The New Empire Theatre
is a historic and current theater in Southend, Essex
Essex is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in the East region of England, and one of the home counties. It is located to the northeast of Greater London. It borders with Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to the north, Hertfordshire to the west, Kent to the South and London to the south west...
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...
The New Empire Theatre was built in 1896 by theatre impresario Frederick Marlow. He had owned the public hall previously on the site, and converted it to The Empire Theatre in 1892. A fire on Boxing Day
Boxing Day is a bank or public holiday that occurs on 26 December, or the first or second weekday after Christmas Day, depending on national or regional laws. It is observed in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and some other Commonwealth nations. In Ireland, it is recognized as...
1895 destroyed the building. Marlow took it upon himself to rebuild a bigger, better theatre, with five floors and electric lighting.
The theatre was the first of its kind in Southend, and was called 'the prettiest theatre outside of London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...
' by local press at its opening in 1896. Marlow presented a varied programme of musicals
Musical theatre is a form of theatre combining songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance. The emotional content of the piece – humor, pathos, love, anger – as well as the story itself, is communicated through the words, music, movement and technical aspects of the entertainment as an...
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...
A concert is a live performance before an audience. The performance may be by a single musician, sometimes then called a recital, or by a musical ensemble, such as an orchestra, a choir, or a musical band...
s, plays, variety and music hall. He remained at the theatre until 1905 when it was taken over by the Southend-on-Sea
Southend-on-Sea is a unitary authority area, town, and seaside resort in Essex, England. The district has Borough status, and comprises the towns of Chalkwell, Eastwood, Leigh-on-Sea, North Shoebury, Prittlewell, Shoeburyness, Southchurch, Thorpe Bay, and Westcliff-on-Sea. The district is situated...
Theatre Company Ltd. The following fourteen years the theatre was run on a leasehold basis by various people, including Albert Marchinsky
Albert Marchinsky was a stage illusionist and magician. He was born in Russian Poland c.1876 and died at Southend-on-Sea, England, 1930....
, an illusionist known as "The Great Rameses", a successful magician and music hall entertainer who spent some time pursuing theatre management as a career.
By 1919, the advent of moving pictures
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...
had brought about many changes in Southend, and the theatre closed its doors, making way for an enlarged and magnificent cinema, The Rivoli. From 1921 to 1962, the Rivoli thrived as a cinema, in 1929 installing sound equipment to facilitate the talking pictures. In 1962, the Rivoli was taken over by the ABC chain and underwent further refurbishment, including the addition of a Marine Bar underground, making use of the old Empire passageways. The cinema continued for another 20 years, and in 1982 was twinned to create a second, smaller cinema at the old Rivoli Mezzanine level.
By 1998, the popularity of cinema as a whole had diminished, and one of many casualties in Southend was the ABC. In February 1998, it showed its last film, and the venue was once again closed.
People that bought tickets for any recents showed have got a refund.
In August 1998, a local family and a group of volunteers took over the then derelict building, and using their own money and donations from the local community, along with a lot of elbow grease, grit and determination, refurbished and transformed the dilapidated site into a new community theatre. To start with, a bit rough around the edges but nevertheless functioning, the theatre presented a plethora of shows, whilst using any income from tickets to slowly improve the building and facilities, building the stage, pros arch, installing seating, electrics, flying, dressing rooms, lights and sound. Over the years, the volunteers have proven that without any external funding, a theatre can survive and continues to this day to present shows for the local community, providing a venue for all including amateur societies, dancing schools, bands, music groups and schools. The rent alone each month is crippling to the family and volunteers, who would love to own the building and spend more money on its upkeep and maintenance as well as further improvements. In 2001, the New Empire Theatre Fund was founded with the aim of raising enough money to buy the building from the owners, and they continue to work towards this goal.
In 2008, after the leaseholders had not paid rent on the building for one quarter, the Freeholder regained possession after sending bailiffs in. Shortly thereafter, an article appeared in Southend's Evening Echo newspaper, suggesting that the ex-leaseholders had 'trashed' the building, removed all the theatre's 'workings' and left a hardboard coffin in the auditorium, with a message to the freeholder to 'Rot in hell', along with a plastic gun. The ex-leaseholders claimed no prior knowledge of this.
Following an investigation by Southend Police, it was proven that no criminal damage was caused to the building, and that the equipment and fittings belonging to members of the team were carefully and lawfully removed (under the supervision of one of the Landlord's members of staff). The coffin was a prop left over from a production of Oliver. It was placed at the front of the auditorium to later be taken. Where the plastic gun came from, we never found out although it was not connected with the coffin.
After being empty for over a year, the building is now on the market (freehold) at £1.2 million. Many people and groups would like to see it returned as a community theatre and arts centre. A recent report in the Echo newspaper has suggested that it may become a cinema once again.