Thursday, November 24, 2011

He's Behind You!

Panto season in Swindon gets off to a swinging start with Keith Chegwin starring as Buttons in the Wyvern Theatre's production of Cinderella, opening on December 10th.

But more than fifty years ago Mollie Tanner's dance troupe was left waiting in the wings when a production of Aladdin at the Empire Theatre was blighted by a wage dispute and eventually cancelled. Let's hope the current financial climate doesn't cast a malevolent shadow over this year's festive season.

With a seating capacity of over 1,000, the new Queen's Theatre on the corner of Groundwell Road and Clarence Street opened on Monday February 7, 1898 with a production of Dick Whittington and his Cat.

In 1906 the theatre changed its name to the Empire. One of the characters closely associated with the Empire was rag and bone man James 'Raggy' Powell. During the First World War Raggy organised free shows and refreshments for the families of men in the armed forces. His philanthropic work was recognised by Swindon Corporation when he was made one of the first Freemen of the Borough in 1920.

Acts appearing during the interwar years included the Kellys and the Cohens. In a revue advertised as containing "Good Singing, Good Dancing, Comedy all the way" audiences were warned "If Laughing Hurts - Don't Come!"

During the 1930s and 40s the Empire fought off opposition from the talkies by showing films along with its staple diet of variety shows and, of course, the annual pantomime.

Robinson Crusoe opened to rave reviews on Boxing Day 1954. Popular comedy actor Leslie Sarony topped the bill as Billy Crusoe in a performance described as "a warm, friendly show" by the Advertiser reviewer. Although the writer did voice some disappointment to find the role of Dame, traditionally played by a man, had gone to Joyce Golding. Dorothy Black was principal boy in the title role with the villainous Will Atkins played by an actor called Afrique.

The run was due to end in mid January when the production moved on to a sister theatre in Folkestone, exchanging venues with Aladdin which was due to come to Swindon. But by then the actors and management were embroiled in a dispute over wages and both shows were suspended.

This proved to be the death knell for the Empire which closed its doors for good on Saturday January 22, 1955. It stood empty for several years before being demolished in 1959. Today the name lives on in the 1960s former office block built on the same site.

Former Swindon librarian Roger Trayhurn is currently working on the definitive history of The Empire Theatre.

Images - 1905 postcard of the new Queen's Theatre pictured shortly before it's change of name and a 1960s view of Empire House.

Silk invitation to the grand opening of the threatre, courtesy of Roger Trayhurn.

Visit the Swindon Local Collection on to view these and other images associated with The Empire Theatre.

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