History of the Hackney Empire
The Architect: Frank Matcham (1854-1920)
Frank Matcham was, beyond argument, one of the world's most accomplished and inventive theatre architects. The architect and theatre historian, Victor Glasstone, suggests that he was the most prolific of all time and adds: 'He was the supreme example of the unacademic architect who could become master of his craft and who could always be relied upon to deliver a lively, sensuous interior, inexpensively constructed, but acutely aware of the technical difficulties of sightlines, acoustics and construction'. The extent of his oeuvre is still being investigated at a time when many records have been lost, so that it is impossible to quote precise numbers, but he certainly designed no fewer than 95 new theatres and transformed more than 50 others to the point where they were, for all practical purposes, new buildings. Designs and 'ghosted' designs still coming to light may eventually push the total number of Matcham theatres and Matcham remodellings to more than 150. Matcham and two architects he helped to train, Bertie Crewe and W.G.R. Sprague, were together responsible for the majority - certainly more than 200 - of the theatres and variety palaces of the great building boom which took place in Britain between about 1890 and 1915, peaking at the turn of the century.
The thirty years following World War II saw a scything down of such buildings, then an unstudied, certainly undervalued and largely unprotected building type. By 1975 the number of significant Matcham works remaining in more or less complete condition had been reduced to fewer than 25, even after taking into account the modern recreation of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith and such non-theatrical prodigies as Blackpool Tower Ballroom and Leeds County Arcade.
Frank Matcham's skill was well recognised by those who commissioned his buildings, but he did not begin to achieve fuller recognition until 50 years after his death - and it took a further 25 years to achieve the accolade of inclusion in the Dictionary of National Biography. He was certainly not admired by the leaders of the profession in his day, who saw his office (if they gave it so much as a moment's thought) as nothing more than a commercial theatre factory. He was, nevertheless, a master of design, creating the building type which, for most people today, is pictured instantly when the word 'theatre' is uttered. He coped triumphantly with powerful commercial pressures (all theatres in his lifetime were commercial) to squeeze the bigest possible auditoria on to the smallest possible sites, while complying with all safety and escape regulations and providing excellent sighting and sound for every seat in the house. His theatres were functionally perfect by the standards of their time and they are still, with judicious updating, fully capable of serving modem demands.
The man was endlessly inventive. No two of his theatres were alike. They employed nearly every known - and some totally invented - styles with seeming abandon but, in fact, with total control, producing magical effects which work on performers and audiences today as they did when they were first built.
Music Hall at the Hackney Empire
Built in 1901, the Hackney Empire with its electric lights, central heating and in-built projection box was a technological wonder of its time. When the theatre opened under the ownership of Oswald Stoll (later of Stoll Moss fame) it attracted acts from all over the world. Chaplin appeared a number of times before decamping to America to gain fame in Hollywood, and Stan Laurel perfected his act upon these boards. But undoubtedly the most important star to appear in this hey-day of music hall before the First World War was Marie Lloyd, who lived on Graham Road, just by the theatre. Lloyd's act consciously shocked and challenged her audiences. This ‘Queen of the Halls' lent her support to an artists' strike in 1907 which led to the formation of the Variety Artists' Association, now part of the actors' union Equity.
The World Wars
Between the wars the Empire hosted burlesque, reviews, plays and concerts as well as variety, and even Louis Armstrong was happy to leave Harlem to appear. In the years following the Second World War, audiences flocked to see artists made household names by the radio and recording industries such as Charlie Chester, Issy Bonn, Tony Hancock and even Liberace.
ATV Independent Television Studio
The Empire continued as a confluence of popular culture when, in 1956, Stoll Moss sold the theatre to ATV and it became the first commercial television studios in the country. Programmes such as Take Your Pick and Oh Boy!, the Top Of The Pops of its day, on which Marty Wilde appeared with Cliff Richard and the legendary Maria Callas, were filmed at the Empire, as was Emergency Ward 10.
The Hackney Empire as a Bingo Hall
In 1963 Mecca purchased the theatre and converted it into a bingo hall, installing tables at the back of the stalls and a wire running through across the auditorium to the stage so that the winning sheets could be sent quickly to the bingo caller on stage. In 1984 the building became a Grade II* listed building and Mecca were ordered to restore the domes on the Mare Street façade. Faced with the financial costs of restoring the building's exterior to its original state, Mecca found themselves looking for a new owner.
The Theatre Re-opens in 1986
C.A.S.T. (Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre) were a political theatre company led by Roland Muldoon. In 1981 the Company set up its New Variety project which went on to receive support from the Greater London Council, enabling them to run eight venues throughout London and establish the first modern comedy circuit. This gave the company the confidence to take over the 1500 seat Hackney Empire as a permanent base for their operations and ambitions. Establishing the Hackney Empire Preservation Trust and Hackney New Variety Management Company (now known as Hackney Empire Ltd) the group organised the purchase of the building and began the process of restoration and modernisation. Roland became the Theatre Director of the company and other members of C.A.S.T. took over the technical and administrative roles. The immediate focus of attention was to resurrect the 1901 Hackney Empire from a bingo hall and turn it once again into a venue for popular theatre. The building was re-opened on its 85th birthday, 9 December 1986, and went on to establish itself as one of the leading stand-up comedy venues. Many of today's top comedians got their first break on this stage! During this time the theatre was also used as a location for many film shoots including Lord Attenborough's film, "Chaplin".
The Restoration Project
In 2001, the Empire's centenary year, our Chairman of the Fundraising Appeal, Griff Rhys Jones, was able to announce that after many years of hard work the Empire had raised £15 million to fund the renovation and restoration of the theatre. Following some not inconsiderable setbacks, work on the original Matcham building was completed and it was opened in January 2004. This included a new 60 seat orchestra pit together with a brand new backstage area including dressing rooms, wardrobe, green room and kitchen, technical offices and workshops. The fly tower has been extended by 15 feet, allowing sets to fully clear the proscenium arch, and a modern counterweight flying system has been installed. The Box Office has been expanded and a lift now services all levels of the theatre. All the public areas have seen improved access and toilet facilities, repainting and repairing to ensure Matcham's masterpiece lasts another century and beyond. 14 September 2004 marked the completion of the entire project with a celebration gala and Sir Alan Sugar, one of our primary benefactors, opened the finished complex. The Marie Lloyd annexe houses the new theatre bar, the Empire Café, and the Harold Pinter space. On the exterior of the new development are super-graphics spelling the name ‘Hackney Empire'. This bold and fitting marker stands over 21 feet high and greets airline passengers as they fly into City Airport.
Hackney Empire is embarking on a new journey as the building enters its 11th decade. Its artistic aim is the same as it has always been; to provide quality entertainment to a local and global audience. Although the theatre may be a grand old dame, a new chapter is just beginning.