The Sunderland Empire is known as the "West End of the North East" and is the largest theatre between Manchester and Edinburgh. It opened in an era in which live theatre was seeing the earliest challenges of cinema and indeed 1906, the year in which building commenced, Sunderland's first cinema had opened over the river in Monkwearmouth.
In addition there were already seven big theatre venues in Sunderland when the Empire opened but The Empire was the biggest and most advanced of Sunderland's theatres and variety halls and is the only one to survive in Sunderland to the present day.
The opening of the Empire Theatre reinforced the locality's role as a centre for leisure, with a number of notable pubs, three theatres and a public baths already in close proximity. Like many of the neighbouring Edwardian buildings, the theatre was constructed by the Milburns in ashlar - finely dressed angled blocks of stone, usually sandstone in Sunderland. The Empire remains almost wholly as the Milburns constructed it. Since its opening there has been only one major addition, a rear upper bar extension in 1989.
Inside the Empire "the splendid original interior" consists of a "wedding cake auditorium, with its tiers of seating decorated with rich mouldings that look like sugar icing". The theatre’s beautiful auditorium consists, unusually, of four impressive tiers comprised of Orchestra Stalls, Dress Circle, Upper Circle and a Gallery hosting a total 1,860 seats. When it first opened, the theatre accommodated 3,000 people.
The Sunderland Empire was considered the jewel in the crown of local theatre owner Richard Thornton (born South Shields 1839) and its opening was awaited with great excitement. The foundation stone was laid on September 29, 1906 by comedienne, Vesta Tilley, in her time one of the biggest female attractions on the British stage. Guests at the ceremony included the theatre's architects, William and Thomas Ridley Milburn.
The theatre was completed at a cost of £31,000 and Tilley returned to perform as top of the bill for the opening night on July 1, 1907. There was very nearly a disaster days before. On June 28, a workman's barrel of tar caught fire on the roof. The fire brigade was called but fortunately the barrel rolled off into the street without damaging the theatre, although an unfortunate passerby was splashed with tar.
It seems the demand for a new high quality theatre was high as the theatre was designed so two shows could be performed each night. Passageways were arranged so those who entered for the second performance took a different route to those leaving the first.
Richard Thornton, owner and developer of the Empire Theatre, had formed an alliance with fellow theatre owner Edward Moss who attended the opening night for the Empire along with the Milburn brothers. The Moss Empires group became the biggest theatre organisation in the world. It meant that great could grace the Sunderland Empire's stage. In 1908 alone, celebrities appearing at the Empire included W.C Fields, Stanley Jefferson (Stan Laurel) and Charlie Chaplin.
Theatres faced challenging times as the age of cinema went from strength to strength in the decades that followed. In 1959 the Sunderland Empire closed as a private concern but was made available for sale at £52,000. The theatre's important role as an important asset in Sunderland was undeniable and almost without hesitation, it was purchased by Sunderland Corporation as a civic theatre. Today it is owned by the Corporation's successor, Sunderland City Council and is operated by the Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd on behalf of Sunderland Empire Theatre Trust.
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