Chiswick Empire

The Chiswick Empire was a theatre in Chiswick in London that opened in 1912 and closed and was demolished in 1959. A venue for touring artists, some of the greatest names in drama, variety and music hall performed there including George Formby, Laurel and Hardy, Chico Marx, Peter Sellers and Liberace.

The Chiswick Empire on Chiswick High Road, next to the Old Packhorse, which still survives.

Early historyEdit

 
The architect Frank Matcham c. 1900

In 1910 the theatre owner and manager Oswald Stoll made a proposal to build a music hall on a site in Chiswick High Road in Chiswick. There followed a public debate with many local people opposed to Stoll's plan, arguing that such a venue would be unsuitable in one of the more select residential areas in the town. Others were concerned that a music hall would encourage working-class people to waste their money: ‘having too many music halls is a great blow to thrift – a great weakness of the English race was their want of thrift’ suggested one local resident. However, the new theatre had some local support and a petition was drawn up with 2,000 signatures, claiming that a new theatre would create employment for the town and give people a place of entertainment. Eventually permission was granted and Stoll built his new theatre on Chiswick High Road where some shops and the local smithy had to be demolished to accommodate it.[1]

 
The Chiswick Empire (1913)

Located at 414 Chiswick High Road, the Chiswick Empire was designed by theatre architect Frank Matcham for Oswald Stoll. The interior was decorated in what was called a "Jacobean" style, similar in design to that of the London Palladium. With a large two storey centrally placed opening which contained an open verandah,[2] the auditorium could seat 1,948 – with 890 in the Stalls, 454 in the Dress Circle, and 554 in the Balcony and eight boxes. The stage had a proscenium width of 44 feet and an orchestra pit for 15 musicians. Behind the scenes were 10 dressing rooms for the artistes. An innovation was the sliding roof which was seldom opened but when it was would cause clouds of dust to drop on the audience.[1]

The Chiswick Empire opened on 2 September 1912 with a Variety bill that included some of the most popular performers of the time. While built as a venue for variety acts the Empire also at times staged plays. On 19 August 1913 while the theatre was empty a serious fire broke out which destroyed the stage and caused considerable damage to the auditorium. After extensive restoration at a cost of £12,000 the theatre reopened three months later with the appositely-named play The Miracle.[1][3]

For the Christmas season each year the Empire put on a popular pantomime, with George Formby appearing in that for 1915 while the popular entertainers Dorothy Ward and Shaun Glenville appeared there in Jack and the Beanstalk in 1949. Alma Cogan was in the 1955 pantomime Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. In 1915 the Empire also saw Gladys Cooper, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. In January 1917 Clara Butt appeared in a number of charity matinees and Queen Alexandra attended a concert in aid of the Chiswick Memorial Homes.[1]

Between the WarsEdit

 
Poster for Chico Marx at the Chiswick Empire (1949)

By the 1920s the Empire was home to twice nightly variety acts as well as revues, plays and opera, with the Swiss clown Grock appearing in 1921. The company of Ben Greet held a Shakespeare season at the theatre while variety stars such as Wee Georgie Wood, Tommy Handley and Charles Hawtrey also appeared. In 1930 Sybil Thorndike appeared at the theatre in the play The Distaff Side and the Carl Rosa Opera Company played there, as did the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1931.[1][3]

In 1932 the Empire had a new manager who previously had worked in a theatre that had done well financially when it had changed to a full-time cinema. The Chiswick Empire similarly had a change of use to a cinema with a Western Electric sound system being installed.[2] However, the move was not a success and in October 1933 the Empire reverted to being a live theatre with films only being shown on Sundays when live performances were prohibited.[1][3]

A season of the works of Shakespeare was given at the Empire by Anew McMaster and his company among which was a young Anthony Quayle.

Later yearsEdit

 
Poster for Liberace at the Chiswick Empire (1959)

At the beginning of World War II the Empire closed in common with all other theatres across the country, but reopened at the end of 1941 when some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry appeared including: Vera Lynn, Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss, Jimmy James, Arthur Askey and Lucan & McShane (Old Mother Riley and Her Daughter Kitty).[1]

After the War the Empire saw Laurel and Hardy in their first British tour (1947) and Chico Marx (1949),[2] while in the 1950s entertainers who appeared at the venue included: Tommy Cooper, Max Miller, Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews, Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Max Wall, Dickie Valentine, the Ray Ellington Quartet, Peter Sellers and Dorothy Squires (1952), Laurel and Hardy on a return visit (1954), Al Martino, Alma Cogan, Terry-Thomas (1955) and Cliff Richard (1959).[1]

The Chiswick Empire closed on 29 June 1959 following a hugely successful week of performances by the popular American pianist Liberace. The structure was demolished within a month and Empire House, an office building, erected on the site.[3]

Peter Blake mural (2017)Edit

 
Peter Blake's 2017 mural of the Chiswick Empire

In 2017 the pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who has lived in Chiswick since 1957 and who saw Max Miller at the Chiswick Empire, created a Sgt. Pepper-like collage mural under the railway arches at Turnham Green tube station which featured some of the singers, actors, comedians and music hall artists who had performed at the Chiswick Empire including Marie Lloyd, Cliff Richard, Arthur Askey, Laurel and Hardy, Tommy Cooper, Max Wall, Liberace, Terry-Thomas, George Formby, Peter Sellers, Max Miller, Morecambe and Wise, Vesta Tilley, Wilson, Keppel and Betty and others. Prints of the mural were sold to raise money for the redevelopment of the ‘piazza’ area in Chiswick.[4][5]

ReferencesEdit

Coordinates: 51°29′35″N 0°15′58″W / 51.493°N 0.266°W / 51.493; -0.266