Empire Theatre (Brisbane)

The Empire Theatre was situated at 176 Albert Street on the block between Queen and Elizabeth Streets; it was directly opposite the Albert Cinema which has recently been shut.  It was opened by the Mayor of Brisbane, Alderman J. Hetherington, on 14 January 1911.  Ted Holland decided that Brisbane could support its own purpose-built vaudeville house and he was instrumental in the development of this new theatre.  “After a season extending over 315 weeks in the Theatre Royal, Mr. Ted Holland is about to transfer his attractive vaudeville entertainments to the fine new Empire Theatre” (Brisbane Courier 2 Jan. 1911: 6).  The theatre was designed by Atkinson and McLay and was promoted by Holland and St.John as “the Coolest, most Comfortable, and Commodious Theatre in the Commonwealth” (Brisbane Courier 13 Jan. 1911: 2).  The Empire was originally conceived as a vaudeville theatre and a cinematograph plant was installed prior to opening.  The Brisbane Courier’s main praise of the Empire was for its comfort:

The attractiveness of the scheme of decoration was a matter of first impression, while the cool, comfortable seats, the roominess of the circle, and the excellent arrangement of the floor of the theatre evoked immediate appreciation.  Apparently there is not a seat which does not command a good view of the stage, and ample space is allowed between the chairs and for the approaches, so that when the house is full no one need be crowded.  The design seems to have been to secure a wholly pleasing effect, and at the same time insure coolness, abundance of fresh air, and the maximum of convenience and comfort.  (Brisbane Courier 14 Jan. 1911: 5)

The entrance to the Empire’s tiled foyer was via three marble steps while a long flight of marble stairs took patrons to the Dress Circle.  The foyer was replete with a silky-oak box-office and large staircase which lead to the lounge balcony which was decorated with portraits of theatre identities.  A prominent feature of this staircase was a series of bronze statues standing on pillars and holding light globes.  In the auditorium, the floor of the Dress Circle was covered by a blue Axminster carpet.  A silky-oak balustrade and “beautifully upholstered chairs of cool and hygienic Japanese grass” were other features of the Dress Circle while the Stalls were equipped with oak chairs (Brisbane Courier 7 Jan. 1911: 13).  The auditorium’s ceiling was stamped steel and featured a large central ventilator.  The stage was 28ft wide and 32ft deep and two stage boxes formed part of the Dress Circle (Brisbane Courier 7 Jan. 1911: 13).  “Mr. Percy St. John is associated with Mr. Ted Holland as lessees of the new theatre” (Brisbane Courier 7 Jan. 1911: 13).  Some of the luxurious features of the theatre included a long balcony lounge running along the side of the theatre, a rich Axminster carpet in the Dress Circle, Greenwich inlaid linoleums in the dressing rooms, and the terra cotta linoleum in the passage ways (Brisbane Courier 14 Jan. 1911: 5).  Recalling his first night as a bell-boy at the Empire Theatre on 21 January 1911, Eddie Dunford said “that night they had a real grand show after…Champagne back stage and a row of stage-door fans stretching round Albert Street corner way up to Queen Street” (Sunday Mail 22 Aug. 1943).  According to Dunford, audiences would arrive at the theatre in buggies and sulkies and “the women used to wear—well, I suppose you’d call it a sort of evening dress—with high collars and long sleeves, and the longest trains” (Sunday Mail 22 Aug. 1943).  Renovations took place in 1916 making it “as cosy and pretty a theatre as could be wished for” (Australian Variety 8 Nov. 1916: N. pag. ). 

The Empire was converted into a talkie theatre and renamed the St. James Theatre on 19 April 1930; occasionally live revues would be staged throughout the 1930s.  However, with its final renovation in 1965 it was again renamed becoming the Paris Picture Theatre and it was exclusively used for cinema (Sunday Mail Colour Magazine 17 June 1979).  The Paris Theatre was demolished in 1986 and the block of land is now a section of the Myer Centre.  Curiously, Alwyn Capern’s article in a Sunday Mail Colour magazine and in his entry to the Companion to Theatre in Australia both suggest that Gladys Moncrieff performed at Brisbane’s Empire Theatre two years before the theatre was built.  “A benefit concert [in Townsville] in April 1909 raised money to send Gladys, with her mother, to Sydney for vocal training.  They broke their journey in Brisbane, where Gladys won a six-week contract at Holland and St John’s Empire Theatre at £7 10s a week” (Companion to Theatre in Australia 372).  This story is confirmed in Moncrieff’s autobiography [1] and its inclusion here highlights the way that people’s memory can sometimes become distorted by subsequent events.  Ted Holland’s vaudeville Company would have been performing at the Theatre Royal at the time when Gladys Moncrieff made her professional debut. 

[1] In My Life in Song Moncrieff writes:

The proceeds from the concert helped Mum and me to go to Brisbane, where we called first at the Empire Theatre.  Holland and St John were the proprietors.  I gave an audition and they liked my voice enough to give me a six weeks engagement at £7/10/- a week.  This salary made me feel I was headed for the big money and the bright lights, because £7/10/- was big money in those days.  (Moncrieff 25).