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

Houghton Feast 2019! https://t.co/IOO6Np9bLq 27 min 9 sec ago
RT : NEW POST: What to expect from this year's Festival of Light in Sunderland (and how to book tickets):… https://t.co/6Hb65jChUq 23 hours 1 min ago
Get your tickets to the festival of light before the 31st of October to be entered into a prize draw, the winner wi… https://t.co/pL3x3b77W1 1 day 21 hours ago
Get your tickets before the 31st of October to be entered into a prize draw, the winner will win a £50 bridges gift… https://t.co/OetZnSHooi 1 day 22 hours ago
Get your tickets before the 31st of October to be entered into a prize draw, the winner will win a £50 bridges gift… https://t.co/tgxmbHHWAN 1 day 22 hours ago
Tickets for our brand new christmas themed festival of light are on sale now! Running every Thursday- Sunday night… https://t.co/0i6ulCZo7U 3 days 19 hours ago
Darker nights mean its time for Mowbray Park to play host to the Festival of light, don't miss out! https://t.co/BSc7pr1Hjr 4 days 22 min ago
Houghton Feast 2019 is about to draw to a close, don't miss the last weekend of the celebrations! https://t.co/8ZhzQhD2PS 4 days 5 hours ago
RT : We still have tickets available for this screening tomorrow. Get yourself along to what should be a great evening! https://t.co/4ZAqBsodG5 4 days 21 hours ago
RT : We know it can be murder calling a taxi over Halloween,so get ready for the scariest ride of your life with… https://t.co/7Nb4B7uJbi 4 days 22 hours ago
RT : MEGA NEWS - tix for the Festival of Light are on sale now! Here are all the deets we have about the e… https://t.co/xlQlFePw5s 5 days 1 hour ago
Hi, we have a major programme of events in the city centre for Christmas so it will all be linked, ther… https://t.co/sNxN3LmFdk 5 days 1 hour ago
Tickets are on sale now! New location, new lights! and brand new Christmas shows!https://t.co/QC6Yt9o73Q https://t.co/rdMLKt37s7 6 days 1 hour ago
We cant wait to see everyone there! 6 days 1 hour ago
There's still plenty to see and do at Houghton Feast with events running until Sunday evening! https://t.co/oL8CYVg6dy 6 days 5 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.
11 + 8 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.