I didn’t know it would be as if Benedict Cumberbatch was waiting for me. He could have been right there at the theatre as I cycled over for my Hackney Empire Tour. It’s one of my favourite weekends of the autumn: the Open House London tours this month. The Hackney Empire is about five miles from central London and is a spectacular chocolate box of a theatre. It is one of the great success stories of a UK variety theatre returning from the dead. I also wanted to go because as a stage magician I’ve always had a soft spot for the place. It was the first theatre where we did a public show of my magic 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. It provided clues that unlocked the imagination. I felt 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 mystery tour a-la Mr. Holmes. Below are five capers that were solved during the tour.
1. look up, watson: why’s there a ‘hole’ in the roof with led stars twinkling beyond it?
The first clue to that question has something to do with when the Hackney Empire was built. 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, I’ll give 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. The 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 especially at music gigs. 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. The reason why can be discovered more easily if we see how old is the Hackney Empire and what innovations of the day were being rolled out when it was built. You may have already deduced, this was one of the first theatres 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 in the world that employed a new innovation of the day called the steel cantilever. By asking how old is the Hackney Empire also gives us a clue into what
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. During the renovation a lift was installed so all floors are wheelchair accessible – and fortunately the nearest Overground station Hackney Central now has a lift as well.
4. why do paintings of composers fill the foyer?
The 19th Century was the time of music halls which were usually connected to pubs. They 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. It led to more commercial ‘palaces of entertainment’ that theatrical impresarios ran if they were keen to make some money from ‘higher brow’ entertainment. So the composers on the walls of the foyer and the lush decor reveal that this was a theatre for quality entertainment. Now for the fifth and final mystery of our Hackney Empire tour…
5. how did a contraption in A theATRE BACK room bankrupt it?
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 renovation it’s been going from strength to strength.
So Mr. Holmes, eat your heart out! The science of historical deduction has solved these five mysteries of the Hackney Empire Tour. The theatre is now alive and well with a full schedule of diverse entertainment throughout the year! The phoenix has risen and is flying strong. – CH
Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.