The Empire Theatre, Old Market and Captain Carey's Lane, Bristol
Formerly - The Empire Palace of Varieties - Later - The ABC Cinema
Above - The Empire Palace of Varieties, Bristol - From an architectural plan of the Theatre - Courtesy Rich Farrant
The Empire Theatre of Varieties, as the Theatre was originally named on its opening, was built by Frank Kirk to the designs of the well known Theatre Architects Wylson and Long and constructed at a cost of almost £40,000. The Theatre had accommodation for some 2,530 people and opened with a Music Hall Bill on Monday the 6th of November 1893.
The ERA reported on the Theatre's opening in their 11th of November 1893 edition saying:- 'This fine music hall, situate in Old Market-street, Bristol, was successfully opened on Monday, the hall being crowded in every part. The entertainment went without a single hitch. The property belongs to a limited company, Mr James Kirk being managing director, and Mr George J. Newport resident secretary and manager.
The Empire is a handsome building faced with red bricks, with dressings of Bath stone introduced in bands and mouldings, and the frames and sashes of the pointed doors and windows are painted in light and dark tones of peacock blue. Means of exit are liberally provided, so that in the event of a panic the place could be cleared in a very few minutes. Internally the hall presents a bright, pleasing, and somewhat Oriental appearance, and the lines are similar to those of the new Oxford, London.
The auditorium is 90ft. long, by 65ft. wide, the ground floor consisting of stalls and pit, with balcony at and gallery above. There are four private boxes on the balcony level, and the same on the gallery tier, and the house is seated for two thousand five hundred persons. At the rear of the balcony is a spacious promenade with raised buffet, at which temperance beverages are retailed. The theatre has been constructed on the cantilever system, with as few supports as possible, so that every part of the house shall command a good view of the performers. Indeed, there are only four main columns, two of which are incorporated with the construction of the boxes, and these are joined at the top by elliptical arches, carrying a dome 40ft. in diameter. Iron and concrete enter very largely into the construction of the building, thereby reducing the risk from damage by fire to a minimum, and fire hydrants are provided to command several portions of the house.
Above - Architectural plans for The Empire Palace of Varieties, Bristol - Courtesy Rich Farrant
The whole of the constructional iron and concrete work has been done by Messrs Dennett and Ingle, of Whitehall, London. The plastic decorations have been supplied by the Plastic Decoration Co., of London, and the colour decorations by Messrs Campbell, Smith, and Co. These are in warm tints, in which blue and red predominate, and harmonise with the upholstery of the seating, which is of blue throughout. Rich plush curtains drape the boxes, and tableau curtains of the same material fill the proscenium opening, which is 35ft. 6in. wide by 37 ft. high. These items, together with the carpets and the whole of the furnishing, came from Messrs L. N. Lyons and Co.
The stage is 32ft. deep, ample space being allowed in the flies, and all appliances are provided for the production of ballets and spectacular pieces. Excellent accommodation has also been made for the artists. The building is lighted throughout by electric light, and, in case of temporary failure, an auxiliary supple of gas is ready, together with a powerful gas sunburner, which with an extractor acts as an efficient ventilator. The lighting arrangements have been executed by Messrs Vaughan and Brown, and the sanitary fittings by Mr J. G. Stidder, of London.
The architects, Messrs Wylson and Long, must be highly complimented on the production of so elegant and artistic a building, and Mr Frank Kirk, the builder, has been most successful in carrying out their designs. Indeed, all concerned in the erection, decoration, and fitting of the Empire should share in the congratulations on the completion of such a charming and "up-to-date" palace of varieties. Mr Herbert Thomas, chairman of the Bristol Licensing Justices, on granting the licence, stated that the justices desired to express their great satisfaction with the manner in which the architect had devised the building, and the way his instructions had been carried out as regarded the protection of the public, and, what was not less important, the protection of the artistes.
Shortly after 7.30 the proceedings commenced with the National Anthem, which was sung by the whole of the company. The overture to Maritana was then played by the excellent Empire orchestra, under the direction of Mr Ernest Woodville. Miss Amy Knott, serio and dancer, did an acceptable turn; Walter King, vocal comedian, scored with his comic songs; the Two M`Naughtons caused much merriment by their knock about business and funny dialogue; Miss Cora Stuart had a hearty reception, and was very pleasing in a musical sketch, Presented at Court; Lotto, Lilo, and Otto did some very clever bicycle riding and trick acts; Miss Ada Lincoln, soprano vocalist, sang charmingly, and was much appreciated; and the same may be said of Mr Lester King, who has a good baritone voice. Walter Munroe, Irish comedian, scored heavily with his comic songs and funny patter - in fact, he had quite an ovation; the Tiller troupe of eight lady dancers proved themselves to be graceful and agile, and were highly appreciated; and Barello and Millay concluded a very successful entertainment with some clever grotesque horizontal bar business and Greco-Roman wrestling.'
The Empire Theatre opened with the Music Hall Bill described above on the 6th of November 1893. The pub next door to the Empire, called the White Hart, acquired its ornate frontage in 1893 when it was incorporated into the newly built Theatre. And because the Theatre was not licensed to sell alcohol the audience would rush into the White Hart pub next door as soon as the show had closed. Unfortunately for both however, the Theatre's owners seem to have over speculated when they constructed the Theatre and were forced into liquidation only 6 months later in May 1894. The Theatre was closed and the Company was wound up 'with a view to reconstruction'.
