150 years of the Liverpool Empire theatre
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 November 2016
From rock legends to magical musicals, Liverpool’s Empire Theatre has seen it all over the last 150 years. Rebekka O’Grady visits to find out more about the theatre’s past.
There’s no business like show business, as Irving Berlin once wrote in his hit song for the 1946 musical, Annie Get Your Gun. And no-one knows this better than the Liverpool Empire Theatre, who are this year celebrating their 150th anniversary of being one of the most successful and renowned theatres in the country.
Since opening in 1866, the Liverpool Empire has battled through two world wars, a demolition and rebuild, numerous threats of closure and even a petition from angry pub goers – yet still stands today, more popular than ever before.
‘The theatre is at the peak of its achievements,’ said theatre manager, Diane Belding, who also mentioned that the Empire is the largest two-tier theatre in the UK, with 2,381 seats. ‘We have record audiences and more big shows than ever before. We’re very lucky to have a theatre in this city that attracts West End worthy performances such as The Lion King and Wicked. People don’t have to travel to London – it’s on our doorstep and it’s amazing.’
An iconic Grade II listed building; if walls could speak I’m sure the Liverpool Empire would tell a few showbiz secrets. From Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to the Beatles playing their last ever Liverpool show in 1965, through to The Queen and Prince Philip attending the 2007 Royal Variety Performance, a host of famous faces and shows have passed through the ornate theatre.
To celebrate their landmark birthday, the theatre hosted a Royal Gala with a special performance of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, produced by Bill Kenwright. Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, was the guest of honour at the evening, which also saw the Earl and Countess of Derby in attendance alongside local dignitaries and celebrities.
‘What could be better, a local writer, a show born and developed in Liverpool and arguably one of the world’s best known producers, local lad Bill Kenwright, in charge of production. Perfect,’ said Terry Smith, chairman of the Empire Theatre Trust. ‘It was a truly memorable evening.’
However despite all the current success and glamour, it might have been the end of the line for the theatre back in 1979 if it wasn’t for the now defunct Merseyside County Council saving the theatre from closure and setting up the Empire Theatre Trust. In fact, the site could now be home to a multi-storey car park if one developer had been successful with its bid.
The Trust, a registered charity, eventually became the Empire Theatre owner in the mid-1980s and Apollo Leisure (later sold to Live Nation and acquired by Ambassador Theatre Group in 2011) became theatre managers.
Around this time there was a major resurgence in theatre, due in large part to the arrival of a number of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh musicals in the West End, and the Trust, headed by chairman Sir Philip Carter of the Littlewoods Group, knew they had to keep up.
‘Philip started an appeal programme that eventually raised more than £11 million to refurbish the theatre,’ said Terry Smith, who took over as chairman 18 months ago after the death of successful business director. The former journalist and founder of Radio City has been a member of the trust since its formation. ‘In 1998 the theatre closed and we expanded and modernised both the auditorium and the backstage by 40%, so that we could attract big shows such as Phantom of the Opera and Cats that have large sets.’
Later in 2002, the theatre annexe and Atrium on the corner of Lime Street (standing in the place of what was once the Legs of Man pub) was completed – an area which has recently been refurbished into the new Lime Street Bistro, a Piano Bar and the luxury Ambassadors Lounge – which has a stunning view across to St George’s Hall.
‘We’re a fast-paced theatre keeping up with times. We keep the theatre modern but still retain the history and tradition of a visit here. People build up a connection with the theatre, whether it’s for a particular performance or return visits for a special occasion,’ said Diane, who explained that the Empire want to encourage everyone to be able to visit and enjoy the theatre, so they set up a ‘price promise’ where you can always purchase a ticket for £12. ‘During the refurbishment, we also installed lift access around the entire venue – even the orchestra pit – so that wheelchairs can move around freely.’
It seems that the Liverpool Empire Theatre is showing no sign of slowing down, with bookings for the theatre now being taken for War Horse in November 2017.
So after nearly four decades of being a part of the Empire, what’s Terry’s favourite part about the theatre? ‘My favourite part? Keeping it open.’