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 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’. 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 279 comments)

michaelbrent
michaelbrent on September 12, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Any pictures of the Impact screen?

CF100
CF100 on September 12, 2014 at 3:57 pm

There are two photos of the IMPACT screen on the Empire Leicester Square Facebook page.

davepring
davepring on September 21, 2014 at 6:56 am

Just been back to the IMAX screen at the Empire..there is definite sound bleed from the IMPACT screen and very noticeable during Wizard of OZ (which looked fantastic) Both screens are doing good business in the evenings which bodes well for the future of the Empire but the sound bleed needs fixing.

davepring
davepring on September 21, 2014 at 9:40 am

Incidentally Oz was screened in the academy ratio and there was no light bleed which gave the impression that the huge screen was masked.

CF100
CF100 on September 22, 2014 at 11:21 am

High level sign is now up on the left side of the Leicester Square frontage, the design is shown in the following application, which was refused by Westminster Council. Presumably it went to appeal.

http://idoxpa.westminster.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=N153FCRPIW600

CF100
CF100 on September 22, 2014 at 11:39 am

Dave Pring, for what proportion of time was it noticeable during ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and was it a distant rumbling sound or was faint dialogue audible?

THX requirements were for STC 65 (at the top end of the American ‘Sound Transmission Class’ rating system) soundproofing and sounds from adjacent auditoria should only be audible something like 10-15% of the time maximum, recognising that complete elimination is impractical. I imagine those requirements were created before digital, which of course has much higher maximum sound levels than optical sound.

I hope the new screens continue to do well but it seems that Empire aren’t getting IMAX bookings. No ‘Transformers 4’ and they are not advertising ‘The Equalizer’.

davepring
davepring on September 23, 2014 at 5:44 pm

CF100 the sound bleed was a fairly noticeable rumble heard five or six times for up to 30 seconds..However the film in question was Lucy which has several explosive scenes.

OdeonNotFanatical
OdeonNotFanatical on September 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Liemax should have taken it lite-max digital and built it elsewhere around Leicester Square not ruin wreck and destroy the Empire into this abomination.

Lol so some have had bad experience with it lately with sound leakage. I knew that was going to happen. I saved myself the time and hassle of money and a 2 hour journey on the couch to London.

Local empire tower park spent millions on it refit and the sound leakage is a BAD! Not only is it heard it can felt in the wooden floor that lays across the original concrete floor and the auditoriums was designed for a peak 90db when I worked at the site as projectionists 25 years ago.

The SPL db has to be at least 100dbC plus. If I had taken my SPL db metre there last time was 2012 for that dreadful TITANIC(1997) cardboard 3d and the colour was dire! It looked nothing like what I saw 14 times and even projected myself at Warner village 12 screen, Cribbs Causeway 1998.

I was hearing leakage of that Marvel film? What was i? The Avengers (2012)I must have heard and felt that in the floor at least over 10 times. I should have gotten my money refunded. Well I won’t ever go back there again or any Empire cinemas in the UK.

Its no secret recipe for big sound in a cinema. Its failed when its heard more than 10 times leaking though its million pound cost.

Empire used to look and sound great in 1989. I never come across a cinema like it and I guess I’d never ever will again. It all gone now. It dust. That cinema is as good as demolished! CLOSED.

If anyone who claims to be a loyal Empire 1 fan would BOYCOTT this cinema now. I don’t care if they show star wars 7, at the empire or all 7 star wars again, most of them won’t be original theatrical, just tamped with sound mix and original picture I might expect. They can keep it. I have better things to do with £50.00 today.

CF100
CF100 on September 30, 2014 at 8:04 pm

Wurlitzer in the Empire Leicester Square in 1933!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydYC-QPniX4

OdeonNotFanatical
OdeonNotFanatical on September 30, 2014 at 8:39 pm

Liemax lite is like a bad after taste drink that will leave you feeling hollow after watching a liemax film at the Empire.

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