Bradford - Empire Cinema

Great Horton Road,

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Hotel and Theatre Origins
Empire Advert The Alexandra Hotel, an impressive four storey stone building with a fine columned entrance was built to the designs of local architects Andrews & Pepper (Thos G. Andrews and Joseph Pepper) in 1877 and had a large lawn at the rear of the building. It was on this lawn that another architect W.J Sprague designed the Empire Music Hall which was to open on the 30th January 1899 with music hall acts, notably Stan Laurel in 1906), a young Charlie Chaplin (in 1906, 1909 and 1910), Fred Karno (Aug 1910), and W.C Fields (1911). Entrance to the theatre was via the wide steps to the large pillared hotel entrance over which a canopy was hung later.
Rather curiously, an old advertisment for the Empire Music Hall still exists (in 2004) painted on the gable end of a terrace house on Reevy Road in Wibsey.

From 1914 Francis Laidler's newly built Alhambra Theatre only a few yards away across the road caused the Empire audiences to decline resulting in its closure as a variety theatre in April 1916. Laidler later reopened the Empire in August 1916 now to be known a the Empire Theatre & Opera House with a season of plays but these lasted only about fifteen months as the stage was completely destroyed by a fire in 1917.


Opens as Empire Cinema
After removal of the fire debris, a screen was fixed to the back wall of the stage and reopened as simply the Empire cinema on Monday 11th February 1918 with the film . . .

"Sweetheart of the Doomed" - USA 1910 B/W Silent
A powerful photoplay starring Louise Glaum.
Plus supporting dramas and comedies.
A typical film programme in April 1919 was advertised as . . .
Empire Super Cinema
Proprietors Moss Empires Limited.
Lessees Empire (Bradford) Limited.
1. Gazette - the world's latest happenings.
2. Billie Burke in "Let's Get a Divorce" - 5-reel drama.
3. "Winkle in Wallaparoo" - 1-reel comedy.
4. Pathé's Weekly Pictorial - Interest.
5. "The Mystery of the Double Cross" Episode 3 - serial.
6. "A Duck out of Water" - 1-reel comedy.
7. Mrs Vernon Castle in "The Mysterious Client" - 5 reel drama.
All Empire Super Cinema films are exclusive to this theatre
and are shown here for the first time in Bradford.

In the 1920's the Empire Cinema Orchestra was directed Robert Bunney, a popular figure who later formed and conducted a dance band combo at the Trocadero Ballroom in Kirkgate.

The Empire cinema was now run by the New Bio Company (E.F Lyons & H.T Underwood but dominated by Edward F. 'Teddy' Lyons who controlled E.A Langrish & Co which along with Kershaw's of Leeds formed Kalee Ltd in 1934. Lyons was later to become MD of Gaumont-Kalee). The New Bio Company (motto: 'Top Class Films at Rock-bottom Prices') was part of Biocolour Picture Theatres Circuit with experience of running former music halls as cinemas and were to continue running films until 1926 during which they converted the cinema/hotel pillared foyer into a popular Palm Court with orchestra concerts daily by Miss Gabrielle Hope and Her All-Ladies Orchestra along with invitations to visit the Moorish Tearooms.


Interior as a Cinema
Empire Interior after 1952 fire Its impressive and atmospheric pillared foyer led to an auditorium of some 1381 seats in typical old variety theatre style with a horseshoe circle and a steep stepped gallery and pillared side boxes. Ornate plaster decoration adorned the balconies and their side boxes. The ornate moulded plaster ceiling was designed around three elongated hexagons each rising one above the other culminating in a small circular interior dome. The auditorium was 70 feet long by 55 feet wide and 40 feet to eaves at the front and 66 feet to eaves at the rear.

The small and cramped projection room was constructed centrally and built out almost to the front of the high gallery. Because of the height of the projection box above the screen it would have meant an obvious 'keystone' distortion effect of the picture on a vertical screen. Therefore, later screens were tilted back quite noticeably in an effort to reduce this problem. The circle level provided the most comfortable viewing position and the front stalls the worst. The proscenium opening was 30 feet wide and the (now disused) stage 40 feet deep with flytower and dressing rooms, stores and print room behind. An 'iron' safety curtain was fitted.

