The Empire Theatre, Corner of Smallbrook Street and Hurst Street, Birmingham
Formerly - Day's Crystal Palace / New Empire Palace of Varieties / Empire Palace / Birmingham Empire
The Empire Theatre was situated on the corner of Smallbrook Street and Hurst Street, Birmingham and was designed by the renowned Theatre Architect Frank Matcham and built at a cost of £18,000. The Theatre opened as the New Empire Palace of Varieties on the 7th of May 1894. The Empire was not the first place of entertainment on this site however, as it was constructed on the site of the former Day's Crystal Palace Concert Hall. There is more on the Empire below but first some details of the Concert Hall.
Day's Crystal Palace was built on part of the site of the former White Swan Public House for James Day. It was constructed by W. Matthews and designed by the architect T. Naden, who would later go on to design the alterations to the Theatre Royal, Birmingham in 1875. Day installed a large Crystal Ball and mirrored walls in the Concert Hall and named it Day's Crystal Palace Concert Hall for its opening on Thursday the 18th of September 1862.
The ERA reported on the opening of the Concert Hall in their 21st of September 1862 edition saying:- 'Crystal Palace Concert Hall. - (Mr James Day, Proprietor.) This magnificent structure is now complete, and presents an interior splendidly decorated and supplied with every appliance for the gratification of visitors.
Right - A sketch of the interior of Day's Crystal Palace Concert Hall - From a silk programme for the Hall's 29th Anniversary on September the 17th 1891 - Courtesy Robert Wild - Click to see this enlarged and many other silk programmes for the Concert Hall.
The entrance is through an arched doorway, supported by columns, into a vestibule decorated with pilasters at the sides and a semi circular window of brilliantly stained glass over the entrance. A flight of sixteen stone stairs, 14 feet in width, lead to the Concert Hall, the floor of which is 130 feet long, with galleries surrounding, 11 feet 2 inches in width, supported by light iron pillars. These galleries have a scroll front, divided into fourteen compartments by ogive shields, ornamented by groups of flowers on a white ground within a gold border. In each compartment are pleasing groups of Cupids with floral garlands, filled up with wreaths of flowers within a rich gold border.
The stage is 30 feet wide, 30 feet high, and 36 feet deep. Within the coved front of the proscenium are doors of silver plate and balcony, whilst medallions of Cupids and flowers, emblematic aerial figures surrounded by rich gold borders, and ornaments in the style of Louie Quatorze (on a mauve ground), fill up the remainder of the space. The whole of the decorations were designed and executed by Mr Charles Smithers, scenic artist at the Grecian Theatre, London, who has painted a magnificent pictorial curtain, in addition to the splendid drop-scene by Telbin, representing a Venetian Festival.
The room is lighted by crystal star lights, depending (from perforated iron centres in the ceiling) by glass rods, terminating in a large star, from the thickly radiated points of which the light proceeds. Of these there are five down the centre of the room and six on each side over the Galleries, diffusing a brilliant flood of light over every part. There are also numerous lamps under the Galleries. The whole reflects much credit on the taste and abilities of Mr Ransford, the designer...
Above - Both sides of a Music Hall Token for Day's Crystal Palace, Smallbrook Street, Birmingham - Kindly sent in for inclusion on the site by Graham Sharp.
...The orchestra is surrounded by a screen of iron in elaborate open work. At the back of the Galleries is a promenade and refreshment room, tastefully fitted up and lighted by richly-stained glass windows. The ventilation, which is perfect in every part, was designed and superintended by Mr Bailey, of London. The walls at the back of the Galleries are divided into compartments by pilasters with Corinthian capitals, surmounted by a cornice of chaste pattern.
Right - A silk programme dated Thursday the 21st September 1871 for a 'Grand Extra Night' for the Benefit of Mr James Day at Day's Crystal Palace - Courtesy Alec Watson - Click to see this enlarged and many other silk programmes for the Concert Hall.
The designs, by T. Naden, Esq, the eminent architect, have been admirably carried out by Mr W. Matthews, the builder, and all connected with the erection. The license was granted on Wednesday, and the Hall was opened on Thursday evening, the Proprietor generously giving the proceeds of the opening night to the Queen's hospital.
Left - A programme, printed on silk, for Day's Crystal Palace, Birmingham on the 21st and 22nd of November 1878 - Courtesy Keith Belcher. The performance was for the Benefit of The Juvenile Foresters - Click to see this enlarged and many other silk programmes for the Concert Hall.
