In 1897 the Leeds Estate Company was formed to redevelop the area between Briggate and Vicar Lane. The development included the County Arcade, the Cross Arcade and the Empire Theatre. It was designed by Frank Matcham, who had designed over a hundred theatres and music halls. The theatre was owned by Moss and Stoll, who already had seven other Empire Palace theatres. The theatre was opened as a music hall, and was considered to be one of the finest in the country.
The theatre opened on August 29th 1898, even though the interior decorations were not finished. While plasterers worked in the auditorium, impatient crowds waited outside for the theatre to open. There was seating for 1,750 people, arranged on three tiers, and the advertisement for the opening night says that the theatre had all the latest improvements.
The proprietors were concerned to put on 'a programme replete with all that is excellent, refined and entertaining', and the review of the first night suggest that they had succeeded, stating that 'it was a brilliant and unqualified success.' There were seventeen acts including Lydia Yeamans (the original 'Sally in our Alley'), the French comedian O'Gust, Harry Tate impersonating Dan Leno and others, and John Higgins, the Human Kangaroo.
The new theatre was so popular that the two other music halls in Leeds, the Tivoli and the City Varieties had to close for a while. Top stars like Vesta Tilley, and Charlie Chaplin, appeared at the Empire, and in December 1924 Gracie Fields starred in the revue 'Mr Tower of London'.
Circuses and animal acts were popular; in December 1924 Jack Joyce's circus performed at the theatre, giving 'exceptional equine displays'. However animal acts did not always go according to plan; in 1938 Miss Ruth Hasse, a leopard trainer was mauled by her animals which were kept in a cage backstage.
In 1931 theatre alterations were made so that the new 'talking pictures' could be shown there, but it still continued successfully as a theatre. Even during the 1950s when television caused a dramatic fall in the number of people visiting the theatre, the Empire survived. The Beverley Sisters, Joan Regan, Dickie Valentine, Tommy Trinder, Harry Secombe and Frankie Vaughan all appeared at the Empire. Pop concerts were well attended, like that in 1959 when crowds of hysterical people hammered at the stage door after Cliff Richard had appeared at the theatre.
In order to compete successfully with television, theatre companies were putting on increasingly spectacular shows like the Liberace show in 1960. The stage at the Empire was too small to accommodate these, and in 1960 Moss Empires planned to replace the Empire with another, larger theatre elsewhere in Leeds. This never happened and in August 1960 the Leeds Planning committee approved an application from Industrial and Investment Services Limited for change of use to shops and offices.
Despite this the 1960-61 Christmas pantomime went ahead, and played to packed houses. It was Emile Littler's 'Babes in the Wood', and starred Nat Jackley. On the last night, 25th February 1961, at the end of the performance, Nat Jackley doffed his Dame's wig, and said that, 'when you say goodbye to a friend you always take your hat off'. The audience sang 'Auld Lang Syne', and the theatre closed after nearly 63 years.
The theatre was demolished in 1962, and replaced by the Empire Arcade. It is now the site of Harvey Nichols department store.
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Empire Palace Theatre, 1902
Advertisement for opening night
Saturday night at the Empire, 1901
The auditorium, 1961
The last night, 1961