Opened in 1907, the Sunderland Empire theatre (originally called the Empire Palace) is one of the largest venues in the North East with 1860 seats opening up to 2200 when standing positions are occupied in the theatre.
Established by Richard Thornton, the theatre was opened by variety star Vesta Tilley who laid the foundation stone on 29 September 1906.
The Sunderland Empire is one of the few theatre remaining in the United Kingdom to have four tiers (the Orchestra Stalls, Dress Circle, Upper Circle and the Gallery). The theatre has four private boxes on the Dress Circle level as well as two proscenium boxes on the Upper Circle balcony.
The dome of the Sunderland Empire featured a revolving sphere featuring a statue of Terpsichore (the Greek muse of choral song and dance). They were removed during the second world war following a bomb near-miss which shook the building. The statue now resides at the top of the main staircase, whilst the dome is now home to a replica.
Notably, actor/comedian Sid James suffered a heart attack on stage in April 1976 whilst appearing in The Mating Game dying on his way to hospital. His ghost is said to haunt the backstage of the theatre, whilst the ghosts of Vesta Tilley and Molly Moselle are said to haunt the front-of-house areas. Moselle, a stage manager on Novello’s The Dancing Years in 1949, left the theatre to post a letter and was never seen again.
Superstitious comedians labelled the Sunderland Empire a comic graveyard which may be why the theatre regularly hosts large-scale musicals, opera, ballet and amateur shows.
Perhaps the theatre’s most famous debut was that of actress Helen Mirren who made her stage debut on the Empire stage.
The Empire was subject to a £4.5million refit to bring it up to date with modern production standards re-opening in 2004 with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express.
Since that time, the theatre has played host to touring productions of Miss Saigon, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, My Fair Lady, Scrooge the musical, The Producers, Footloose, Wicked, The Producers, War Horse, Matilda and South Pacific along with the traditional pantomimes performed during the Christmas period.
The Empire is located at 4-5 High St W, Sunderland SR1 3EX