Empire, Leicester Square

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Empire, Leicester Square
Leicester Square, London.jpg
Empire Leicester Square in 2007
Address Leicester Square
City Westminster, London
Coordinates 51°30′39″N 0°07′49″W / 51.510833°N 0.130278°W / 51.510833; -0.130278Coordinates: 51°30′39″N 0°07′49″W / 51.510833°N 0.130278°W / 51.510833; -0.130278

Thomas Verity

George Coles
Owned by Empire Cinemas Ltd
Capacity 2,000 seated (1884)
3,000 (1927)
Empire 1: 1,330
Empire 2: 300
Empire 4: 96
Empire 5: 48
Empire 6: 26
Empire 7: 58
Empire 8: 48
Empire 9: 42
Opened 17 April 1884
Years active 1884 - 1927 theatre
1928 - continues as cinema
Rebuilt 1893 Frank Verity
1928 Thomas Lamb
1961 George Coles
Other names 1884 Empire Theatre
1887 Empire Theatre of Varieties
Current use Première cinema

The Empire is a large cinema on the north side of Leicester Square, in the City of Westminster, London. It is one of many large cinemas in, and adjoining, the Square which are used for film premières and first runs. The original structure was built in 1884, as a theatre, designed by Thomas Verity. In common with many of the cinemas that are now in the Square, parts of the original structure may still remain, but are hidden by modern adaptations. There is also a casino on the premises.


The Empire Theatre opened on 17 April 1884 as a West End variety theatre on Leicester Square, as well as a ballet venue. The first performance was Chilpéric, with music by Hervé, adapted by H. Hersee and H.B. Farnie and described as a Grand Musical Spectacular, in three acts and seven tableaux. The corps de ballet for the performance was 50 strong.[1] Its capacity was about 2,000 seats. Edward Solomon and Sydney Grundy premièred their comic opera, Pocahontas or The Great White Pearl, another Solomon opera, Polly or The Pet of the Regiment transferred here, and his Billee Taylor was revived here, all in 1884. Kate Vaughan starred in Around the World in 80 Days at the theatre in 1886. Hervé premièred his Diana (1888) and Cleopatra (1889) at the theatre.

In 1887, the theatre reopened as a popular music hall named the Empire Theatre of Varieties. From 1887 to 1915, the designer C. Wilhelm created both scenery and costumes for (and sometimes produced) numerous ballets at the theatre, which established a fashion for stage design and were much imitated.[2] George Edwardes managed the theatre around the start of the 20th century. The dancer Adeline Genée and the theatre's ballet company, working under composer-director Leopold Wenzel, did much to revive the moribund art of ballet in Britain, which had declined in the 19th century.[3]

c.1905, the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square

In March 1896, the Empire Theatre played host to the first commercial theatrical performances of a projected film to a UK audience by Auguste and Louis Lumière.[4] The film programme ran for 18 months. Over the next few years the theatre began to offer a programme of live performances with short film shows.

As the technological wonder of moving pictures grew in popularity in the 1920s, the Empire was acquired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who demolished the theatre in 1927 (its last live theatre performance was Lady Be Good, starring Fred Astaire) and rebuilt the Empire as a film theatre by architect Thomas Lamb, although it still had a large stage and often hosted ballet and dance performances. The theatre's capacity was increased to about 3,000 seats and boasted a 4/21 Wurlitzer organ (since removed in the 1960s). The new cinema opened on 8 November 1928 with the silent film Trelawny of the Wells, based on the play by Arthur Wing Pinero.[5]

Programmes of cine-variety were presented at the Empire after the war. These were elaborate live shows, similar to those presented at the Radio City Music Hall. In 1952 the Empire featured in Charlie Chaplin's film Limelight. In 1959, the Empire installed new 70mm projectors, enabling it to show epics such as Ben Hur (which ran for 76 weeks).

MGM refurbished the building in 1961. Architect George Coles was commissioned and he built a new entrance and lobby in black and white Italian marble, and redesigned the 1,330 seat auditorium with banks of coloured lights. The theatre re-opened on 19 December 1962, with the Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard film Mutiny on the Bounty. The 1928 façade was retained but remained hidden for many years by a full building hoarding advertising both the film and Mecca Dancing, at the Mecca Ballroom, constructed in the stalls of the second Empire theatre, this has remained in use as a separate dance hall, discothèque and nightclub.


The Empire 1 screen is the largest, with a seating capacity of 1,330 since its last major refurbishment in the mid-1960s. Empire 2, seating 349, was formerly a separate cinema called the Ritz, located below ground. Since the 1960s refurbishment, that screen has been part of the Empire (although it had a separate entrance until a small refurbishment in the mid-1980s). Empire 3 is a small screen with only a 77-seat capacity. In spring 2008, two further small screens were added; Empire 4 with 96 seats and Empire 5 with 50 seats.

In 2009, Empire 3 was closed and void space was utilised to create three new auditoriums. Empire is now an 8-screen cinema and all screens have digital projection.

For a period in the early to mid-1990s, the Empire 1 was notable for the short sound-and-light show, involving laser projections onto the curtains and walls, that preceded the start of each programme.

In October 2005, the Empire was sold to Empire Cinemas Ltd, along with ten other cinemas around the United Kingdom (UK), following instructions from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that Terra Firma Capital Partners (TFCP) divest itself of 11 cinemas in order that their acquisition of United Cinemas International (UCI) go ahead. On 2 April 2006, Irish newspapers reported that all the theatres recently acquired by Empire Cinemas would be rebranded under the Empire brand.

In the summer of 2006, the Empire 1 sound system was completely overhauled, installing a 56 kilowatt THX-Certified sound system. At the same time as this the screen size was expanded by approximately 4 metres (≈13 feet).

In May 2009, Empire screen 1 was fitted with the UK's first Dolby 3D large screen solution. This solution included a Barco digital cinema twin-projector.[6]

In July 2012, the Empire screen 1 was fitted with the UK's first Dolby Atmos sound solution allowing up to 128 discrete sound tracks and up to 64 unique speaker feeds.[7]

By Late 2013, Dolby Atmos was temporarily removed and will return when the Impact screen opens at the same time when the Screen 1 reopens as an IMAX Theatre.

In addition to the regular public screening income the cinema is now available to hire for private screenings and conferences.[8]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Chilperic Theatre programme 17 April 1884 (Arthur Lloyd)". Retrieved 19 November 2007
  2. ^ "Mr. Pitcher's Art" - Obituary The Times, 3 March 1925
  3. ^ Richards, Jeffrey. Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953. pp. 257–60. (2002) Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-4506-1
  4. ^ On 14 January 1896, the first public film show in the UK, was presented using the Kineopticon system at the Queen's Hall, to members of the Royal Photographic Society by Birt Acres and Arthur Melbourne-Cooper. The Lumières first demonstrated their Cinématographe system at the Polytechnic in Regent Street five weeks later, at the same time Robert W. Paul demonstrated his Theatograph at his workshop in Hatton Garden.
  5. ^ Trelawny of the Wells (1916) at the Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 5 January 2008
  6. ^ "Dolby Laboratories, Inc. - Empire Leicester Square is Europe's First Theatre with Dolby 3D for Large Screens". Investor.dolby.com. 26 May 2009. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  7. ^ Steve May (7 January 2013). "Is Dolby Atmos the future of cinema sound?". TechRadar. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  8. ^ "United Kingdom: Empire Leicester Square: Private hire". hirespace.com. Retrieved 17 Jan 2014. 

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