Monday, September 26, 2011

The Empire Gussies Up to Make History Yet Again

Posted by Bruce Miller
By now, many of you have seen or heard about the scaffolding that is covering the entire front of our historic Empire Theatre. That old rusting marquee that's been an embarrassment for the last 25 years has been dismantled and thrown into the dumpster. We all cheered watching it happen.

If all goes according to Hoyle, the new marquee (an historically accurate reconstruction of the original 1930s marquee for the Maggie Walker Theatre) will be up, and the scaffolding will be down prior to the first preview of Kimberly Akimbo on Oct 13 and the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards on Oct 16.

Owning an historic property is a dramatic exercise in any case. Owning an historic theatre ... well ...

The Empire first opened its doors in downtown Richmond on Christmas Day, 1911. I'll be writing more about that in the coming weeks. The Richmond Empire was modeled after the close-to-iconic Empire Theatre in NYC, built in 1893, the first theatre in New York to feature electrical lighting. The legendary Empire (NY) was only the second theatre to be built in the Times Square theatre district. Located at 1430 Broadway, between 40th and 41st, the Empire (NY) is credited with establishing the artistic and cultural phenomenon that the world now knows as Broadway. The Empire (NY) was demolished in 1953 to an outcry of public protest.

History-making Broadway productions that played the Empire (NY) include the American premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895), the American premiere of Peter Pan by James Barrie (1906), the American premiere of Three Penny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht (1933), Life with Father by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (1939–45, still the longest running non-musical in Broadway history), and Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1950).

Our historic Empire (Richmond) is the more intimate of Central Virginia’s two Broadway-style theatres. With 604 seats, it approximates Broadway’s smaller theatres, like the Helen Hayes (seating capacity 593). With roughly 1,800 seats, the Carpenter Theatre approximates Broadway’s larger theatres, like the Gershwin (seating capacity 1933). Both theatres are invaluable, irreplacable cornerstones in the cultural foundation of our community.

The photo above and to the left was taken in 1893 when the Empire (NY) was brand new. I'm very proud to say that we just purchased a small, 1893 print of this historic photo, museum quality, and we will soon be displaying it prominently as we continue our ongoing, public interpretation of the historic facility we call home.

In the photo, the streetcar is heading down Broadway. The Oriental Hotel is on the corner, and the Empire Theatre (NY) is one building to the right of the intersection. Make special note of the first floor archway entrance to the theatre.

The photo to the left was taken in 1915, and shows a closer view of the grand arch entrance, framed on both sides by two classical columns. The name Empire has been added, as well as signage advertising the legendary actor, John Drew (uncle of Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore). Handsome show card boxes have been placed at the base of each pair of columns to further promote the current offerings.

The reason I call your attention to this section of the facade is because it is this section that was duplicated almost exactly when the Richmond Empire was designed and built in 1911. If you remove the added signage from the image to the left, it will more closely represent the original design of the Empire (NY).

Posted to the right is an image of the Booker T. Theatre (one of the Richmond Empire's several incarnations), taken sometime in the 1940s, before the millwork on the original facade was removed for "modernization" in the 1950s. If you can imagine the Empire (NY) without the added signage, and compare it to the Empire (Richmond) without the Booker T marquee, you should be able to notice that the Richmond Empire focuses on a distinguished copy of the hallmark entrance to the history-making theatre that launched Broadway.

With all the recent brouhaha over how challenging it is to renovate and operate a major performing arts center in downtown Richmond (and it certainly is), it is easy to overlook the fact that Theatre IV has sucessfully operated and maintained the landmark Empire with nothing but public acceptance and acclaim for the last quarter century.

As you may have read a couple weeks ago, the recent hurri-quake added additional stress to our aging (and crumbling) stucco façade, requiring the scaffolding to go up and renovations to begin even though we don’t have quite all the money we need in the bank … yet. As we raise these funds, we’re very excited to know that the façade will be secure again in a couple weeks, and fully restored to it’s original grandeur (or very close to it) sometime early next year.

The historic Empire is a Central Virginia treasure, which will celebrate its 100th Birthday on Christmas Day of this year. It is the oldest major theatre in the Commonwealth. I hope everyone in Richmond will join us as we reintroduce this incredible asset to the community that has loved it throughout all its various incarnations.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Are rumors true about people experiencing spirits and/or weird phenomenon at the Empire?

Bruce Miller said...

I know of no reliable ghost stories involving the Empire Theatre. If people have them, I'd love to hear them. Hanover Tavern on the other hand ... ghost central.