By Christina Pain
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 10 (2001)
In 1910 Mr Oswald Stoll put forward a proposal to build a music hall on a site in Chiswick High Road. At a heated public meeting held in the Town Hall those opposed to Stoll’s proposal argued that the building of a variety theatre would spoil one of the best residential areas in the neighbourhood and lower the tone. Other protesters felt it would encourage people to waste money: ‘having too many music halls is a great blow to thrift – a great weakness of the English race was their want of thrift’, opined one. Another complained that people attending music halls did not have sufficient food, clothing and housing accommodation. Those in favour of the theatre drew up a petition of 2,000 signatures, claiming that people had a right to clean and healthy places of entertainment and that it would provide employment for the area.
Stoll succeeded in obtaining the necessary permission for the theatre to be built on the north side of the High Road, replacing various shops and the local smithy.
Frank Matcham, the foremost theatre architect, was commissioned to design what was variously known as the Hippodrome, The Music Hall, The Theatre before becoming the Chiswick Empire. Between 1879 and 1912, Frank Matcham created or reconstructed nearly a quarter of the theatres in the country. He improved seating and ventilation and, in order to have good sightlines, he made use of curvilinear cantilevers in the construction of balconies. These can be seen in the London Palladium which he designed in 1910.
The seating capacity of the Chiswick Empire was 1,948. There were 890 seats on the ground floor; 454 in the dress circle; 554 on the balcony and eight boxes. The style of theatre was described as ‘Jacobean’ with an interior similar to that of the London Palladium. The Empire had electric blue seats and drapes, terracotta carpet and back wall, the other walls, cream and gold.
An innovation was the sliding roof. A patron remembers it as one of the wonders of London. It was opened infrequently, but when it was, clouds of dust would fall on the audience!
By the time the Chiswick Empire opened on 2 September 1912, the protests against it were forgotten. The Chiswick Times gave it a glowing welcome, emphasising the fine building, its association with the London Palladium and the handsome interior. Boxes cost 7s 6d and 10s 6d; grand circle seats 1s 6d; stalls 9d and balcony 3d.
The programme on the first night was varied. The performers included Billy Merson who took his calls going up and down with the curtain, Thora, a ventriloquist, Rameses, the Egyptian Wonder Worker, and York Stephens, who directed a model airship over the heads of the audience by wireless. A film of Chiswick Horse Show was shown on the bioscope.
This varied mix was indicative of future programmes. The Chiswick Empire opened at a time when stage actors in the legitimate theatre were prepared to appear on mixed variety bills in music halls. The reasons for this were largely financial since actors were paid more money to appear in music halls than in the regular theatre. Actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s top salary of £150 per week compares badly with the £350 a week Charles Hawtrey was paid to appear at the London Coliseum.
The Chiswick Empire had been opened less than a year when its life was almost ended. On 19 August 1913 a fire broke out which destroyed the stage and badly damaged the auditorium. Luckily the theatre was closed at the time and its only occupant was the Duty Fireman. He fought the fire single-handed until the Chiswick Fire Brigade arrived at 4.30am. The fire could be seen in Richmond and the cost of the damage was estimated at £12,000. Crowds of people came to watch the blaze and the police had to be called to restrain them.
After only three months’ closure the Empire opened again on 15 November, fully restored. The decor was now white and gold with bottle green seats and curtains. The re-opening production was a play entitled The Miracle, an apposite choice.
Between the Wars
The Empire’s annual pantomime was a great local attraction. George Formby appeared in the 1915 pantomime. Other stars gracing the Empire that year were Gladys Cooper, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. On 22 January 1917 a Grand Naval Matinee was held at the Chiswick Empire to raise money for Queen Mary’s Hospital. Dame Clara Butt appeared in charity matinees the same year. Another highlight was Queen Alexandra’s visit to a concert in aid of the Chiswick Memorial Homes which raised £2,625.
In the 1920s the programmes continued to be as varied as ever and the ‘House Full’ boards were regularly displayed. A concert was given by the Ukrainian Choir in 1920 and the comic genius Grock topped the bill in 1921. This was closely followed by Ben Greet’s Players in a Shakespeare Season. Even more highbrow were a series of Greek tragedies performed by the Cambridge University Players. Variety stars Wee Georgie Wood, Tommy Handley and Charles Hawtrey also appeared.
In 1930 Sybil Thorndike played in The Distaff Side by John van Druten. This play aroused much interest since van Druten’s previous play Young Woodley had been banned. Sybil Thorndike also gave a talk at the Empire on the importance of the theatre and the vital contribution the audience make to a play.
Sir Oswald Stoll (he was knighted in 1919) attempted to interest his Chiswick audience in opera, inviting the Carla Rosa Opera Company to perform, also the D’Oyley Carte in 1931. Opera, however, was not a huge success at the Empire, the locals preferring variety and reviews. The circus performances were also popular.
