ritz and Empire in a row at 01:11 in the late seventies.

Zappomatic on January 31, 2019 at 6:56 pm

Carpet at the front of the Superscreen has been replaced, to match the carpet in the corridor and other screens. Carpet on the steps inside this screen remains in the old red carpet as fitted by Empire Cinemas.

CF100 on February 1, 2019 at 11:09 am

Zappomatic: Seems like a rather random alteration. Was the carpet worn?

Zappomatic on February 1, 2019 at 11:10 pm

CF100: No, not as far as I can recall. I can only imagine some kind of leak or major spillage necessitated its replacement. (The auditorium was quite dark when I entered and I nearly fell over after being caught unawares by the deep pile!)

Lionel on March 19, 2019 at 1:29 pm

I just posted my first film on YouTube. This is a Super 8mm film I shot in 1986 and 1988 showing fronts of West end cinemas (including this one) and theatres :

My description on YouTube : Old silent 8mm film showing fronts of West End cinemas and theatres, made with two different cameras and film stocks in 1986 and 1988. Bad quality due to age. The close-up of 70mm advertisement for “a winning double bill” was at the Prince Charles cinema for a re-run of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The close-up of THX Sound System advertisement was at the Warner cinema. The close-up of the “West End” words was the Odeon West End cinema sign.

CF100 on March 23, 2019 at 6:45 pm

Some further information on Cineworld’s 2018 foyer/lobbies refurbishment and 4DX conversion of the former Screen 2 is available in an article on the website of AV Magazine, dated 22nd March 2019.

The relevant sections of the article are:

Foyer/lobbies: Under the heading “Making a grand entrance.” 4DX: A few paragraphs under the sub-heading: “Four types of 4DX.”

I will summarise relevant key points from the article here (with the 4DX information added to its own page on CT.)

  • As suspected from the branded protective sheeting in Zappomatic’s photos of the foyer/lobbies refurbishment, Maeve Contractors—principal contractor for the conversion of the former Screen 1 to IMAX/Superscreen—are confirmed to have been also involved in this project.
  • LED modules used are from Chinese company Konka Media, with Cineworld Group having previously worked with the them in Prague.
  • Standard DVI/HDMI input to the module controllers supplied by Konka.
  • For the signature installation on the vestibule stairs up from the main Leicester Square entrance—risers being a non-standard installation location—the modules are installed in a “safety unit” for protection from patrons, with the requirements of building regulations in mind. The installation also allows maintenance access to the modules from the front.
  • Total modules used for the stairs—65; number of stair risers: 14; total size: 4.8mx2.2m; resolution 960x416 pixels.
CF100 on March 24, 2019 at 6:42 am

Cineworld have submitted planning applications for changes to the frontage and a new takeaway counter in the old “Ritz”/“Empire 2” entrance in 1-4 Leicester Square. (I suppose strictly this should go under its separate page on CT, but to my mind it reads as part of the cinema as a whole?)

The main “FULL” application is dated as received 8th February 2019, with the (sloppily written!) “Design and Access Statement” summarising the scheme, including a rendering on p7; Chapman Taylor is the project architect.

In summary, the proposal is for a “HUNGER GAMES” (Cineworld’s own brand) “kiosk,” removal of the existing brown granite to be replaced with black metal cladding, and the installation of a 6.55x1m LED display module screen above (to display static images only.)

A good idea to bring that section of the frontage back into use, but it looks quite tacky, albeit the rendering is of poor quality—and must Cineworld dispose of yet more high quality finishing materials?

It wouldn’t surprise me to see that the LED screen aspect will go to appeal.

Zappomatic on April 1, 2019 at 3:24 pm

This unit has in the past been used as an ice cream kiosk (as seen here

CF100 on April 13, 2019 at 12:22 pm

Zappomatic: Indeed, and I bought ice cream from there myself from the kiosk in the linked image! However, the unit’s current use class remains the one in place for the Bureau de Change that previously operated there, so Cineworld still need permission for the change of use to allow the operation of a takeaway.

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