Empire Cinema

5-6 Leicester Square,
London, WC2H 7NA

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Empire Leicester Square marquee with new IMAX sign

Viewing: Photo | Street View

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 George Cols 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’. The final world premiere held in Screen 1 was the One Direction film “One Direction:This Is Us” on 21st August 2013. Screen 1 was sub-divided to provide a 398-seat ‘Impact’ screen which opened 16th May 2014 and a 751-seat IMAX screen which opened on 30th May 2014. The conversion was carried out to the plans of architectural firm UNICK Architects.

Contributed by Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 256 comments)

OdeonNotFanatical
OdeonNotFanatical on August 4, 2014 at 7:42 pm

I wonder how many LIEMAX tickets seats they sell for each of the days shows? I’d doubt its lot since its a fake imax marketing called “liemax”.

Bet that imperfect screen is a bigger flop than the liemax.

That cinema really has come down to low level. I seen dog shelters more worthwhile to watch a film, than liemax.

davepring
davepring on August 6, 2014 at 11:55 am

Have you visited the Empire???…the IMAX screen is huge and the projection first rate as is the quality of the conversion.

CF100
CF100 on August 6, 2014 at 6:51 pm

FanaticalAboutOdeon, thanks for the structural information, very interesting. Another other option I can think of is to use the rear circle as one auditorium, and the Royal Circle as the balcony along with the front stalls to form another, perhaps increasing the rake of the front stalls. As with the Empire IMAX this might yield difficult viewing angles from the side seats, but presumably e.g. columns could be used to support the dividing wall if required.

One would hope that if a completely new auditorium block was on the cards then the recent refurbishment of the Mezzanine/Studios would not have occurred, as it would have been better to concurrently replace it with less compromised auditoria!

CF100
CF100 on August 6, 2014 at 7:17 pm

The cinema has hardly come down to a low level, Empire 1 was long overdue for an overhaul with sagging seats, tired looking tiles and serious problems with dialogue intelligibility due to the excessive reverb time/slap echo. The subdivision is regrettable indeed and it would have be nice to keep the THX baffle wall/JBL sound system, but by sheer chance, the old rear circle dating back to 1928 has made for an excellent IMAX auditorium. For the most part, it seems that Empire Cinemas have gone out of their way to preserve what they could of Screen 1 and have waited for a suitably grand scheme. There could have been really horrendous outcomes, such as the circle being subdivided down the middle!

IMHO it’s one of the best screens in the country. The IMAX projectors and DMR’d picture is an upgrade, the laser projector is on the horizon, and, yes, no Dolby Atmos but it does sound very good, we’ll just have to wait for IMAX to introduce their new sound system.

A quick look at Empire’s IMAX booking page shows that an evening screening of “Guardians of the Galaxy” has a high percentage of seats reserved in advance.

OdeonNotFanatical
OdeonNotFanatical on August 7, 2014 at 6:14 am

On occasions I’ve been along to the empire.

What ever you like to say cf100. This place will never be what it once used to be. Imax branding of digital is bad idea. Looking at these “Lie-max” pictures is just god awful.

cf100 you sound like your enjoying this? Your not a fan of the cinema. Guess you like “liemax” so much you can’t get enough of it.

CF100
CF100 on August 7, 2014 at 7:17 am

Of course it will never be the same and I would far preferred Empire 1 to have been kept, albeit with a bit of a makeover (new acoustic absorption on walls/ceiling, seating reupholstered, etc.)

I’m heartbroken but I also try to maintain a balanced perspective. So, what were the alternative options? Keeping Empire 1 wasn’t one of them as it’s a commercial operation. Strip out and conversion to another Casino floor? Another hotel? I can think of many worse outcomes than what’s happened and I’ve been expecting something to happen to Empire 1 for years.

Believe me and everyone else who are big fans of Empire 1, and were horrified when it was closed for subdivision, the IMAX auditorium is very impressive and comfortable, it is a great place to see a film, obviously not greater than the “cathedral” that was Empire 1 but still excellent, the online photos and videos don’t really do it justice.

OdeonNotFanatical
OdeonNotFanatical on August 7, 2014 at 7:53 am

I’d prefer it wasn’t touched at all and left as it was.

Imax with its “liemax” is only given itself a bad name. “liemax” I’d never pay to see a film at this cinema ever again. Imax will soon become “liemax.”

Empire have only shot themselves in both feet with “liemax.”

CF100
CF100 on August 7, 2014 at 9:14 am

Sadly, we can’t pull out a magic genie from nowhere to grant our wishes, can we? It’s not that I (or presumably anyone else) don’t share your disappointment and sadness over this, but it’s happened… Love or loathe it, to say the least it’s a heck of a lot better than, for example, my old local inexpensively twinned Odeon, long closed now… looks very nice in photos taken back in 1930… but in my time an absolute flea-pit!

OdeonNotFanatical
OdeonNotFanatical on August 7, 2014 at 10:47 am

Empire = LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX LIEMAX! LIEMAX! LIEMAX! And less than imperfect imapct screen LMAO.

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