Empire Square, on Penge High Street, is named after the famous theatre which stood there on the Boots corner from 1915 until demolished in 1961. The name Empire Square was the winning entry in a competition to choose a name for the recreational space. The square has recently been refurbished and will continue to function as a performance space—continuing the theatrical tradition—for local celebrations such as Penge Day.
The Empire Theatre, designed by celebrated architect W.G.R. Sprague and built at a cost of £16,000, opened with great fanfare in 1915 with Marie Lloyd topping the bill. She was then forty-five years old and known as the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’.
Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) was a much loved music hall artiste and at the height of her popularity when she died at the relatively young age of fifty-two. Some of her songs such as The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, A Little Bit of What you Fancy Does you Good and It’s a Bit of a Ruin that Cromwell knocked about a Bit have become the stuff of theatrical legend. Jesse Wallace played her in a recent television docu-drama. Some of the seemingly innocent songs were replete with innuendo and scabrously funny when sung by Miss Lloyd.
Marie Lloyd had been banned from performing at the Royal Variety Show in 1912 but clearly was deemed just the ticket for Penge. See Victoria and Albert museum link
Seating capacities at the Empire Theatre were 220 in the Fauteuils, 256 in the Stalls, and 160 in the Pit Stalls. The Circle seated 380 and the Gallery seated 500. It had a 29 feet deep stage, a 38 feet wide proscenium and twelve dressing rooms.
The interior colour scheme was white, gold, brown and blue. White and gold for the paintwork, cinnamon brown for the upholstered seating and the stage curtain; powder blue for the carpeting. It rivalled in magnificence any West End theatre.
There was a repertory company presenting a varied weekly bill: plays, music concerts, spectacular pantomimes; even circus animals performed on stage. Occasionally, elephants could be seen walking down Penge high street in a single file—trunk holding on to the tail in front—on their way to the theatre. Did the street artists of Penge know that when they painted elephants on Penge buildings in 2017?
The Penge audience was notoriously difficult to please and win over but many well known stars appeared there over the years: Max Miller, Gracie Fields, Max Bygraves, Peter Cushing, Raymond Francis, John Barron, Michel Dennison and Dulcie Gray, Lupino Lane, Joan Regan, Bruce Forsyth, Jack Hylton and his Band, and Frankie Laine. Evelyn Laye once said that apart from Penge, the only other challenging audience was to be found at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland.
Gracie Fields made her debut in 1919 at the Empire in Mr Tower of London. She took the show on the road for five years with her first husband and manager, Archie Pitt, then ended up at the Alhambra in the West End for a further five years. Which artists today would have the stamina to do that?
Gracie’s success on stage and film made her a house-hold name in Britain. She made a few films in Hollywood but returned to London.
She fell in love with and married Boris Alperovici, who came to repair her radio while she was staying in her villa on Capri. Her energy and love of life communicated itself well into her later years.
She made a memorable and unexpected appearance at the Royal Variety Show of 1978 at the age of eighty.
Seven months before her death a year later she was made Dame of the British Empire.
Sometimes acts would be tried out at the Empire before taking up residence at the London Palladium, the Alhambra or Drury Lane. A Penge resident, the late Mrs Marie Harris, recalled being taken there with her family for the first time to see a show destined for the West End. The family wore evening dress only to find the rest of the audience had not made a similar effort, even on a Saturday night.
The Penge Empire kept going throughout the war with a new schedule every week and twice nightly performances. Here is a programme from May, 1940. Note Dorothy Reynolds in the cast of Anna Christie. Reynolds went on to write the long running musical Salad Days in tandem with composer Julian Slade.
In the fifties the Empire became the Essoldo cinema (the first cinema in suburban London to be fitted with Cinemascope and four-track stereophonic sound) then was demolished, perhaps a casualty of the popularity of television. The last film to be shown there was Jazzboat starring Anthony Newley.
Many remember the theatre in its glory days. Others. like Mrs Harris, have sad memories of a threadbare, smelly and neglected theatre with dismal shows and an audience which always dressed down.
There were other cinemas in Penge at various times: the Kings Hall Electric Theatre, the tiny Picturedrome and the lovely 1937 art-deco Odeon which was demolished in 1994, the Moon and Stars pub being built on its site.
Anerley Town Hall was a hub of entertainment from late Victorian times to the nineteen sixties. Plays, pantomimes, concerts, banquets, dances, all took place there. Legend has it that the youthful Petula Clark and Julie Andrews sang there.
A pavement plaque has been installed in Empire Square to commemorate the Penge Empire Theatre.
Theatre in Penge is well served today by the excellent Bridge House Theatre.