The Hackney Empire is probably the best known theatre in the East End that is still open for business. This was one of the main music hall theatres to entertain local East Enders in Victorian times and it has seen more than a few past and present well-known names grace its stage during its time.
The building of the Hackney Empire
The theatre was originally constructed in 1901 as a music hall by the famous theatre architect, Frank Matcham. Music halls were an incredibly popular form of entertainment at the time, especially with the working classes, and anyone building a music hall could be sure of turning a profit.
The people behind the Empire really pulled out all the stops to give the theatre the WOW factor that would attract both artists and theatre goers. This was one of the most technologically advanced theatres of its time. It had electric lights, a built-in projector box and even central heating throughout the building. This plush and innovative theatre build attracted music hall acts from all over the world and also became popular with local audiences into the bargain.
East End Institutions – The Hackney Empire
During its time as a music hall venue the theatre put on shows that included some of the biggest music hall names of the time such as local Hackney girl Marie Lloyd and Stanley Holloway. Some performers moved on from music hall after appearing at the Hackney Empire to further their careers in film. Some became famous on a worldwide basis, including Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields and Stan Laurel.
The popularity of the theatre remained steady during the two world wars. It diversified into reviews, plays, concerts and burlesque shows as well as music hall variety. After the Second World War, people used to visiting the theatre as a regular form of entertainment would come down to see some of their favourite TV and radio stars perform live. Popular artists at this time included Tony Hancock and Charlie Chester. The Empire even hosted shows by artists as diverse as Louis Armstrong and Liberace.
The Hackney Empire, TV, Bingo and Alternative Comedy
But, ultimately, film and TV replaced live theatre and music hall as a popular form of entertainment. People stopped going to music hall theatres and this industry slowly died out. In the 1950s, the theatre was purchased by the ATV company. They used the theatre’s stage to film and stage live shows. Some of the most popular TV shows of the time used the Empire’s stage, including Emergency Ward 10, Take Your Pick, Opportunity Knocks and Oh Boy!
By the 1960s, live performances were also not so popular and the Hackney Empire spent a couple of decades as a popular bingo hall run by Mecca. By the 1980s, the organisation wanted to move out of the building, however, as it was too expensive to run. The building was given a Grade II listing at this point and the owners were told that had to do some major restoration work on its exterior, so it was easier – and cheaper – to sell than to take on the renovation costs.
The Empire was taken over by a young touring theatre group, C.A.S.T, who ran variety comedy nights on the stage. These showcased the talents of up and coming comedians such as French and Saunders, Jo Brand, Arthur Smith and Ben Elton. The theatre became the permanent base of what was to become the main alternative comedy circuit in London and the company ran various comedy and theatre initiatives, including the New Variety Project
The campaign to save Hackney Empire
By 1986, there was a real threat that the theatre would be demolished and redeveloped and the leader of the theatre group started a campaign to save it. The plan was to turn it back into a permanent performance venue and to secure its future and its historic building. The company that owned the theatre established the Hackney Empire Preservation Trust and the Hackney New Variety Management Company to help manage the project.
In 2001, the management of the theatre set in place a massive restoration project that was part funded by donations from famous people such as Sir Alan Sugar. The theatre was completely refurbished and renovated and did not reopen again until 2004. The refurbishment added to the theatre’s facilities, incorporating a new orchestra pit so that it could put on operatic and musical shows, giving it more options in terms of the shows it could put on. The theatre’s facilities are also now much improved for people attending shows there.
The Hackney Empire seems to have survived its sometime troubled past and is once again a popular place to see a show, particularly at Christmas when it puts on some well-rated pantomimes. It also runs regular dramatic, comedy, ballet, variety and opera performances.