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 446 comments)

CF100 on August 4, 2017 at 5:30 pm

theatreofvarieties: Many thanks for your reply! Most interesting regarding the sintered glass tiles. I assume these were then painted the same colour?

Having tried to research 1960s tiles, I can find no likely products that could have been the original tiles, given that they were apparently “plaster tiles in a mink and gold colour scheme” (from the 1962 Gala Opening Programme.)

I’ve long been puzzled by the “bump profile” tiles in their various patterned arrangements, which seemingly look like they were intended for acoustic control, but are too small to do anything.

Looking at the coefficients for sintered glass tiles, they do seem to be effective at mid/high frequency absorption. I still found the 2006 THX system had dialogue intelligibility issues, although otherwise it was one of the very best sounding systems I’ve heard.

There are some aspects of the 1960s reconstruction that I am curious about. I suspect the “grand foyer” must be higher in level than where the original “tea room” was. It seems that the original circle was shortened also, as including the rows of “loge seats” at the front, the original went past the “kink” in the right wall—approximately, I think, where the dividing wall between IMAX/IMPACT auditoria is. Case study blurb from the contractors and consultants involved mentions weight limitations of the concrete slab floor, so I’m guessing this part of the original circle was removed.

Where is the remaining piece of 1927 wallpaper located behind the right wall? Must be near the first (from the rear) vertical “cove”?

On the coloured lighting—I can see what you mean by “1980s disco”—although I rather like all things 1980s—at least other than bad hairstyles and ripped jeans! Although the “uplighting” at the bottom of the screen could be a different colour?

P.S. I can’t remember if I’ve posted the link before, but there was an article in Light + Sound International magazine on the 1980s Equisse Design refurb (on p19.)

CF100 on August 4, 2017 at 5:30 pm

zappomatic: Never been to the Empire Casino, not having any interest in gambling nor drinking!

There are lots of “360 degree” photos of the Empire Casino on Google Maps—it seems the Icon Bar is accessed from the corridor from the main entrance and is not integrated with the main casino area?

Zappomatic on August 7, 2017 at 11:12 am

CF100: Yes, there’s a staircase to the right as you go in. Once you’re up on that level the bar is sort of L-shaped.

Zappomatic on August 10, 2017 at 7:13 am

Cineworld’s first half year results presentation features an image of part of the foyer refurb. Starfield ceiling is gone and no more carpet, but they’re keeping the brass handrails and picking this out with gold accents in the ceiling. Sadly it doesn’t show what’s happening to the retail section of the foyer.

Zappomatic on August 10, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Foyer as seen in 1986:

CF100 on August 11, 2017 at 12:08 pm

Zappomatic: Thanks for the info on the foyer rendering. Here’s the link: (

LSQ is listed as “Refurbishment starting” (p17 – PDF page number) although according to an article in The Telegraph , “[LSQ] will get a makeover at the end of the year.”

I’ve just spent the last hour being very angry and grumbling to myself about Cineworld not “getting” the Empire LS (as a flagship venue with decades of heritage) and simply wanting to engage in a rebranding exercise for the sake of it.

OTOH, actually it’s a pretty bold piece of reimaging. I’m assuming expensive finishes and I guess the ceiling, in a way, is a nod to the existing one. Lots of concealed lighting and coving too.

Would be nice to see what they have in mind for the main section though. They had better put in some decent seating!

I assume they won’t be moving concessions to the stop of the stairs as queues would block the route to the IMPACT and 7/8/9 screens, and they still have the “curved” section with a poster (or maybe LED display?)

Talking of which, it looks like there are small LED displays above each auditorium entrance.

Reading through the presentation, Cineworld discuss their multiple “premium screens” approach so the addition of 4DX in Screen 2 and not the IMPACT screen makes sense.

A previous presentation (p29 – PDF page number) says “4DX and Super Screen expected to be installed in Leicester Square” so I wonder if any changes will be made to the IMPACT screen? To keep it at the currently available state of the art they need to install laser projection, which has very good black levels thus obviating the need for masking.

CF100 on August 11, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Re: 1986 foyer photos — little changed since the 1962 reconstruction, I think, right down to the (very nice) carpet?

I guess the “Empire — The First 100 Years” (to the right of the stairs in is related to the same titled book (by David High.)

I can never work out why the section with the sloped ceiling (presumably due to the stadium seating structure above) is “curtained off” in these old (pre late 1980s refurb) photos…

Zappomatic on August 13, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Screen 2 now seems to have closed for its conversion to 4DX. To compensate West End Unlimited card holders no longer pay a surcharge for the Superscreen.

Zappomatic on August 17, 2017 at 2:07 pm

Row A has made a reappearance on the bookable seat map for the Superscreen (or what Empire called Impact). This row was originally beanbag seating, but it’s absent in most photos of the screen – seats start at row B which causes a lot of people to sit in the wrong wrong as the row letters and seat numbers are on the floor and are very hard to see, so they count the rows. I’ll report back tomorrow as to whether this is just an error on the website or if some sort of seating has been installed here.

Zappomatic on August 18, 2017 at 5:52 pm

As expected the non-existent row A being bookable is just an error. The view from Empire’s short-lived beanbag seats must have been truly terrible.

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