The company comprises Miss. Pearce, Mr and Mrs D. Saunders, Mr ., F. Bryan, Mr Vernon Rigby (from the Alhambra), Misses Helen and Emma Guiness (from Astley's, with Corps de Ballet), Mr Wyndham Clarke (tenor), Messrs Harvey and French (the Original Nerves), Mr John Blanchard (comic), M. Silvester, with an able corps of vocalists. The Band is led by Mr C. Weston; pianiste, Mr H. A. Calcott; Chairman, Mr Lawson; and Stage Director, Mr W. H. Russell. The opening Address was admirably delivered by Mr Reuben Roe.'
Although always popular Day's Crystal Palace Concert Hall finally closed in September 1893 when the site was sold to Moss Empires who demolished most of it and set about building a new Theatre on the site, The Empire Theatre (see below).
Although always popular Day's Crystal Palace Concert Hall finally closed in September 1893 when the site was sold to Moss Empires who demolished most of it and set about building a new Theatre on the site, The Empire Theatre.
This new Empire Theatre was designed by the renowned Theatre Architect Frank Matcham and built at a cost of £18,000. The Theatre opened as the New Empire Palace of Varieties on Monday the 7th of May 1894 with a variety show with Gus Elen as the headliner act. Also on the Bill were Chrgwin, the white eyed musical Kattir, the Lenton Family, acrobats, Ben Nathan, singer, F. W. Millis, ventriloquist, J. H. Hurst, Mrs. Lucas, Wal Pink and Co., Lucy Clarke, the Tiller Sixtette, the Two macs, and Esme and Leon.
Shortly before the Empire Theatre opened the Era printed a report on the new Theatre in their 5th of May 1894 edition saying: 'On Monday the above building, which has been erected by the Birmingham Empire Palace Company, under the managing-directorship of Mr H. E. Moss, the promoter of the scheme, will be opened. It is a conversion of Day's Concert Hall, which was built by Mr James Day in 1861. It abuts on Hurst-street and Smallbrook-street, Birmingham, and has been erected from the designs and under the personal supervision of Mr Frank Matcham. Certain portions of the walls, roof, and a part of the ceiling of the old building only remain.
It will be remembered by the habitués of Day's that the pit and stalls were situated on the first floor, and therefore the first thing that will attract attention is that the whole building has been lowered to the ground floor, the fauteuils and pit now being entered on a level with the street, the balcony occupying the position of the old pit, and a commodious gallery having been erected over this again. The new auditorium is very large and well proportioned, and is capable of accommodating about 3,000 persons. A very handsome facade in rich Italian renaissance, faced with red brick, with stone and cement-dressing, has been erected. This new building contains the entrances, staircases, retiring and dressing rooms, offices, and saloons. The principal entrance to the fauteuils and balcony is in the centre of the block. A large and handsome iron shelter covers the pavement, decorated in cream and gold, with rich coloured glass. Over this entrance is the directors' room, above which is a richly carved scroll pediment containing the words "Empire Palace" surmounted by a lyre and flanked with groups of life-size statuary representing music and dancing. At the ends of the facade are large gables containing carved panels symbolical of the Arts.
The floor of the grand vestibule is inlaid with mosaic, and the carved polished mahogany entrance doors are exceedingly handsome with their amber glass panels. The walls here are lined with panelled and moulded mahogany. The pay-office is also constructed of the same wood and amber glass. The panels are filled with hand-painted flowers on gold ground, and over the whole is a deep arched frieze with artistic figure painting. The domed ceiling is formed of raised fibrous plaster work with coved sides richly decorated to represent a sky, with birds, flowers, &c. To the left of the vestibule through a handsome mahogany screen is reached a crush-room, in which a staircase leads to the private boxes and to the ladies' room. This latter is fitted up luxuriously. The ceiling of the crush-room is richly decorated in raised plaster work, the walls being covered with a blue ground anaglypta, and the whole of the woodwork finished in white and gold. From this room the fauteuils are approached, doors to the right opening on one side of the promenade, with wide steps down to the fauteuils. A staircase from the crush-room leads to a wide subway, richly decorated and furnished, to a grand saloon, and thence to the promenade and fauteuils opposite.
The private boxes, of which there are three on each side, are approached from the ends of the subway by wide polished hard wood staircases. Ante-rooms are placed at each side of the stage, with the fronts opened and draped. From these a fine view of the house can be obtained. Under these rooms are richly curtained openings, giving access to the stage for the artists to take their calls without pulling the drop-scene aside. Instead of electric bells in the private boxes, telephones are provided.