The silent films were accompanied by the Augmented Empire Orchestra conducted by Francis Farrar. Later in November 1920 the Empire also boasted "Orchestra under the Direction of Mr F. Wilson plays in the Café afternoons and evenings".
By 1925 it was the . . .

"Empire Symphony Orchestra conducted by Francis Farrar.
Two Big Pictures. Best Music. Popular Prices 4d to 1/2d.
The Empire - Supreme in Entertainment Value."


Super Cinema!
In 1923 the name changed back to Empire Super Cinema and in 1926 it came under the control of Harry Buxton's Empire (Bradford) Ltd who wanted to rebuild the stage and present Cine-Variety which had become popular in other halls. This did not happen due to objections from Francis Laidler of the nearby Alhambra Theatre. Laidler was also instrumental in converting the Theatre Royal in Manningham Lane into a cinema in 1921 and he seemed intent on abolishing any competition to his beloved new Alhambra Theatre.

The manager at the Empire during this time was Clarence H. Hirst who later moved to the Savoy in Darley Street and Hirst was followed at the Empire by C.H Russ. Around 1930 the Western Electric Sound system was installed and Bill Savory now manager.

On 18th November 1926 the Empire Super Cinema was sold to the Gaumont British Picture Corporation for the sum of £14,997.15s.7d. By 1930 the GBPC also controlled the new and luxurious New Victoria theatre/cinema a few hundred yards down the road and the Empire's film programmes became secondary to the premier New Victoria.


More Changes of Name
In 1937 it became known as simply New Empire and in May 1937, following an expensive equipment upgrade, included in its advertising . . .

"First 6000 Mirrophonic Sound System in Bradford"
The new Mirrophonic Sound System had taken Western Electric in USA (in conjunction with Electrical Research Programmes and Bell Telephone Laboratories) nearly ten years to develop. The system was touted as "the last word in picture sound equipment". The refinements which made this superior to earlier sound systems were new valves and improved loudspeaker horns, "noiseless" recordings (reduced scratching and background noise) and "wide range" sound.

By 1949 it had reinvented itself yet again as the New Empire Super Cinema with 1500 seats and under the management of Horton Road Cinema Ltd.

The cinema closed for three days in March 1950 to install new equipment and the latest version of Western Electric Sound system and reopened again on Thursday 30th March 1950 with . . .

"Lust for Gold" - 1949 USA B/W 90 mins.
Starring Ida Lupino, Glen Ford and Gig Young.
"The Noose Hangs High" - 1948 USA B/W 77 mins.
Starring Bud Abbot, Lou Costello and Joseph Galleia.


Serious Fire Damage
On the evening of Friday 25th January 1952 the Empire was showing . . .

"Canyon Pass - 1951 USA B/W 84 mins.
(aka "Rayton Pass" in USA)
Starring Dennis Morgan, Patricia Neal and Steve Cochran.
"You're in the Army Now!" - 1941 USA B/W 79 mins.
Starring Jimmy Durante, Phil Silvers and Jayne Wyman.
Following the performance a fire broke out which damaged the gallery and ceiling and breaking through the roof. A notice appeared the following day . . .
"The Management regret that owing to unforeseen circumstances the cinema will be closed for a few days."
In fact the cinema did not reopen and that was the end of the line for the historic old Empire.


Inevitable Demolition
For a while the cinema remained derelict but the Alexandra Hotel flourished and the once wide entrance to the Empire was converted into the hotel restaurant whilst the former pillared palm court foyer became a new hotel lounge with a small stage where the circle steps once stood and the former right hand stalls entrance became a trendy cocktail bar from the mid 1950's to 60's.

After the hotel closed down the premises were taken over by Bradford College in 1972 and known as the Alexandra Building annexe. In the early 1980's the decaying old Empire theatre/cinema was demolished making way for another college car park.

In 1993 the Alexandra building was also demolished and the whole site is currently (2004) used a public car park.

Copyright ©2004, Colin Sutton.
May not be copied or reproduced without permission.


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