Empire Cinema

5 Leicester Square,
London, WC2H 7NA

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Empire Cinema

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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 over the years: 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 Charity Premiere-17th December 1959 Charlton Heston “Ben Hur” which ran for 76 weeks until 28th May 1961, 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.

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 ‘Empire 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 is 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.

Contributed by Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 388 comments)

Ian on March 6, 2016 at 8:31 pm

“my question is, “back in the day,” was the average cinema-goer enthused by cinema interiors” …

Difficult to quantify but I suspect yes to a certain extent. The “roadshow” films had reserved seats, souvenir brochures, and an atmosphere more akin to theatre than cinema. And the way films were distributed through the circuits and regions made the venue more special. There was also very much a heirachy of flea pit through to posh cinemas – and a circle seat at a Palace was the place to be. I (and friends) certainly travelled some distances to get to a good cinema (Embassy Chesham).

FanaticalAboutOdeon on March 6, 2016 at 8:51 pm

Undoubtedly there is a generational aspect with regard to the finer, more peripheral points of “film” presentation. Youngsters who have grown up knowing nothing other that the average multiplex will, naturally, wonder what we’re talking about. Alongside this, I’m often taken aback at how little most people do actually notice. I’ve been with friends to performances where various things have gone seriously wrong – lengthy loss of focus, unexplained periods of complete darkness and silence and periods of green screen. A friend with grandchildren at Odeon Bournemouth – Screen 1 had to find a member of staff to turn off the cleaners' lights – these were apparently being used in place of what was left of the auditorium lighting! By the same token, those same people wouldn’t normally notice tabs or lighting effects or specially selected non-sync music helping to set the mood. All this doesn’t mean we should cater to the lowest common denominator so full marks to Plaza, Stockport; Rex, Berkhamsted; Odyssey, St. Albans; Alhambra, Keswick and all those other cinemas where proprietors know how to create magic. Odeon, Leicester Square still use screen tabs and pageant lighting (the house tabs are there but the track was damaged by the flown 3D screen). It’s generally subliminal – except to nuts like us – but it can enhance a show no end.
It’s not that such accessories are in any way out-of-date, it’s more a case of accountants running things and thinking these things are not necessary to show a film, which they’re not, of course, worse still, they might malfunction and cancel a show – refunds equal anathema! With one, maybe two people responsible for say twelve screens the concerns are, sadly, not unjustified.

In my home cinema, children are captivated when colours change and dim as silver tabs open and the trade mark appears to magically show through. Numerous guests, many younger than myself and far from dinosaurs, also say “This is how cinemas used to be – they’re not the same these days” or words to that effect. I used to manage the erstwhile Scarborough Odeon and the projection team there would have found it hard to believe the errors Ian was faced with in the little cinema at the rear of our old circle.

Nothing wrong with the things I miss in many modern cinemas but employing/training sufficient staff to check all equipment regularly to guard against failure, as in the past, would be as alien today as advertising in newspapers when they assume – wrongly – that everyone has a computer or access to one. That may one day become much nearer the case but it hasn’t happened yet. Even quad posters could be an endangered species!

I vote with my feet these days and select my cinemas very carefully indeed.

FanaticalAboutOdeon on March 7, 2016 at 10:05 am

With regard to tabs and attendant lighting, I ought to credit other West End cinemas where such features are alive and well. NFT One was originally designed with solid panels moving across the screen in place of tabs but these were replaced some years ago with silver satin tabs lit by footlights and very nice they look too. The present Curzon Mayfair’s main screen was designed to be exposed all the time with spotlights projecting spheres of coloured light on the screen, here, too, within a few years tabs were installed and effectively lit by the existing spotlights. The same thing happened at the erstwhile Odeon, St. Martin’s Lane which opened with a “floating” or suspended screen and frame while the wall behind the screen was floodlit before and after performances and during intermissions – about the time the Odeon ceased being “Odeon Disney” and reverted to more traditional, if selective, programming, a track and neutrally coloured tabs lit by spotlights were installed. The recently and beautifully restored Regent Street cinema has silver tabs lit by footlights from day one. The largest screen at the brand new PictureHouse Central has exquisite tabs in turquoise, orange and silver reflective fabric.
All is not lost therefore and, if the will, the budget and the space were there at the Empire, Leicester Square to retro-fit tabs, it would be far from the first cinema to do so.