The wide balcony staircase starts from the vestibule, conducting the visitor direct to the back of the balcony promenade; there is an additional staircase opposite to be used in case of alarm. The pit, which is a large one, fitted up with continuous seats upholstered in rich corduroy, the floor being covered with linoleum. The entrance is by a passage over 8ft. wide, leading direct to the inner doors. A wide exit is at the opposite corner of the pit.
The gallery, filled with upholstered seats, and provided with a wide promenade, has two separate fireproof staircases. The ground floor is divided into fauteuils and pit, with a large raised saloon bar at the rear. The promenade is arranged in imitation of a terrace, the fronts of which are divided into three bays with pilasters, walnut balusters, and coping, continued with a bold sweep to the centre bay, which has wide steps with bronze vases at each side, containing- palms.
Right - A programme for 'Blue Skies' at the Birmingham Empire on November the 7th 1938 - Courtesy George Jeffcott.
The private boxes are very boldly treated, with niches between them, covered with canopies terminating in a balustrade, behind which is a promenade leading from the balcony, giving to those who may be at the back an opportunity of obtaining a clear view of aerial shows. The balcony is placed over the pit, and has eight rows of tip-up chairs, with a grand promenade at the back, from which a fine saloon is approached. The saloon is handsomely fitted with polished mahogany fittings, the walls and ceiling being finely decorated. The gallery is very commodious, and there is not a seat in the whole of the building the occupant of which will not be able to see every inch of the stage.
The house is heated throughout with hot water pipes and coils, and the ventilation has had special attention. Retiring rooms, fitted with every convenience, are provided on each floor for both ladies and gentlemen. The theatre is fitted with hydrants, and the staircase passages are all of fireproof material...
Above - A programme for 'Blue Skies' at the Birmingham Empire on November the 7th 1938 - Courtesy George Jeffcott.
...The stage is large, and is divided from the auditorium by a brick wall, the stage opening being fitted with an asbestos fireproof curtain and iron doors. There are large scene dock and property rooms. The dressing-rooms, which are at the side, are lighted by electricity, heated with hot water pipes, and fitted with lavatories and hot and cold water. The decorations have been designed by Mr Matcham on a bold scale. The fronts of the balcony and gallery are of raised plaster work, the boxes being elaborately ornamented and artistically finished. Particularly handsome is the proscenium, around which is carried a rich scroll ornament with marble border, flanked at the sides with polished marble columns. This is surmounted by a scrolled pediment with balustrading and a panelled device, containing the following quotation, "Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear"
A deep enriched cove is carried around the sides of the building, the panels in the cove being filled with trophies and designs. Over the proscenium is a fine painting by Ballard, representing "A Dream of a Carnival." From the sides of the building a series of arches spring from bold pilasters with rich Corinthian caps, the spaces containing bold semi-headed windows. The ceiling is appropriate in design, and on it are two large paintings by Ballard, representing "Comedy" and "Tragedy." The prevailing tints of the auditorium are terra-cotta, Blue, white, and gold. The upholstering and furnishing have been done by Mr A. R. Dean, of Birmingham. The whole building is illuminated by electricity, and over the proscenium a group of finely modelled cupids hold loops of the electric light.'
The Empire Theatre was a successful Variety House for many years but sadly the Theatre was destroyed by enemy action in 1941, see details below, and subsequently demolished in 1951.
A visitor to this site, Matt Felking, writes:- 'During the Night of the 24th October 1940 German planes flew over the city dropping a variety of bombs but mainly incendiaries. This was the 23rd raid since 9th august 1940. Fortunately the Empire had been closed for some weeks, only the manager and his wife were in the house, and they were sheltering at the back of the pit. The manager smothered the first incendiary and then dashed onto the stage to turn on the theatre extinguishers, but the blaze spread quickly leaving the theatre a mass of charred timber and twisted metal. The 1939 register identifies the manager as Henry Raymond, and his wife Leoni, who lived on the premises.
German aircraft not only bombed the Empire, but also bombed the Hippodrome a few hundred yards away. The audience had all gone home when the incendiaries fell on that theatre, and the greater part of the Hippodrome's survival was due to the diligence of male staff who smothered incendiary bombs before they could get a hold of the roof, Mr. H Palmer the theatres permanent fireman, ripped off his shirt to smother one of the incendiaries. Tonys Ballroom next door was another casualty of the bombing and burned fiercely.' - Courtesy Matt Felking whose research was conducted for the Hippodrome as part of their 2241 reasons exhibition, (75 years since the war).
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Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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