The Sunderland Empire Theatre was the brainchild of Richard Thornton. Fresh from a partnership with Edward Moss and Osward Stoll who controlled the Stoll Moss Group and who created the Empire Palaces chain with Thornton transforming theatres in the northern provinces from the early 1900’s.
Deciding to build a theatre of his own, Thornton contracted local architects William and TR Milburn to build a theatre to be known as the Empire Palace on the present site.
Vesta Tilly laid the foundation stone on 29 September 1906, taking to the stage on 1 July 1907 to declare the theatre open.
The Sunderland Empire has changed considerably since it opened in 1907. There were many entrances to theatre. Audiences entered in single file passing a paybox where you bought your ticket before entering the theatre to take their seats. You can still see these doors on the outside of the theatre.
The domed tower was originally surmounted with a revolving sphere which bore the figure of Terpischore the Greek Goddess of Dance (not Vesta Tilley as many thoughts).
During World War II, a bomb exploded near the theatre causing potential structural faults. Taking precautions the sphere and the statue of Terpsichore were removed and now stands at the head of the theatre’s main staircase with a replica now standing atop the spectacular dome.
Blossoming in the forties and early fifties the theatre started to falter in the fifties with the introduction of television. The owners of the Sunderland Empire decided to close the theatre, with the Sunderland City Council bought the theatre for £50,000 re-opening soon after becoming the first number one theatre in the UK controlled by a council.
The Sunderland Empire has been refurbished and re-equipped three times. In 1995 a brand new dressing room block which also housed a dance studio was built and property was also acquired on High Street West to house the theatre administration. In 2000, the box office was relocated to make way for a new foyer bar.
In 2004, a major multi-million pound refurbishment occurred which saw the installation of a larger, flat stage, enhanced technology and backstage facilities and an increase to the height of the fly tower.
The Sunderland Empire has a capacity of approximately 2000 patrons and remains a major UK touring venue.