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Empire Theatre, Greenock

The Empire in Manse Lane at Hamilton Street won the accolade of being the first purpose built variety theatre in Greenock and opened its doors in 1903. By the 1890s (Sir) Edward Moss, from Greenock, had been well on his way to building the largest group of variety theatres known in Britain, Moss Empires, which encouraged many to emulate his success. But this new venue had no connection to the Moss Empires.

 

In December 1899 a new venture was floated in Glasgow and Greenock to establish The British Variety Theatre Company Ltd and build their proposed Greenock Empire Palace theatre in Manse Lane, on ground owned by the publican John McCormick who would become a director. The theatre would hold 2,000 people and the site would also have shops and offices.

 

The architect would be the distinguished David Barclay, designer of major buildings including Greenock Municipal Chambers, who had also designed the very new Lyceum Theatre, Govan for clients of Glasgow accountants George McCulloch and his brother – secretaries to the Greenock venture.

 

A cartoon from the Bailie of W. F. Frame, Managing Director-to-be of the Empire Palace when planned - Courtesy Graeme Smith.In the new company one of its directors was Bailie W. B. McMillan, a future Provost of Greenock, and head of the largest billboard advertising company in Scotland (part of David Allen & Sons who were the largest theatrical printers in the world.) And the managing director was W. F. Frame (shown right), who had made his debut in James Baylis's Scotia, Glasgow in 1867 and was now possibly the leading entertainer in Scotland before being overtaken by Harry Lauder. Willie Frame was also the principal founder of the Scottish Musical Artistes Benevolent Fund in 1895 (part of today's Show Business Fund) and the originator of a rest home for artistes the same year in Eaglesham, to the south of Glasgow. By contrast the English Fund for artistes did not open their retirement home, in Twickenham, London, until 1911. Frame's amiable and illustrated memoir of music hall days, published in 1907, can be read online here.

 

But the grand adventure stumbled when John McCormick and his brothers Edward and Henry (each with their own public houses) decided to promote and build the Empire themselves and they appointed their own architect Thomas Kennedy who practised in Greenock and Glasgow. In Glasgow he had worked alongside William McIlwraith who, in the 1870s, had designed the Gaiety Theatre, Sauchiehall Street which transformed to Glasgow Empire in the 1890s. For their part the McCormicks knew about managing entertainment. In fact John McCormick was the last lessee, for one week in 1887, of the Varieties Hall, formerly used by the Moss family, in Hamilton Street before it became a Salvation Army hall.

 

Stymied in their own plans for an Empire the first syndicate promoters turned their attention to J. F. Arthur's proposal for a New Circus & Theatre of Varieties in West Blackhall Street close to the Theatre Royal. The first theatre, of a number, to be built by the combination of R. C. Buchanan and the Regent Property & Assets Co Ltd of Glasgow was the New Century Theatre in Motherwell which opened in 1901 to the designs of architect Alex Cullen of Hamilton.

 

The Empire's red sandstone front had pavilions at each end, and the stalls and circle held 1,000 people, latterly 920. (This was half the size of the first plans.) Inside, the decor was French finished with plaster garlands, and ceiling paintings.

 

John Donald writes about the Empire in the Greenock Telegraph in 1923:- “This the first building separately designed for use as a music hall in Greenock was erected by the brothers John, Edward and Henry M'Cormick and opened on 16th March 1903 under the management of Pierce Butler, formerly ringmaster to Mr John Henry Cooke. Excellent turns were brought and good business was done twenty years ago. The salary list has been as big as about £200 per week as for example when Milo (representing statuary), Chung Ling Soo, and another big star appeared with lesser lights, all in the same company. WJ Ashcroft, T Barrett, JW Rowley, Slade Murray, Charles Coburn, and Walter “Viscount” Munroe were also here at different times; but they were all past their best. The drama too was represented, notably by Mr John Lawson (“Only a Jew” in his play of “Humanity”.)"

 

One of a number of rising stars was Harry Tate.  The next lessee was Harry L Skivington from 1906. He also became lessee of the Hippodrome, formerly the Theatre Royal.

 

In 1910 it became a cine-variety house as part of J. J. Bennell's BB picture house chain, and in the mid-1920s it was operated by Mr & Mrs A Swan as a well attended variety house with stars such as Charlie Kemble, Ellis Drake and O'Reilly's Vaudevillians. When their lease expired at the end of 1927 they announced their intention to convert a building in Argyle Street to become the Argyll Varieties hall.

 

The Empire was then owned for a few years by the Bostock Circuit of theatres and cinemas founded by E. H. Bostock originator of the Scottish Zoo and Glasgow Hippodrome. The Bostocks continued cinema and variety – but sold the building in 1933 to another entertainment family – brothers George and David Woolley and their father, whose family had a billposter and advertising firm based in Paisley. The two brothers had been running the Argyll Varieties for almost six years. It held 800 people and never made much money, whereas the Empire held 1,000.

 

For the next 24 years the Empire staged variety shows, revues, plays and pantomimes with well respected names including Short & Dalziel and their Logan Family including Jimmy Logan, Lex McLean, and Donoghue & Ramsey, and rising stars such as Denny Willis, Roma Derry & George Johnstone, and Chic Murray & Maidie. It was also a base for amateur companies. It closed due to the impact of television in 1957 – and amateur companies moving to the newly opened Arts Guild Theatre – and was sold to Greenock Corporation the following year, while the Woolley’s concentrated on public houses. A furniture store occupied the premises for 10 years until its demolition as part of a town centre redevelopment.

 

The above article was kindly written for the www.arthurlloyd.co.uk site by Society member Graeme Smith in November 2013.

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