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Hackney Empire





Music Hall at the Hackney Empire

Built in 1901, the Hackney Empire with its electric lights, central heating and in-built projection box was a technological wonder of its time. When the theatre opened under the ownership of Oswald Stoll (later of Stoll Moss fame) it attracted acts from all over the world. Chaplin appeared a number of times before decamping to America to gain fame in Hollywood, and Stan Laurel perfected his act upon these boards. But undoubtedly the most important star to appear in this hey-day of music hall before the First World War was Marie Lloyd, who lived on Graham Road, just by the theatre. Lloyd's act consciously shocked and challenged her audiences. This ‘Queen of the Halls' lent her support to an artists' strike in 1907 which led to the formation of the Variety Artists' Association, now part of the actors' union Equity.

The World Wars

Between the wars the Empire hosted burlesque, reviews, plays and concerts as well as variety, and even Louis Armstrong was happy to leave Harlem to appear. In the years following the Second World War, audiences flocked to see artists made household names by the radio and recording industries such as Charlie Chester, Issy Bonn, Tony Hancock and even Liberace.

ATV Independent Television Studio

The Empire continued as a confluence of popular culture when, in 1956, Stoll Moss sold the theatre to ATV and it became the first commercial television studios in the country. Programmes such as Take Your Pick and Oh Boy!, the Top Of The Pops of its day, on which Marty Wilde appeared with Cliff Richard and the legendary Maria Callas, were filmed at the Empire, as was Emergency Ward 10.

The Hackney Empire as a Bingo Hall

In 1963 Mecca purchased the theatre and converted it into a bingo hall, installing tables at the back of the stalls and a wire running through across the auditorium to the stage so that the winning sheets could be sent quickly to the bingo caller on stage. In 1984 the building became a Grade II* listed building and Mecca were ordered to restore the domes on the Mare Street façade. Faced with the financial costs of restoring the building's exterior to its original state, Mecca found themselves looking for a new owner.

The Theatre Re-opens in 1986

C.A.S.T. (Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre) were a political theatre company led by Roland Muldoon. In 1981 the Company set up its New Variety project which went on to receive support from the Greater London Council, enabling them to run eight venues throughout London and establish the first modern comedy circuit. This gave the company the confidence to take over the 1500 seat Hackney Empire as a permanent base for their operations and ambitions. Establishing the Hackney Empire Preservation Trust and Hackney New Variety Management Company (now known as Hackney Empire Ltd) the group organised the purchase of the building and began the process of restoration and modernisation. Roland became the Theatre Director of the company and other members of C.A.S.T. took over the technical and administrative roles. The immediate focus of attention was to resurrect the 1901 Hackney Empire from a bingo hall and turn it once again into a venue for popular theatre. The building was re-opened on its 85th birthday, 9 December 1986, and went on to establish itself as one of the leading stand-up comedy venues. ­ Many of today's top comedians got their first break on this stage! During this time the theatre was also used as a location for many film shoots including Lord Attenborough's film, "Chaplin".

The Restoration Project

In 2001, the Empire's centenary year, our Chairman of the Fundraising Appeal, Griff Rhys Jones, was able to announce that after many years of hard work the Empire had raised £15 million to fund the renovation and restoration of the theatre. Following some not inconsiderable setbacks, work on the original Matcham building was completed and it was opened in January 2004. This included a new 60 seat orchestra pit together with a brand new backstage area including dressing rooms, wardrobe, green room and kitchen, technical offices and workshops. The fly tower has been extended by 15 feet, allowing sets to fully clear the proscenium arch, and a modern counterweight flying system has been installed. The Box Office has been expanded and a lift now services all levels of the theatre. All the public areas have seen improved access and toilet facilities, repainting and repairing to ensure Matcham's masterpiece lasts another century and beyond. 14 September 2004 marked the completion of the entire project with a celebration gala and Sir Alan Sugar, one of our primary benefactors, opened the finished complex. The Marie Lloyd annexe houses the new theatre bar, the Empire Café, and the Harold Pinter space. On the exterior of the new development are super-graphics spelling the name ‘Hackney Empire'. This bold and fitting marker stands over 21 feet high and greets airline passengers as they fly into City Airport.