Creating an Empire in Sunderland

Sunderland Empire

It’s almost 110 years since the Sunderland Empire Theatre opened its grand doors to an excited audience for the very first time. Now, perhaps more than ever, this iconic Sunderland landmark delights us with a constant succession of big names and spectacular shows.

Sunderland Empire as we know it today was actually the result of a break up. South Shields born Richard Thornton had, via an impressive entrepreneurial career, established a partnership with Edward Moss – a leading theatre mastermind of the time. But, Thornton grew restless and decided to go it alone. The Empire Palace, as it was first known, on High Street West was the outcome.

It was designed by leading local architects William and TR Milburn, the domed roof of the entrance topped by a figure of Greek goddess of Terpsichore.

Opening and eventual rise

The first performance was a variety show by Vesta Tilley, leading to the rumour that the figure on the roof was actually of Tilley and not a Greek goddess at all.

After a brief downturn in the 1920s, Sunderland Empire found itself increasingly popular through the 1930s, the difficult war years and into the 1950s. From the mid-1950s the growing popularity of cinema began to take its toll and as audiences decreased the then owners decided to call it a day.

That would have been the end if it weren’t for Sunderland Council taking the then unprecedented step of buying and refurbishing the theatre. It was refurbished for a reopening in 1960 and has never looked back.

Famous appearances

Of the almost countless names that have starred at Sunderland Empire over the years since Vesta Tilley took to the stage, a good few deserve more than a fleeting mention. Legendary musician turned actor Tommy Steele made his stage debut at the Empire on 5 November 1956, returning many times. Helen Mirren made her professional debut there too. The Beatles included the Empire in their first national tour.

On a more sombre note Sid James, of ‘Carry On’ fame suffered a heart attack while on stage and died around an hour later. Comedian Les Dawson is among many who claim that his ghost still haunts the theatre. 

West End on High Street West

In 2004 an ambitious multi-million pound refurbishment was undertaken. Major improvements were carried out to the stage and backstage areas to allow the biggest and best performances to take place.

The work catapulted Sunderland Empire into the limelight and brought huge touring performances like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Starlight Express, War Horse, Jersey Boys and The Lion King to its stage with North East debuts. Sunderland Empire is now the only theatre between Manchester and Edinburgh capable of hosting the biggest West End performances. It’s the regional home of big name theatre and a jewel in Sunderland’s crown.

It’d be hard to imagine Sunderland without the theatre - whether it’s a traditional pantomime extravaganza for the whole family, a dazzling visual spectacular of a musical like The Rocky Horror Show or the sheer comedy genius of Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Did you know?

St Peter's Church in Monkwearmouth formed part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, which was home to the author of the first history of England, the Venerable Bede.

Twitter

RT : 📢 ON SALE ANNOUNCEMENT 📢 Elvis Costello and The Imposters will bring their new show to Sunderland - Tue 3 Mar 2020… https://t.co/r6Wn4isUUe 7 hours 47 min ago
This looks like a great family day out! Make the most of the last of the summer sunshine and join in the carnival t… https://t.co/jQY5O9JT96 3 days 3 hours ago
Sunderland Restaurant Week is back,with a range of amazing restaurants from Saturday 21 until Sunday 29 September 2… https://t.co/lF46sfV3at 4 days 9 min ago
RT : Can't wait for this in a few weeks last Sunderland show for at least a few months so get your tickets now… https://t.co/SAP0ypafPM 4 days 5 hours ago
Do you love your local heritage? Would you like to see behind the scenes and find out more from special… https://t.co/jwp9ZQmVSY 4 days 10 hours ago
A unique chance to see in years gone by, Tuesday next week at Bethany City Church.… https://t.co/3s2nVFZLhu 5 days 3 hours ago
Only a few shorts weeks to untill our brand new local music festival kicks off!! https://t.co/v6kO84l8Wy https://t.co/3b6p3521cU 5 days 6 hours ago
RT : After the blue plaque unveiling, I'll be talking about Marion Phillips MP on Tues 17th Sep 11-1 for… https://t.co/1cSquqHDFe 5 days 7 hours ago
We can't agree more! It's an amazing piece of our history and the cafe… https://t.co/yTwrJZnnnX 5 days 12 hours ago
Fantastic pics of a fantastic building If you want to see it for real then pop along… https://t.co/TbW1MBmGbK 5 days 12 hours ago
There are still tickets available for Saturday's tours - don't miss out! https://t.co/35DfIUgr8d 6 days 7 hours ago
Riverside Festival 2019! can you spot yourself in our video? https://t.co/nbq2Bhem7p 6 days 10 hours ago
Don't miss out! https://t.co/MPzT19RJvc 1 week 4 hours ago
No one knows more than Glenda! Fantastic novels too 🙂 https://t.co/awmqxO2d8c 1 week 8 hours ago

Facebook

Download the See it Do it app

Sign up to our newsletter

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
20 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.