CF100 on March 7, 2016 at 10:05 am

I recall the first time I visited a cinema lacking tabs—it was an AMC in the US—and I was absolutely shocked. The (American) individuals with whom I attended remarked “Umm, curtains in a movie theatre?! Aren’t curtains, like, old and stuff?!” Certainly they had no clue about “real” cinemas—and that multiplex had all the charm of visiting a branch of KFC. :–(

CF100 on March 7, 2016 at 12:07 pm

FanaticalAboutOdeon—Picturehouse Central-and other venues—really show how there is very much a niche market for cinemas featuring “theatrical” trappings—but perhaps not for the “multiplex hoards”!

Would be nice if the Empire Leicester Square fitted tabs—and the Chinese reinstated them for their IMAX screen—but I doubt there is sufficient space. Vertically, from what I can tell, the screen is jammed right up against the rafters. Horizontally, the top of its sides are up against boxed out sections which I assume hide parts of the roof structure.

I do think the IMPACT screen could use losing a few rows, reducing the screen size, and having some sort of proscenium feature with tabs etc.

Ian on March 7, 2016 at 12:50 pm

If I understood the manager correctly a few weeks back the maximum throw onto the screen in the Impact auditorium is smaller than the screen size and they are thinking of masking it down. See the photo link above “Impact screen from Balcony”

There is a considerable unused edge on the screen. I doubt that tabs are envisaged though!

CF100 on March 7, 2016 at 1:48 pm

Ian: Interesting, I can’t say I remember it not filling almost the full width. Wonder if they’ve changed projectors? Perhaps the screen was intended for a future projection upgrade which has been shelved? (Ideal to upgrade to Dolby Vision with Christie 6P laser projection as it already is equipped for Atmos… but the politics around that must be delicate to say the least!)

Of course the problem is the screen “floats” off the wall… and you can clearly see that when entering from the sidedoor. (Visible in your photo “IMPACT SCREEN TO REAR.”)

FanaticalAboutOdeon on March 7, 2016 at 6:41 pm

CF100 Warner Village Cinemas U.K. multiplexes were all fitted out from new with gold screen tabs – side opening in their larger auditoria and festoon in the smaller ones. This included the “new” Warner, Leicester Square. I believe all tabs in their multiplexes were out of use within a few years although not usually removed for several more years.

FanaticalAboutOdeon on March 7, 2016 at 7:00 pm

The Cannon/MGM/Virgin/UGC/Cineworld (!) in Southampton’s Harbourside Leisure area opened in 1989 as a five screen multiplex and all screens then had tabs which were out of use by the time Virgin’s brief sojourn into the cinema business took place. All Odeon’s multiplexes, when new, were fitted out with tabs until just a few years ago when the Circuit’s new-builds began to appear with just naked screens for the first time.

CF100 on March 7, 2016 at 9:35 pm

FanaticalAboutOdeon: The “new” Warner West End had a good standard of presentation, including as you say the “gold” tabs, and I had many enjoyable trips there. I’m not sure the others of that generation were of the same standard—the one at Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock, for instance, was unimpressive. (Can’t remember if the tabs were in use?)

By the late 1990s, new (by then Warner Village) builds were of the “box” design with wall-to-wall screens and stadium seating (and, for some reason, inferior KCS speakers instead of JBL.) If I remember correctly, tabs had been dispensed with.

A real shame Odeon have stopped installing tabs—it hardly does Odeon’s proud design heritage justice! The streamline moderne Odeons are to my mind the canonical example of “what a cinema should look like.”

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