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?

Perhaps Sunderland's most prominent landmark is Penshaw Monument. It was built in 1844 in honour of the first Earl of Durham, John George Lambton. Penshaw was modelled on Theseion, the Temple of Thesus in Athens.

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