Cineworld Cinema - at the Empire Theatre

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: 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.

Contributed by Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 424 comments)

Zappomatic
Zappomatic on December 12, 2016 at 8:53 am

The CMA has approved Cineworld’s acquisition so it will be interesting to see how they set about the rebranding. I’m hoping they’ll sort out some of the broken fibre optic lighting and peeling paint/paper on the foyer ceiling but given Empire left that broken for years and the state of Cineworld Haymarket I’m not getting my hopes up!

Zappomatic
Zappomatic on February 1, 2017 at 2:40 pm

The Empire-style menu boards at the concessions counter have been replaced with Cineworld ones, and with that comes some price changes: combo deals have gone up to £7 from £6.50, but there are some decent offers on alcohol such as two glasses of Prosecco for £7.50 and double up on spirits for £1. It does make you realise how pared-back Cineworld’s offering is.

Otherwise still selling Ben & Jerry’s, advertising is still Pearl & Dean, still using old unreliable ATMs inherited from Empire and no change to any signage.

CF100
CF100 on February 23, 2017 at 7:45 am

Peeling paint/paper on the foyer ceiling? Where is that?

I always thought the red covering on the foyer ceiling was felt.

I also noticed the broken fibre optic lighting. It’s nearly 30 years old now, maybe repair is out of the question?

It’s sounding all too much like Cineworld are treating it as ‘just another venue’ rather than a flagship…

Zappomatic
Zappomatic on February 23, 2017 at 11:59 am

In front of the curved backlit poster you can see evidence of some old water damage, and it’s there that the peeling/tearing in whatever it is on the ceiling can be found – sort of in line with the disused box office. It’s visible in a photo taken a year or two ago which I can’t seem to find right now so it’s something Empire also couldn’t be bothered to fix. On a positive note they’ve put the silver ball back on top of the entrance to screen 5 (it had fallen off and could be seen resting on the ledge). I’ll grab a shot of it on my next visit.

On my last visit the Pepsi Max branding had been removed from signage inside and out, albeit crudely done leaving holes in the metalwork. All other signage still Empire branded.

CF100
CF100 on February 23, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Thanks for your reply.

Water damage—I noticed stains on the ceiling?

Something like the patchy area in this photo:

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/912/photos/79104

Regarding Pepsi Max signage, has this been removed from the seats in the IMAX auditorium as well?

Zappomatic
Zappomatic on February 25, 2017 at 9:45 am

Yes, assumed those stains are water damage.

Haven’t been in the IMAX screen since the Pepsi signage came down, unfortunately.

Zappomatic
Zappomatic on March 13, 2017 at 3:50 pm

Expected to get a 4DX screen this year. Wonder which screen will get converted? I’ve have thought all but screen 2 are too small and cramped to fit the equipment in but who knows?

CF100
CF100 on March 24, 2017 at 5:23 am

Surely the “IMPACT” screen? The auditorium (from the plans) looks to be about 22mx18m or so, with a high ceiling, whilst Screen 2 is about 18mx13m?

Zappomatic
Zappomatic on April 9, 2017 at 9:44 am

Now has some external Cineworld branding in the form of a sign just above the doors. The 1980s Empire logo on the doors has been replaced by the Cineworld logo. Inside, the signage about the entrances to the screens still has the Empire logo, and bizarrely the tiled/granite floor opposite the kiosk has been covered over with slightly tatty looking black carpet.

CF100
CF100 on June 18, 2017 at 4:56 pm

An application to Westminster Building Control has been submitted in relation to the “Empire Casino,” dated 2nd March 2017, for a “full refurbishment to all floors;” of potential relevance here, “including… first floor balcony works.”

External alterations may require a planning application, so we shall see…

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