In 1932 a radical change of policy was announced, there were to be no more live shows: the Empire was to show films only. This was due to the appointment of a new manager who had previously worked at a theatre which had changed over to films and had found this a successful way to bring in more people and more money. But the policy doesn’t seem to have worked in Chiswick, and in October 1933 it was announced that the Empire would revert to being a live theatre. The reasons given were that BBC Radio had whet the public appetite for stage drama, and that the new Chiswick Bridge had made the Empire more accessible to audiences south of the Thames who didn’t have live theatre of their own.
With a considerable fanfare, Sir Oswald Stoll announced a series of Shakespeare plays given by Irish actor Anew McMaster and his company, one of whom was Anthony Quayle. Quayle gives an amusing account of this season in his autobiography A Time to Speak. Variety acts featured Donald Peers, Bennett and Williams with their phono-fuddles (an obscure musical instrument) and Albert Whelan, the first artiste to have his own signature tune ‘The Jolly Brothers’.
National events were marked by a concert for children to mark the King’s Jubilee in 1935. Children came by special train from all around the area. They watched films of Mickey Mouse and the Jubilee procession. Another concert in 1936 was given to benefit the Mayor’s fund for the unemployed.
The War and After
When war was declared on 3 September 1939 Chiswick Empire, like all other theatres, closed, but re-opened on 20 November to the great delight of the Brentford and Chiswick Times which declared ‘this will mean another spot of brightness in our lives and an additional answer to Mr Hitler’s war on nerves’. The Empire closed again at the height of the Blitz but reopened again in May 1941. Vera Lynn, Jimmy James, Arthur Askey, Lucan & McShane (Old Mother Riley and her daughter Kate), Handel’s Messiah and the Ben Travers farce Rookery Nook were some of the performances of the early 1940s. The second house ended early so that the audience could get home while it was still light to avoid the blackout.
After the war Laurel and Hardy appeared at the Empire on their first tour of Britain. This was in 1947, a year in which there was drama of a different kind. A four-year-old boy, unable to open a lavatory door, climbed through a window and fell six feet onto a ledge 12in wide and 50ft from the pavement. The child’s screams brought the theatre fireman and electrician onto the roof. The fireman rescued the boy to the cheers of the watching crowd. Miraculously, the child was unhurt and the Empire manager offered him and his sister seats in the stalls for the second half of the programme.
On 15 September 1947 the orchestra was playing the overture when a large section of the theatre’s ceiling collapsed. The plaster struck the balcony then the grand circle railing. Fourteen people were injured and four were kept in hospital.
In February 1949 a monkey escaped from a local pet shop and climbed to the front of the theatre. Attempts were made to entice him down with offers of fruit, but to no avail. Eventually he jumped through a window leading to the upper circle and was chased by the pet shop owner for half an hour before he was finally caught.
Variety programmes remained the Empire’s staple fare during the 1950s. Ken Dodd, Terry Thomas, Dickie Valentine, Alma Cogan and the Ray Ellington Quartet all performed there. The Empire also put on Novello’s Glamorous Nights, The Student Prince, Brigadoon, The Blue Lamp as well as the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire and Manon Lescaut by the Carla Rosa Opera Company. More controversial was the striptease show by the Folies Bergere which caused some heated correspondence in the local paper.
There were dramatic scenes at the Empire on 8 May 1959 when Cliff Richard was appearing in a rock and roll concert. Rowdy elements in the audience were annoyed when the manager closed the bar in the interval. They started throwing tomatoes and other things and let off a fire extinguisher, the police were called to control the disturbance, a woman in the stalls had to be taken to hospital and the second half of the evening’s performance was cancelled.
On 16 March 1959 the Middlesex County Council approved plans to build a 120ft eleven-storey office block on the site of the Chiswick Empire. The news that the Empire was to close came as a complete shock to the 30 staff including the manager, Mr R Lane, who had only been in post for four weeks. It was a puzzle to him as the theatre had been playing to full capacity. No one at the Stoll Theatre Corporation was able to explain why the Empire had been sold.
Liberace was to be the theatre’s last act on 20 June 1959. His dressing room was newly decorated and furnished. Six hundred members of the Liberace fan club had purchased tickets and the Empire was fully booked for the final night’s performance.
Liberace brought the evening to an end with musical requests. As the curtain came down, cheers, shouts of encore and deafening applause resounded throughout the theatre and the stage was covered with flowers.
When the lights had been put out workmen took down all the posters and the Chiswick Empire closed. It was the last remaining music hall on the Stoll tour and the 19th music hall in London to close since the war.
The Chiswick Empire was demolished in July 1959. An office block, nine shops and a supermarket were built on the site. The Old Packhorse started a memorabilia Empire Bar. The office block, which was the tallest building in Chiswick at that time, was called Empire House, a ghostly reminder of Chiswick’s once magnificent variety theatre.
Sources used include: files at the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden; files at Chiswick library; Brentford and Chiswick Times; Britain’s Music Hall Who’s Who by Roy Busby; Victorian and Edwardian Theatres by Victor Glasstone; Empires, Hippodromes, Palaces by Jack Read
Christina Pain lives in Chiswick and works part-time in the Westminster Abbey Museum Shop.