The fall and rise of the Burnley Empire Theatre

Burnley Empire Theatre
Photography by Mark Salmon

By Gilly Fontaine-Grist

The exterior crumbles and weeps in Lancashire’s rain: windows give no hint of what lies behind the bricked up, once beautiful façade. Cracks betray a loss of hope in what was once a thriving theatre then a cinema, and lastly a bingo hall that buzzed with euphoria as getting that winning line and number was achieved. Through the years, voices of excited young and old audiences cheering at the final curtain changed to those of crowds eager to win a few bob.

The Burnley Empire Theatre has a profoundly poignant history that starts in the 19th Century when it was first designed by GB Rawcliffe in 1894. Owned and managed by WC Horner, it was a theatre of high regard and continued to such following works in 1911, when the auditorium was redesigned by Bertie Crewe, well respected architect, much of whose work is no longer standing – pulled down to make way for housing, shops or other amenities, or victims of the war that destroyed so many beautiful buildings.

The interior boasts ‘two slightly curved wide and deep balconies, terminating in superimposed stage boxes framed between massive Corinthian columns supporting a deep cornice. Segmental-arched proscenium, with richly decorated spandrels and heraldic cartouche. Side walls feature plaster panels, pilasters and drops. Flat, panelled ceiling with circular centre panel and central sun burner. Restrained heraldic and Greek plasterwork on balcony and box fronts’ (Theatres Trust).

During its time as a theatrical venue, Charlie Chaplin, Margot Fonteyn and Gracie Fields are just a few of the names to have appeared on the now broken stage.

In 1938 the building became a cinema (possibly redesigned and converted by Lewis and Co of Liverpool) and remained as such for the next 32, bringing much enjoyed new entertainment to Burnley’s citizens.

Burnley Empire Theatre
Photography by Mark Salmon

In 1970, the atmosphere inside the building became one of hoping to make a bit of extra money – a sign of the times perhaps, that watching performers whether live or captured on film became less of an attraction – more costly perhaps, yet conversely, in the US, directors of the “New Hollywood”, had unrestrained creative and financial freedom to develop films. The enormous success in the 1970s of Spielberg’s Jaws spawned the concept of the modern blockbuster, and similarly the phenomenal success of the 1977 film, Star Wars, suggests that cinema was thriving in other areas of the country, perhaps those with greater affluence. However, I cannot help feeling that maybe the Empire’s owners missed a trick.

Just over a couple of decades after bingo had captured the purses and wallets of Burnley, the number callers moved out and the auditorium became quiet, full only of the memories of cheering and clapping.

The theatre, however, has a chance. A final last chance.

There are people who want to save this building, and want to do so in a way that involves new skill-building, attracts new jobs, encourages trainees in construction, design and all the restoration will involve; a method of development that not only helps the economy of the area but provides a northern town in much need of an uplift, with a historically important building restored, to provide once more a space for creative expression through amateur and professional theatre and variety; through music, concerts and gigs, conference and talks, for student and professionals alike.

Burnley Empire Theatre Trust are looking to raise money to pay for a viability study, which will determine exactly what work is required to make this theatre be what it once was, a thriving, beautiful working performance venue, not only for Burnley, but for all of Lancashire; a nationally important attraction, that brings professional touring theatre and musicians to its stage.

You can read more about the the history of Burnley’s Empire Theatre here.

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