How Southampton got its Empire
So by the time approval was given for work to commence on the new London theatre, to be known as the Dominion (similar to Empire, but not to be confused with other theatres in the West End), work was well under way on Moss Empire’s first entirely new theatre for some time the Southampton Empire. Southampton had been identified by both Moss Empire’s MD, R.H. Gillespie and Thomas Milburn as a town that would befit a large lyric house. Gillespie had made many trips to France using the Southampton ferry services and several trans-Atlantic voyages from the town. Since the coming of the railways the port had continued to expand, London was in easy reach and the surrounding area was very accessible. The idea was that the many travellers using Southampton as a departure and arrival point would welcome the chance to see top-level productions. Visits to the town’s three theatres, the Palace, Hippodrome and Grand confirmed his belief that the town could support a West End style musical house.
Southampton had a theatrical presence, which could be tracked back to 1849 when the original Theatre Royal was opened in Bugle Street. The theatre staged mainly plays and under new management was enlarged in 1880 and an additional entrance incorporated in French Street. The theatre closed its doors in the early 20th century and the final blow came when the derelict building was bombed in the blitz. Along the road in French Street in 1854 The Rainbow Tavern opened a concert hall where typical music hall fare would be offered in fact by 1880 it had been renamed The Gaiety Theatre of Varieties. The venue was totally rebuilt in 1890 and reopened as the Empire Theatre, which continued as a theatre until it became Southampton’s first full time cinema in 1908, which continued until Moss Empire’s intervention in the mid-twenties.
It was 1872 when William Hyles, proprietor of The Royal York Hotel in Above Bar opened The Royal York Music Hall at the rear of the hotel to accommodate about 600 patrons. It’s success was such that in 1897 a decision was taken to rebuild the theatre to take in the premises occupied by the Hotel. At this time the owners purchased and ran the Empire Theatre which by now had entrances in French Street and Bugle Street. The new Above bar theatre, The Royal York Palace Of Varieties opened on 28th March 1898 and held 1,900 people. It wasn’t long before the name was shortened to Palace Of Varieties and then to Palace Theatre.
In 1883, The Prince Of Wales Theatre opened in Ogle Street. This was Southampton’s first “real” theatre seating over 1600 and with a large stage measuring 60 feet by 40 feet. Its programme consisted of burlesque, drama, comedy and pantomime but was closed in 1905 when alterations were made to the building, and the Theatre reopened as The Hippodrome. The Hippodrome closed as a Theatre on Saturday the 25th of March 1939 having been purchased by the Post Office for a proposed expansion of their next door Telephone Exchange.
The next theatre to open was The Grand, which was situated just off Above Bar and opposite West Marlands. The owners, Mouillot and Morrell had commissioned a number of theatres across the country; the Southampton hall opened on 5th December 1898 seating 1,800 on 3 levels. Whereas the Palace and the Hippodrome were primarily Variety and Revue houses, the Grand’s focus was drama and as well as touring productions, had its own in-house repertory company.
In 1926 an exercise commenced to find a suitable central location that could house a 2,000+ seater house. Milburn immediately eliminated the three existing houses as unsuitable for rebuilds and then looked seriously at an old theatre that had become Southampton’s first cinema the Empire (by coincidence) in Bugle Street; however, Gillespie didn’t like the location and crossed it off the list.
A large house and grounds, Hamilton House, was located near to the town’s West Station (Southampton Central) lying between Commercial Road, Blechynden Terrace and West Park Road. The site was purchased and Milburn began his work of designing the new theatre to fit the site. His brief was to construct a theatre that would accommodate at least 2,000 people and stage facilities that would house the largest West End productions.
There were many headaches, but many positives. The positives included the fact that the site was on a natural incline sloping away from what would be the front of the theatre on Commercial Road, and also that the rear of the site was across a road from a railway siding which would ease significantly the get in/out of shows which were typically transported by train. The problems were related to the width of the site, the need to have adequate access points, the fact that the site narrowed significantly at its rear and that it was very near the sea (on the other side of the railway tracks) and therefore had a very shallow water table. This resulted in the theatre being built as far forward as possible allowing adequate room for easy access to the stage at the rear. The width of the building would not allow the grand sweep of circle as he had employed in the reconstruction of the Liverpool Empire but would require a third tier with the addition of a balcony to achieve the accommodation requirements and a considerable depth to both the balcony and circle. He was able to achieve this and maintain perfect sight lines by using steel girders and techniques he had learnt in the United States. With 142 standing places in 22 mahogany boxes on three levels, in the largest auditorium the site could support, Milburn got the accommodation up to over 2,400. As far as the public were concerned the luxury of the auditorium more than made up for the confines of the foyer.
Gillespie laid the foundation stone of the Empire on 1st February 1928, only after he had acquired the Empire in Bugle Street when financial inducements to the owners to change its name were rebuffed. Moss Empires were adamant that other Empires could not exist in the same town. He immediately sold the Bugle Street site for redevelopment leaving the path clear for the construction of the new Empire. From his journeys in America Milburn had assembled a catalogue of materials that he thought would be appropriate for his future work and so the selection of marbles from North Africa and stone from Portland were chosen for the Southampton Empire. Construction was entrusted to London builders W. Moss. The auditorium was topped with a dome that would open to allow change of air and to let out the smoke, this was in addition to a sophisticated air changing system. A tea garden was provided on the roof giving views across the City and sea, something that had proved very successful at Frank Matcham’s Picture House Cinema in Above Bar. The colour scheme in the auditorium was cream and gold with touches of blue and strawberry. The seats were upholstered in Rose du Barry velvet and heavy Durham carpets were featured. Gas lighting would be used for the auditorium whilst electricity was installed for the stage, production lighting and sound. According to his remit, the stage and facilities were built to accommodate the largest of West End productions, and while the stage was huge by the day’s standards there was little room in the wings. The fly tower would be as high again as the stage and the proscenium would measure 45 feet wide by 27 feet high, fronting a stage 60 feet wide and 40 feet deep. Backstage, luxury was not forgotten, all the dressing rooms had hot and cold running water and the two star dressing rooms, phones and baths, something that most homes didn’t have at the time.
The local population watched with interest and the other theatre management looked on with some trepidation as the development continued. The opening of the Southampton Empire required a big production, unlike other cities where Moss Empires had opened new houses, Southampton didn’t have a tradition of spectacular large-scale productions. The Hippodrome and Palace were primarily variety halls and the Grand a playhouse. So a decision was taken to show Southampton the likes it hadn’t seen before. It had to be big – it had to have names and most importantly a pedigree that would be recognised by the townsfolk. Something new, a European Premiere and a scheduled move into the West End would be ideal, everything was being readied for a big opening on 22nd December 1928.