How a South Shields busker created one of the best theatres in Britain

March 14 marks exactly one year since the last performance at the finest theatre in northern England.

Sunday, 14th March 2021, 6:00 am

The Sunderland Empire is magnificent. It’s one of the finest venues of its type you’ll ever sit in. The North East is lucky to have it – and it was all thanks to a busker from South Shields

London has larger and more famous theatres. But none of them better this beautiful specimen of ornate Edwardian architecture. Anyone who has sat in both the Empire and the London Palladium can confirm this.

While the building itself is only part of the story, over the last 114 years it has provided an appropriately grand venue for some of the biggest names in the history of entertainment.

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The magnificent Sunderland Empire Theatre would not exist without the help of a South Shields busker. Picture by Stu Norton.
The magnificent Sunderland Empire Theatre would not exist without the help of a South Shields busker. Picture by Stu Norton.

These include The Beatles, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields, Helen Mirren, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Connolly, Mickey Rooney, Morecambe and Wise, Rudolf Nureyev – and Bobby Thompson.

These legends, for a change the description seems appropriate, each provide a piece of the theatre’s story, which could be the subject for an entire book; as indeed it has been.

And it’s all down to a South Shields man who busked on Marsden sea front. Here instead is an all-too brief history of the Sunderland Empire Theatre.

In the beginning… Richard Thornton of Shields

Appearances at the Sunderland Empire by The Beatles, Rudolf Nureyev and Sid James all created a stir for very different reasons.

What was originally called the Empire Palace was the product of a 1900s partnership between Richard Thornton and Edward Moss. Thornton is the more significant of the two in the story.

He was born in South Shields in 1839 and had been a busker for a living, sometimes at Marsden, before becoming a successful theatre impresario.

An ambitious man, Thornton built up a chain of theatres. These included Thornton's Empire Theatre of Varieties in King Street, South Shields (now Coopland’s bakery). He had also managed a music hall in Union Street.

He specialised in music hall and Sunderland Empire became his passion. He would serve as its managing director until his death in 1922.

The foundation stone, laid by Vesta Tilley in 1906, is on the east side of the theatre, s few yards from the Dun Cow pub.

Thornton enlisted architects William and TR Milburn of 20 Fawcett Street, Sunderland with spectacular results. The total cost of the theatre was about £31,000.

The foundation stone was laid by 42 year-old music hall star Vesta Tilley on September 29, 1906. She was top of the bill when the theatre opened on July 1, 1907 when, according to the next day’s paper, she “excited tremendous enthusiasm.”

Vesta’s appearance meant the theatre was starting as it meant to continue. With cinema in its infancy and television way in the future, she was as big a name as any in show business.

The Empire’s auditorium was built with four tiers: stalls, dress circle, upper circle and gallery – the ‘gods’.

These young fans were determined not to miss out on tickets to see Kate Bush in 1979.

The domed tower above the main entrance we see today was originally topped by a revolving globe with the figure of Terpischore, the Greek goddess of dance, surmounting it.

In May 1943 a German bomb rattled the building, although it didn’t directly strike. As a precaution, Terpsichore and the globe she pranced upon on were removed and now stand at the head of the main staircase.

The replica which replaced her was itself crudely un-perched in peacetime; a casualty of high winds in 2015.

The theatre had a capacity approaching 3,000. Today, in a more safety-conscious age, it has 1,869 seats, although additional standing has occasionally been permitted.

It was built high, but the steep seating decks make it quite compact. The closeness almost hits performers in the face the first time they take to the stage.

Early stars and the ‘comedian’s graveyard’

Rock star Dave Stewart was delighted to return to the Empire Theatre in 2017. Picture by Stu Norton.

Apart from Vesta Tilley, popular turns of the early days included male impersonator (as was Vesta) Hetty King, Scottish singer Harry Lauder and Wee Georgie Wood.

In the days of variety, the Empire soon earned a reputation as a “comedian’s graveyard” later amended to “the comic’s Dunkirk”, although there is no record of anyone being pelted with the traditional rotten tomatoes. Actually arriving at the theatre with pocketfuls of rancid fruit would suggest a certain prejudice.

Still, there were comedy stars who did well, such as George Formby, Gracie Fields and Sid Field. Much later in 1988, according to Victoria Wood’s authorised biography, she loved the Empire and noted “extremely nice kind audience – a good feeling” (whereas Newcastle’s City Hall was “dumpish”, while the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry was the “worst yet”).

Nevertheless, many comedians had terrible nights on a stage where the audience could smell fear. Singers, on the other hand, were usually well received.

