I didn’t know it would be as if Benedict Cumberbatch was waiting for me at the theatre as I cycled over to the Hackney Empire for an Open House London tour this month. Hackney Empire is of course one of the great success stories of a UK variety theatre returning from the dead. I also wanted to go because I’ve always had a soft spot for the place as it was the first theatre where we did a public show of my act Norvil & Josephine in a variety revue there in September 2007. But here’s the thing…
While Mr Cumberbatch wasn’t actually there that day, the Open House tour struck me as a sort of Sherlock Holmes examination of this gem of a theatre. Our guide walked us through each detail, providing clues that unlocked the imagination about how it was to be one of the 2,800 people who packed it out twice a night during the first decades of the 1900s.
So here’s a magical mystery tour a-la Mr. Holmes complete with five capers that were solved that day:
1. Look up, Watson: why’s there a ‘hole’ in the roof over the stalls with stars twinkling beyond it?
This theatre first sprung up on the Hackney horizon — gas torches blazing on its terracotta turrets — in 1901. So in quest of a solution to the question, here are some clues from 1901: A trendy instrument of the day was the cigar box guitar… you could sometimes find images of variety theatre entertainers printed ON cigar boxes… comedian WC Fields had a trademark act which was a cigar box juggling routine…
Did you figure the reason for the hole? Cigars were all the rage in 1901 and they went hand-in-hand with variety theatres. You can imagine if even a quarter of the theatre lit up during a show, all that smoke needed somewhere to go. The faux-starry sky actually was a starry sky when the Empire was built. Architect Frank Matcham installed a sliding ceiling panel to assist in, literally, clearing the air.
2. So why does the gallery ‘bounce’?
You can feel it today sometimes at music gigs and surely would have done even years back when people like Louis Armstrong played there. The balcony literally ‘bounces’ when the audience is bopping in rhythm. You may have already deduced, this was one of the first theatres to be built to not have those annoying posts in the way holding up the floor above your head. The Hackney Empire balconies were some of the first to be supported solely by a new innovation of the time that was the steel cantilever.
3. What do the ’04’ number plates flanking the stage tell us?
They tell us that 1900s audiences didn’t stay in their seats. Why? Well today we may be bothered by smart phone addicts switching on during the show but back in the day, the biggest distraction was people moving around to socialise or step outside. The wall plates would tell the number of the act currently playing in the variety show lineup so if you stepped out, you’d be sure not to miss your favourite act. No longer in use, two ’04’ signs have been left behind. These no longer stand for ‘Act 04’ but rather are for the year of the theatre’s re-opening after renovation in 2004.
4. Why do paintings of composers fill the foyer?
The 19th Century was the time of music halls which were usually connected to pubs and offered the working class with bawdy and loud entertainment (you may also want to check out a post from adventures I’ve had at the Leeds City Varieties music hall.) Well the Hackney Empire was part of new trend at the turn of the Century which led to more commercial ‘palaces of entertainment’ that were run by theatrical impresarios keen to offer ‘higher’ entertainment. So the composers on the walls of the foyer and the lush decor reveal that this was a theatre for quality entertainment.
5. How did a contraption in the room in the back of the theatre run it bankrupt?
The theatre came installed with a built-in projection box, which projected ‘moving pictures’ as a novelty. Ironically it was exactly that ‘contraption’ of a projector which brought on the demise of live entertainment in variety theatres in favour of cinema and after that, television. The Hackney Empire stopped working as a theatre in the 1950s, functioning for years after that as a television studio for ATV in 1956 before its life as a bingo hall. Other theatres tried to hang on for dear life by flaunting bare flesh on stage like the Windmill Theatre’s saucy ‘girlie shows’ that began in 1933 or the ‘Peek-a-boo’ show at Whitehall. But the Hackney Empire’s story has come full circle and ever since its 2004 renovation it’s been going from strength to strength.
So Mr. Holmes, eat your heart out! The science of historical deduction has solved us these five mysteries of the Hackney Empire. The theatre is now alive and well with a full schedule of diverse entertainment throughout the year – check it out! The phoenix has risen and is flying strong. Feel free to share your own Hackney Empire experiences in the comments below…