Go behind the scenes to discover hidden history of the Sunderland Empire

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. How the theatre looks with a packed audience.
Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. How the theatre looks with a packed audience.
0
Have your say

A popular theatre which has entertained the people of Sunderland for more than 100 years raised the curtain on some of its hidden history.

Theatre buffs were welcomed behind the scenes at the Sunderland Empire for a free tour as part of the Heritage Open Days programme.

The Echo joined today’s tour to find out more about the High Street West venue, dubbed ‘the West End of the North East’.

The tour was led by Anthony Hope, from the theatre’s creative learning department, who shared facts and stories about its long history.

Originally known as the Empire Palace, it was established by local man Richard Thornton, who was a busker earning his living at the seafront in South Shields.

He teamed up with architects Edwards Moss and Oswald Stoll to get things off the ground.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The tour gathers in the Tower Entrance with guide Anthony Hope, from the theatre's creative learning department.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The tour gathers in the Tower Entrance with guide Anthony Hope, from the theatre's creative learning department.

The foundation stone was laid almost 110 years ago, on September 29, 1906, by famous vaudeville actress Vesta Tilley, who later took to the stage on July 1, 1907, to officially declare the theatre open.

Anthony said: “Vesta Tilley actually buried a capsule underneath the foundation stone, including things like newspaper clippings and coins.

“Some renovation work outside in the 1990s unearthed the capsule and everyone was very excited – but we tried and tried and couldn’t get it open.

“Eventually we did, but all that came out of it was some black sludge.”

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The theatre's Tower Entrance lit up at night.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The theatre's Tower Entrance lit up at night.

Only one thing survived in the capsule – a clipping of the Echo from the day it was buried, which featured an advertisement for rival venue, Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.

In the tower entrance, where the well-off would have entered back in the day, oil paintings of famous playwrights and musicians, like Shakespeare and Mozart, adorn the walls.

A few years back, a previous theatre manager painted over them, and the theatre is working to restore them. Some are still covered and nobody knows which figures are immortalised underneath.

Anthony also told the tour about the Terpsichore statue which stood on top of the theatre until last year.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The view from one of the theatre's proscenium boxes. They were designed for the occupants to be seen by the public rather than those sitting in them being able to see the show.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The view from one of the theatre's proscenium boxes. They were designed for the occupants to be seen by the public rather than those sitting in them being able to see the show.

The Greek muse of dance and chorus was removed from the building after it blew over in strong winds and people feared it would fall to the ground.

That, however, was a fibreglass replica, and the original Terpsichore stands inside the theatre above the stairs to the dress circle.

Anthony said: “The original was brought down during the Second World War, which is a good job because there was an explosion just outside next to the Dun Cow pub.

“Debris from that explosion made dents in the brass banisters on the stairwell and people sometimes ask why we haven’t repaired them, but we like the history of it and wanted to keep them there.”

He added: “The people of Sunderland came together to help clean up after the explosion and would go to the Dun Cow for a drink afterwards.

“One day they were having some water and it tasted disgusting. Somebody went up on the roof to check the water barrel and found a dead horse lying it – it had been blown up there by the explosion – and they’d all been drinking the water.”

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. Tour members look at the paintings in the Tower Entrance. They've been restored after a previous theatre manager covered them in green paint.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. Tour members look at the paintings in the Tower Entrance. They've been restored after a previous theatre manager covered them in green paint.

The theatre sat 3,000 people when it first opened, but doesn’t hold that many since health and safety regulations came in.

Of the 3,000, only the 300 most affluent people would use the tower entrance. Everyone else would queue round the back and race to get the best seats they could.

Following an extension in 2006, the Sunderland Empire has the biggest stage from Manchester to Edinburgh, which is why it is able to bring so many big productions to the city.

There are 59 bars attached to the fly tower above the stage to hold the scenery, and each one can hold the weight of a car.

Anthony said: “The scenery still requires manpower and ropes have to be loosened off and the scenery lowered into place before being tied off again.

“The fly tower was originally operated by sailors because they were very good at knots, and that’s where we got the word ‘crew’.

“They were very good at knots but unfortunately they weren’t a quiet lot and would often turn up to work drunk and disturb the performances by being very loud in the wings.”

Some of the seats in the venue are no longer sold for shows, including some in the upper circle that don’t leave enough leg room.

The slips down the side of the stage have also been closed off, although they were the most sought-after seats when The Beatles played the venue in the 1960s, as people thought it would get them closer to the stage, and the band.

The band was apparently impossible to hear over the deafening screams of their female fans.

The proscenium boxes, situated at either side of the stage and level with the upper circle, are also no longer sold to the public.

The boxes were created for the ostentatiously rich and designed for them to be seen by the audience, rather than for them to actually see the show.

Even leaning dangerously over the safety rail wouldn’t allow you to see the entire stage from these boxes.

Spaces are available on tomorrow’s tour at noon, concluding with free tea and coffee.

Pre-booking is essential. To secure a spot, go to the box office in person or call 0844 871 3022.

Read more: Why is the Sunderland Empire one of the UK’s most haunted theatres?

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The original Terpsichore statue is stood above the stairs to the dress circle.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The original Terpsichore statue is stood above the stairs to the dress circle.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. Old photographs from the theatre's opening night in 1907 can be seen adorning the walls.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. Old photographs from the theatre's opening night in 1907 can be seen adorning the walls.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. Old playbills hanging in the theatre were donated by the people of Sunderland.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. Old playbills hanging in the theatre were donated by the people of Sunderland.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The dress circle was given its name because when the theatre first opened, those sitting in the seats would dress up in their finest attire.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The dress circle was given its name because when the theatre first opened, those sitting in the seats would dress up in their finest attire.

The gallery is said to be the most haunted area of the theatre.

The gallery is said to be the most haunted area of the theatre.