World War Two and beyond

High unemployment and the emergence of cinemas meant tough times in the 1930s, but World War Two led to a resurgence for the Empire.

The war might have put paid to Terpsichore, but it was a very prosperous time for the theatre itself. Audiences were understandably seeking entertainment and there was no shortage of artists, including Vera Lynn, who were willing to appear.

There was also – brace yourselves – onstage nudity during the war. Under a bizarre law this was permitted, but only if those in a state of undress remained completely motionless.

However, the post-war years were grim. Not least because of the sudden popularity of television. Dance bands would play elsewhere in Sunderland and South Tyneside. Later The Who, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin would play in the area, but not at its principal concert venue.

A rare highlight was the 1954 appearance by Laurel and Hardy, who also enjoyed a couple of drinks in the nearby Dun Cow.

So bad was the situation that the Empire closed in 1959, but only briefly. Sunderland Corporation bought the venue for £52,000, about £1.2 million in today’s money. The theatre was saved, although it would run at a loss for many years.

The pantomimes

A perennial mainstay of the theatre is the pantomime. It has always been one of the country’s more prestigious panto venues.

Stars over the decades have included many instantly recognisable artists, including Les Dawson, Paul Michael Glaser, Brian Blessed, Basil Brush, the Krankies, Stanley Baxter and countless others.

But the biggest panto coup came in 2007, when Mickey Rooney agreed to play Baron Hardup in Cinderella.

The 87 year-old Hollywood great had fun in the role, despite being more used to working with the likes of Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn than Les Dennis, who appeared as Buttons.

In 2010 there was no pantomime. Instead there was a run of the musical White Christmas. Eyebrows were raised, although the producers of Sleeping Beauty at the Customs House in South Shields were mightily pleased.

The Beatles

The biggest act in the history of popular music gave three performances on Wearside. First as bottom of the bill to Helen Shapiro on February 9, 1963 at the Empire. They played the Rink Ballroom in Park Lane three months later.

Their third time was back at the Empire in November 1963, by which time Beatlemania was in full swing. According to legend (ie. it might not be true), they avoided hysterical fans afterwards by sliding down the pole in the fire station next door before escaping in a van.

The Sunderland Echo's teenage critic Carol Robertson remained unimpressed, criticising their strange haircuts and “similar-sounding” songs.

Helen Shapiro returned in 1984 as part of a BBC show about British theatres called Halls of Fame. Hosted by Roy Hudd, it told the Empire’s story and featured turns by Frankie Vaughan, Alan Price, Jim Casey & Eli and, of course, Bobby Thompson.

Disasters

The most famous Empire tale concerns the onstage death of Carry On star Sid James in 1976. The story is well-documented. The theatre manager rang the show’s producer, Bill Robertson, to tell him that James had died in Sunderland.

Robertson replied: “Don’t worry, everybody dies in Sunderland.”

A subsequent ban on rock bands was in place until Motörhead played in 1987; although Kate Bush sold out there in 1979. She would not give solo shows again for another 35 years.

Another low was the shambolic performance of Rudolf Nureyev in 1991. Fans had paid for expensive tickets. Probably the most famous ballet dancer of all time was clearly past his peak and not helped by tinny recorded music.

The public was unaware of the dancer’s illness. Two years later he died of complications from AIDS.

And now…

As time wore on things became easier for comedians at the Empire. This was mainly because unlike in the days of variety, audiences knew what comedians were like before paying to see them.

Just about every British famous comedian since the war has played there. From Ken Dodd and Bob Monkhouse, to Billy Connolly, Victoria Wood, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall & Ade Edmondson, Steve Coogan, Peter Kay, French & Saunders, Jimmy Carr, Michael McIntryre, Paul Merton, Russ Abbot, Rhod Gilbert, Chubby Brown and … everyone really.

But the biggest draw today, attracting audiences from far further afield, are the musicals. A £4.6 million refurbishment in 2004 gave the theatre the logistical means to put on major productions.

These have included The Lion King, Spamalot, Miss Saigon, The Book Of Mormon, Cats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a host of other Broadway hits that were not possible to stage before.

They help make the Empire one of the North East’s greatest entertainment assets. The theatre is something we can all look forward to. One day.

And that’s entertainment.

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Vesta Tilley tops the bill for the theatre's opening night in 1907.
Beatlemania came to the Empire in 1963, but the boys were only a support act.
Oops! Terpsichore hanging by a thread after high winds in 2015.
Bobby Thompson and young groupies at the Empire in 1981.
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