The Theatre was eventually altered and redecorated and then reopened on Monday October the 28th 1895, on the same day as the Lyric Theatre of Varieties in Bath, which was constructed on the site of the former Bath pavilion, both Theatres now under the ownership of the Bath and Bristol Theatres of Varieties Limited.
The ERA reported on the reopening of the Bristol Empire in their 2nd of November 1895 edition saying: 'The directors and their friends left Bath for Bristol by train at nine o'clock, and their arrival at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in the carriages which conveyed the party from the railway station caused quite a commotion.
During the time the hall has been closed many improvements have been carried out internally, and the decorators have also been busily at work, with the result that the further process of embellishment has greatly added to the interior appearance of this large and handsome place of amusement. A serious drawback to the hall was the bad approach, but this has now been remedied by the proprietors, who have constructed a new entrance, which leads from Old Market-street to the boxes, circle, and stalls, the entrance in Carey's-lane being left for the patrons of the gallery, pit, and balcony.
The interior decorations are in good taste, and were duly admired by the closely packed audience which had assembled. Here, as at Bath, the programme was opened by the singing of the National Anthem by the audience, led by Miss Frances Roma, who also gave two songs. A good deal of disappointment was experienced when it was announced from the stage that Miss Fannie Leslie, who was billed to appear, had been served with a notice from the proprietors of another place of amusement in the city, under whose management she had an engagement, that under a penalty of £300 she was not to sing at the Empire. The disappointed feeling of the people was somewhat forcibly expressed, and Miss Leslie, who was seated in a private box, made her presence known by standing up and bowing to the audience. Little Tich sang "The Lamplighter," which was followed by "The Lifeguardsman " and "All over the shop." The applause which greeted the funny little comedian from all parts of the house was so loud and persistent that he appeared again, and gave his comical big-boot dance. Mr Horace White's clever ventriloquial performance was appreciated, and Mr Sam Torr's humorous ditties were well received. Some marvellous feats of strength were accomplished by Atlas and Miss Vulcana, who lifted weights varying from 501b. to 270lb. Messrs Tennyson and O'Gorman, with the genuine humour displayed in their give-and-take dialogue, made everyone laugh. Mr Charles Godfrey, always a favourite at Bristol, sang "On Guard" in his usual dramatic and effective style. The Eden Troupe of lady vocalists and dancers were encored for their spirited dancing. Miss Marguerite Fish and Mr Charles Warren, American duettists, met with success. The Sisters Dora and Miss Annie Imber, serio, gave loyal co-operation, as also did the Levardos in a comic bar act.
Mr George Harrington is the manager of the two halls, and Mr J. Macnicoll the assistant manager. Much credit is due to Mr Henry Tozer for the excellent manner in which the travelling and other arrangements for the party were carried out.
Plans of the Bristol Empire From Chapter 22 of Ernest Woodrow's 'Concert Halls and Assembly Rooms of 1895'.
Above - Plans of the Bristol Empire from Chapter 22 of Ernest Woodrow's 'Concert Halls and Assembly Rooms of 1895'. The accompanying text reads: 'Figs. 5, 6, and 7 are of the Bristol Empire, a provincial music-hall of a smaller type than the Manchester Palace, but one none the less important, as representing a class rapidly increasing provincial towns to supplant the dangerous structures which have done duty in the past. Messrs. Wylson and Long are the architects of his hall, which was originally intended to include circus, as shown upon the plan, Fig. 4. where the ring is formed by removing a portion of the stage. This intention was, however, subsequently abandoned. There is a large pit or area floor, as being the part most frequented in places of this kind. The area is 81ft. 3in. deep by 52ft. wide; from this part there are four exits. Immediately over the pit is the balcony, consisting of six rows of seats, with promenade and raised buffet in the rear; above this is the gallery. The Empire is said to be one of the best music-halls of its class in the provinces, and the architects have designed it in an appropriate Free Oriental style, which readily adapts itself to the internal and external decoration of the building, the colour scheme of the auditorium being in warm tints, in which red and blue predominate The size of the stage is 32ft. wide, with a depth of 32ft. The holding capacity of the auditorium is 1,376 persons, seated as follows : Pit 338, stalls 218, balcony 246, gallery 542, private boxes 32. Full Text Here.
The reopening of the Bristol Empire took place on Monday October the 28th 1895 and the Theatre then continued with Music Hall and Variety for many years. It was here that a young Cary Grant had his first show business job as a lime-lighter. And in the 1920s and 30s the Theatre was home to some of the biggest names in the business such as Flanagan and Allen, Gracie Fields, Gertie Gitana, and Old Mother Riley.
However, it wouldn't be long before films started to be shown in the afternoons with musical revues in the evenings, and in 1931 the Theatre was taken over by ABC for the showing of films continuously. However, the outbreak of war in 1939 saw the screen removed and twice-nightly live shows returning to the Theatre again.
After the war however the Empire sunk to showing so called 'Girlie Shows' and was eventually taken over by the Bristol Corporation and the lease was sold to the BBC in 1954.
The Theatre was demolished in the early 1960s and the site was eventually covered by a roundabout and flyover.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F. Some of the above information was also kindly sent in by Dave Baxter.
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