NOSTALGIA: Empire Theatre attracted an array of stars

The traffic stopped in Dewsbury 60 years ago when this picture of film star Mai Zetterlin was taken on Longcauseway while she was appearing at the Empire Theatre, writes Margaret Watson.

Saturday, 22nd April 2017, 9:49 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:59 pm
STAR QUALITY: This picture of film star Mai Zetterlin was taken on Longcauseway while she was appearing at the Empire Theatre.

It is a photograph which brings back memories of the days when it wasn’t unusual for Dewsbury people to see world famous stars shopping in local stores.

Ernie Wise bought his wife’s engagement ring at Diss’s jewellers in Market Place while appearing there with Eric Morecambe.

The famous duo also delighted workers at Wormalds and Walker’s mill in Thornhill Lees when they popped in to entertain them during their lunchtime.

The Empire Theatre when it was opened in 1909.

Most of these stars helped boost the local economy by spending their money at local pubs and restaurants and choosing to stay at local boarding houses.

Film star Anthony Newley, always stayed at a house in Halifax Road when he appeared at the theatre, and Julie Andrews as a child stayed with her parents at a house in Eightlands Road.

Looking at this spring-like picture of Mai Zetterlin walking among the flowers in Dewsbury town centre, brings back memories of those halcyon days.

This was a time when Dewsbury stood head and shoulders above all the other towns in the Heavy Woollen District.

Margaret Watson.

And these stars were grateful to be appearing here, bringing with them a touch of glamour to a mill town which had made its money from textiles.

For while ever these stars shone in Dewsbury, so did the town and those living here, and although those days will never come back, we must never forget them.

Sadly, all the glamour of live theatre in Dewsbury was to end on a damp April evening in 1955 when the imposing theatre, one the grandest in the country, closed down.

This beautiful theatre which had opened in 1909 and had starred some of the most famous entertainers in the world, including Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, blamed falling attendances for its closure.

The Empire Theatre when it was opened in 1909.

Like many other theatres and music halls in the country, the Empire could not compete with the growing popularity of television.

Five years later, the theatre was demolished and replaced by a modern new structure, an office block, aptly named Empire House, which still stands today at the side of the town hall.

The theatre, which had accommodated 2,000, was one of the best-equipped music halls in the provinces and had been constructed in the most approved principles of theatrical architecture.

A 22-tonne girder formed part of the gallery cantilever suspension system and when it was brought to Dewsbury, vast crowds gathered to watch as 22 horses dragged it from the Midland Railway Station.

Margaret Watson.

The theatre’s interior was palatial with rich upholstered seating, luxurious velvet curtains, ornate private boxes, brass fittings everywhere and an eight hundredweight chandelier.

Some of the stars who appeared in those early days, included Florrie Forde, Frank Randall, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and George Formby.

When comedian Frank Randal appeared, nearly 3,000 fans filled the theatre which only had sitting room for 2,000.

More than 1,000 were left standing – little wonder the 22-tonne girder bent with the strain of it – but there were no health and safety rules in those days

In the coming months, I hope to write more about the theatres and five cinemas which once existed in Dewsbury, and the affect television had on their demise.

If you have any photographs or memories of these places of entertainment, please contact me.

I would also be grateful if anyone can share memories or photographs of computer genius Tom Kilburn, who lived in Dewsbury.

And I am also searching for old photographs of Hanging Heaton Working Men’s Club.

If you can help, please contact me by email at [email protected] or [email protected]