The exterior crumbles and weeps in Lancashire’s rain: windows give no hint of what lies behind the bricked up, once beautiful façade.
Cracks betray a loss of hope in what was once a thriving theatre then a cinema, and lastly a bingo hall that buzzed with euphoria as getting that winning line and number was celebrated. Through the years voices of excited young and old audiences cheering at the final curtain changed to those of crowds eager to win a few bob.
The Burnley Empire Theatre has a profoundly poignant history that starts in the 19th Century when it was first designed by GB Rawcliffe in 1894. Owned and managed by WC Horner it was a theatre of high regard and continued to be such following works in 1911, when the auditorium was redesigned by Bertie crew, well respected architect, many of whose work is no longer standing – pulled down to make way for housing, shops or other amenities, or victims of the war that destroyed so many beautiful buildings.
The interior boasts two slightly curved wide and deep balconies, terminating in superimposed stage boxes framed between massive Corinthian columns supporting a deep cornice. Segmental-arched proscenium, with richly decorated spandrels and heraldic cartouche. Side walls feature plaster panels, pilasters and drops. Flat, panelled ceiling with circular centre panel and central sun burner. Restrained heraldic and Greek plasterwork on balcony and box fronts’ (Theatres Trust)
During its time as a theatrical venue, Charlie Chaplin, Margot Fonteyn and Gracie Fields are just a few of the names to have appeared on the now broken stage.
In 1938 the building became a cinema (possibly redesigned and converted by Lewis and Co of Liverpool) and remained as such for the next 32 years, bringing much enjoyed new entertainment to Burnley’s citizens.
In 1970, the atmosphere inside the building became one of hoping to make a bit of extra money – a sign of the times perhaps, that watching performers whether live or captured on film became less of an attraction – more costly perhaps, yet conversely, in the US, directors of the “New Hollywood”, had unrestrained creative and financial freedom to develop films. The enormous success in the 1970s of Spielberg’s “Jaws” spawned the concept of the modern “blockbuster”, and similarly the phenomenal success of the 1977 film, “Star Wars”, suggests that cinema was thriving in other areas of the country, perhaps those with greater affluence, however, I cannot help feeling that maybe the Empire’s owners missed a trick.
Just over a couple of decades after bingo had captured the purses and wallets of Burnley, the number callers moved out and the auditorium became quiet, full only of the memories of cheering and clapping.
The theatre, however, has a chance. A final last chance.
There are people who want to save this building, and want to do so in a way that involves new skill-building, attracts new jobs, encourages trainees in construction, design and all the restoration with involve: a development that not only helps the economy of the area but provides a northern town in much need of an uplift, with an historically important building restored, to provide once more a space for creative expression through amateur and professional theatre and variety; through music, concerts and gigs, conference and talks , for student and professionals – a venue that would be part of the Northern Circuit – and a Victorian setting for weddings and conferences.
Burnley Empire Theatre Trust are looking to raise money to pay for a viability study, which will determine exactly what work is required to make this theatre be what it once was, a thriving, beautiful working venue, not only for Burnley, but for all of Lancashire.
In early summer this year here will be a fund-raising event at The Inn on The Warf, Burnley, and on July 15th there will be a Burnley Empire Theatre awareness and fund-raising evening, with variety-packed entertainment across the arts, at the Colne Muni. This will be an event that will give people a taste of performances envisaged at the Burnley Empire Theatre, should the building be saved.
Anyone interested in helping this project can email BETT on Facebook/The Burnley Empire Theatre Trust , Twitter: @BurnelyEmpire and firstname.lastname@example.org and www.burnleyempiretheatretrust.co.uk