Chronicles

A vanished Newcastle theatre – but what stands in its place 110 years later?

Take a stroll up Newcastle’s Newgate Street and you’ll see the new Maldron Hotel.

There’s no trace of the 1960s-built shopping centre and Swallow Hotel that it replaced.

And, in turn, there’s no trace of the grand old theatre that stood there before then and was a favourite destination for generations of Tynesiders.

Our main image shows Newgate Street thronged with people in 1910.

It was a time before the motor car would come to monopolise the roads of our towns and cities.

This was the year when Newcastle United lifted their first FA Cup, Whitley Bay’s Spanish City opened its doors for the first time and the popular King Edward VII died.

None of our readers will remember 1910, but some will be familiar with the grand building in the middle of our picture.

This was the Empire Palace Theatre – known to all as simply “the Empire”. Older folk might still recall some of the major stars who trod the boards there in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Laurel and Hardy, Ted Ray, Arthur Askey, Tommy Trinder, Max Miller, The Goons, The Inkspots, Morecambe and Wise, Bruce Forsyth, Johnny Ray, Slim Whitman, Lonnie Donegan, Frank Ifield, Billy Fury, Joe Brown, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and many more brought the house down at Newcastle Empire.

Comedian Roy Hudd’s first visit to Newcastle was to appear at the Empire. “It was my first job outside London,” recalled the Cockney entertainer years later.

The Maldron hotel on Newgate Street, Newcastle, opened in 2018 on the site of the former Swallow Hotel and Newgate Shopping centre – and before that the Empire Theatre

“I did this act which had always gone down very well at home but I didn’t get a titter. Afterwards, I asked the manager what had gone wrong. He said ‘De ye understand me?’ I eventually said I didn’t. And he said ‘Well, they diven’t understand yee eetha!’

“So he taught me to slow down and tone down my Cockney accent. My landlady came to see the show and when I asked her how she liked it, she said, ‘You dorty bugga’ – and that’s the greatest compliment I have ever had in the North East.”

The theatre was built on the site of an old coaching house. It opened as the Empire Variety Theatre on December 1, 1890.

Designed by architects Oliver and Leeson, its grand auditorium could seat 2,000 theatre-goers.

In 1903 it was further improved by the designs of noted theatre architect, Frank Matcham.

It was said: “The building has been furnished and decorated in the most lavish and artistic manner, and it is claimed that it is certainly the finest hall for the purposes required out of London.”

(The theatre for a while also acquired a next-door cinema, also called the Empire, which operated from 1913 to 1933).

Countless thousands filed through the Newgate and Grainger Street entrances to watch popular music and comedy acts at the Empire until 1963 when, like other struggling theatres around the country at the time, it closed.

On November 5, 1965, the Chronicle reported on the building’s demise.

“The demolition men stood respectfully back. The avalanche of bricks gathered momentum – and the last of the old Empire Theatre collapsed.”

Another grand Victorian Newcastle building was gone.

In its place, in 1969, the grey concrete slabs of the Newgate Shopping Centre and Swallow Hotel emerged.

By 2016 these too were being razed to the ground to be replaced by the Maldron Hotel as the 21st-century Newgate Street took shape.

Don’t miss our Memory Lane website.

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