The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson – the Empire Theatre

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

I AM still receiving letters and emails regarding the Empire Theatre which opened in 1909 and closed suddenly in 1955.

Readers may recall that the theatre’s closure came as a shock to everyone in Dewsbury, including the staff.

Lovely Lakes: Memories of the halcyon days of the Empire are reflected in this picture taken in 1953. Empire staff are on a day out to the Lake District. Tony Gage, assistant stage manager, is second from the left. Marion Brace (mother of Ray Brace) is second from the right. Cliff Taylor, electrician, is centre, along with other members of staff.

Lovely Lakes: Memories of the halcyon days of the Empire are reflected in this picture taken in 1953. Empire staff are on a day out to the Lake District. Tony Gage, assistant stage manager, is second from the left. Marion Brace (mother of Ray Brace) is second from the right. Cliff Taylor, electrician, is centre, along with other members of staff.

Mirfield Athletic Club had planned to put a show on there and had booked singer Ronnie Hilton and the Vic Lewis Orchestra.

Fortunately, they got permission to re-open the theatre to put on the show themselves.

Ray Brace, who was stage manager at the Empire when it closed, also remembers the happy years he spent there as stage manager.

He writes: “The Ronnie Hilton–Vic Lewis Sunday concert was the last time I stage managed at the Empire and the last time I was in the building.

“When I was at the Empire, Tony Gage was my assistant in the final year there, and in 1957 I got him the stage manager’s job at the Palace in Morecambe.

“I lost touch with him but I have attached a photograph of a staff trip to the Lake District where he is pictured second from the left.

William (Bill) Stephenson, was manager, and Richard (Dick) Stephenson, was his Dad who ran the Empire.

“Richard was responsible for arranging a day trip for all the staff every year, usually Lake district or Blackpool, always on a Sunday when the theatre was closed.

“He always made sure he ran the Empire like an extended family. It broke his heart when it closed and all his staff were out of work.

“He was the one who started me as stage manager and gave me a life I could only have dreamed about as a child.”

Les Addy, who was in the audience of the Ronnie Hilton concert, recalls: “The Empire had closed down but to enable this event to go ahead, the Mirfield Club arranged for the Empire to be specially re-opened on Sunday 1 May.

“I was at that concert and, fortunately, my pocket and paper delivering money stretched to the price of a programme, which I still have.

“Ronnie Hilton was very popular having had a few hit records, but the Vic Lewis Orchestra was an odd choice for a backing band, as they were more of a big band jazz ensemble, rather than a band with a smoother style

“A band like that of Ken Mackintosh would have been perhaps more suitable, but I enjoyed their style of music very much.”

Some readers have written in to ask how Dewsbury people reacted to its closure and did anyone try to save it?

Surprisingly, there was not one letter of complaint to the Reporter, but some people did campaign to save the building from demolition.

They failed and it was replaced by an office block – Empire Buildings.

In the 1950s, people were turning to the silver screen and television for their entertainment, and live theatre was no longer attracting them in great numbers.

Theatres like the Empire were not taking in the money as they had in the past and theatre owners were closing them down or going into voluntary liquidation.

At the time of its closure, the Empire had a reputation for pantomime which was second to none in the North of England with some of the country’s biggest names appearing there.

Coach-loads of people were travelling from as far away as Newcastle to see them, and 9,000 had already provisionally booked for the following year’s pantomime.

The following is an edited version of the newspaper report which appeared after its closure.

“A shock announcement by the management of the Empire Theatre, after the final performance of “Chu Chin Chow, on Saturday, was the first anyone had heard that the theatre was closing.

“Over the last few weeks, even when star variety artistes were appearing on the bills, the support of the public has been negligible.

“When a tour of “Zip Goes a Million” opened there were only 157 people at the Monday night performance.

“Waiting outside the theatre on Monday morning was radio’s ‘Whispering Pianist’ Roy Stephenson who had been booked to appear that week.

“He told a waiting journalist, the Empire was the 33rd theatre in the North of England to have closed in the last few years.

“He blamed the entertainment tax for killing the business, and said unless it was removed things would get worse.

“The theatre’s manager, Mr William S Stephenson, said on Saturday night as he sat in his office for the last time, that it was a crying shame a theatre like that should have to close.

“The following day, his wife, Mrs Stephenson, said her husband was distraught and had almost broken down.”

The photograph above was taken on an Empire staff trip to the Lake District in 1953, one of many such trips arranged and paid for by Richard Stephenson for his staff.

If you have memories or photographs of the Empire contact tresham3@gmail.com.