Empire Cinema

5-6 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 368 comments)

Wurlitzer420 on December 6, 2015 at 11:39 am

Luckilly the organ was saved by Len Rawle who installed it in his special build home in chorleywood

goodshow on December 21, 2015 at 4:35 am

Monday December 21, 2015. BBC Radio interview at length with the CEO of IMAX UK at the Empire telling us all about its technicalities. Comes in at around 20 minutes as part of a Business Britain update http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06s8712

CF100 on January 26, 2016 at 11:50 am

Piet_Morant: The sound system you refer to was the THX-certified one from 1989 with the main stage speakers being JBL 4675, and by the mid-1990s, support for all 35mm digital sound formats.

I, too, recall the sound was first rate (excepting the acoustic problems of Screen 1.)

(I also visited the Empire for “Forrest Gump”—but not “Speed,” for which I visited the Odeon West End…)

By the end of UCI’s operation, the THX certification had been dropped and the screen speakers changed to Martin Audio, which did not seem to be an improvement.

In the mid-2000s, Empire Cinemas completely replaced the sound system in Screen 1 with JBL ScreenArrays and no less than 16x JBL 4645C subwoofers.

An incredible system, but it didn’t seem to be as well tuned as the original THX installation (too much HF.) Dolby Atmos was more recently added. The system was moved to the IMPACT screen (with upgraded surrounds and no THX certification.) Alas, on my trip, the performance was not in the league of the Screen 1 install—perhaps it’s been better tuned since then.

The sound installation in the IMAX screen is also excellent and the acoustics much improved over Screen 1.

After a busy few months, I finally have a chance to see Star Wars with the new laser projector system and additional overhead/side IMAX speakers. Report to follow…

CF100 on January 26, 2016 at 3:14 pm

An article on the IMAX with Laser install; some technical information.

Article with photos.

In particular, this one of the auditorium.

The additional new IMAX speakers can be seen, and the seats are bear the marque “Pepsi MAX – IMAX.” (Sigh.)

Also, the new laser projectors are visible.

And What Hi-Fi also has a write up with photos and positive comments on the picture quality.

CF100 on January 27, 2016 at 12:58 pm

I have now paid a visit to the Empire LS to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

A few comments on the “IMAX with Laser” system.

As promised, it is capable of resolving excellent levels of details, freedom from pixellation (end credits, for example), and the colour rendition is outstanding—light sabres, for instance, look very “fluorescent” and “neon-like.”

Black levels are good, though not zero level as IMAX implies.

The caveat is that it feels very much like a “1st generation” system—if not quite out of the prototype stage. It must be stressed that most of these are minor issues, but they are enough to be distracting and signal to the brain “this is not a window onto a fictional reality… it is digital projection.”

There appear to be some minor digital image processing artefacts. Furthermore, a slight dithering was visible, manifesting as very fine grain; and I am not sure if the laser speckling issue has been completely resolved.

The “IMAX with Laser” system uses Dolby 3D (!) glasses (due to patent issues.) Before the main feature, sometimes only one projector was in use and putting on the glasses revealed as such as the image appeared to be visible in only one eye. Unfortunately, closing that eye revealed a surprising level of crosstalk in the other eye.

With the 3D glasses on, at times the extremities of the screen exhibited noticeable colour shift with a distinct purple (IIRC) tint; and the image brightness was insufficient.

In a brief discussion with a member of staff after the film, he expressed the view that the glasses aren’t big enough, and this needs to be fixed. Thus, this lends weight to my contention that the system is still a work in progress.

The laser projection system is punishing in revealing the limitations of the source material—and “Star Trek: The Force Awakens” was largely shot on 35mm.

(I did not like the movie.)

“IMAX with Laser” is, in my view, almost there and if/when niggling points are ironed out it will be excellent. I reiterate that I am being ultra-picky (in view of the grandoise promises made by IMAX)—as it stands this is a spectacular moviegoing experience.

Finally, as the full screen width is now filled, not only is the image even more immersive—but a surprising benefit is, when seated in the middle of the auditorium, the design of the IMAX conversion of Screen 1 looks better proportioned and harmonious.

CF100 on February 6, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Screen 1 conversion details

Including a photo of the IMPACT auditorium under construction.

The challenges posed by the conversion project are discussed in some further detail than the Cinema Technology Magazine article; to summarise:

  • The dividing wall is 15x40m and weighs 50 tons (a different figure?)

  • As Cinema Technology Magazine noted, the dividing wall had to isolated from the floor and is hung from the roof; additional considerations were that Empire had no access under the auditorium floor and it was incapable of carrying the dividing wall’s load. The difficulties in doing so are briefly mentioned (e.g. monitoring roof structure deflections as building work progressed.)

  • Building of the IMPACT auditorium also had constraints on floor loading and lack of access. The balcony is supported by a 17m long main girder, visible in the second photo on that page.

FanaticalAboutOdeon on February 7, 2016 at 5:00 am

The Screen 1 conversion details are very interesting and appreciated. Sadly it’s all theory to me now as one visit to the IMAX screen was enough. Having loved the Empire Cinema/One since 1971, the present “pretend multiplex” has no charm whatsoever. The only cinema in Leicester Square I visit these days has a 120' black tower.

CF100 on February 8, 2016 at 2:21 am

FanaticalAboutOdeon—I still clearly remember my first visit to Screen 1—and, like you, loved it ever since.

Sadly, we all know that it was no longer commercially viable and (the IMAX screen) is a very good conversion, resulting in what is still a large and comfortable auditorium (about 90ft.x130ft.) and now equipped with perhaps the best projection available today.

It is still very much run as a flagship venue—helpful and friendly staff, glitzy foyer areas, premieres, etc. Of course it’s not the same and I wish the conversion hadn’t happened, but I still find what it has to offer is far above average.

I can understand if one finds the massive IMAX screen to be altogether too overwhelming—I felt weak to my knees after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”!

FanaticalAboutOdeon on February 8, 2016 at 3:05 am

Compared to the BFI Odeon IMAX at Waterloo and the National Media Museum IMAX in Bradford, the Leicester Square installation felt decidedly inferior and the auditorium too shallow. I left with a headache, something I seldom suffer, and I’m afraid “left” is the operative word. While most would either not notice or just accept the LED lighting around the vast, naked screen, it fails to replicate the remarkable, cold cathode system which so attractively bathed the Empire Cinema/One auditorium and recalls Christmas tree LEDs just constantly pedalling through the hues as a gesture by architects as opposed to a lighting designer. The foyer, and facilities at that level, was excellent although the entrance area between the pavement and the stairs was very tacky on my visit. Our views are inevitably somewhat esoteric and I respect those of fellow cinema fans who still enjoy what’s on offer at the Empire. It’s just not for me.

CF100 on February 9, 2016 at 3:00 am

FanaticalAboutOdeon—I completely understand what you’re saying and why it’s not for you.

A little confused that you should end up with headache at the Empire IMAX and not elsewhere? The auditorium depth is about the same as the BFI IMAX…

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