THE GARSTON EMPIRE (THAT WAS)
Theatres were, once upon a time, the sort of venue where you would go and see music hall, variety acts, Pantos, dance shows, and basically any other sort of show that would require a pros-arch theatre. As mentioned, this was ONCE upon a time. Which is why, when a headline states “An incredible £5m plan has been created to transform an abandoned theatre and return it to its ‘glory days’ it is met with some scepticism.
The Garston Empire on Chapel Road in Liverpool has lain empty for around two decades. The building began life as a music hall over 100 years ago and became a cinema during the world War2. It screened its last film in 1961 and turned into a bingo hall after that. Sound familiar? Since being left empty in the early 1990’s the theatre was put on the Theatres Trust “at risk” register and has been left to fall apart. It is privately owned however, which makes you wonder why someone would leave it to fall apart….
Now a local community group , The Friends of Garston Empire (FOGE), have come together to create a plan to revamp the theatre. The group is spearheaded by the owner of Garston’s Masonic pub Tony Murray, who is a former bingo caller at the Hackney Empire in London. Speaking about his vision for the theatre, the 64-year-old said he could see it returned to its glory days as a theatre and multi-use entertainment venue with an investment of £5m.
Tony said: “The idea just came to me in a flash one day. I know that they have turned the Hackney Empire into a roaring success and I thought we could do the same thing, if not better, with the Garston Empire”.
Nearer to home the Palace Theatre in Union Street, Plymouth (final image in this blog post) has had a good deal of time and money spent on it of late but sadly the company trying to renovate it has given up. If it had succeeded however what would its uses have been and what would it have competed with? Dare one say a younger, more efficient venue custom built? Times have changed considerably of late. Young people tend to go to festivals, not theatres / night clubs. They watch Netflix and YouTube and but cheap alcohol from the supermarket. They also do degrees at University and utilise their own University venues.
Garston Empire was revamped as a bingo hall in the 1960’s. Murray continues: “I put a post on Facebook and I’ve been overwhelmed with support. It has just taken-off like a rocket.”
Stage one of the scheme is to secure local ownership, or a lease on the premises, but early estimates suggest the total cost of refurbishment, to the highest standards, would be around £5m. Tony added: “We are already in negotiations with the owner, who is sympathetic to the idea of retaining the building and re-opening it as a theatre. “The Empire is right in the centre of Garston and we are determined to see it turned into the resource and the great focal point that it is capable of becoming.
The fact that it failed as a theatre / nightclub 30 years ago might be an indication as to why it might fail now. It couldn’t make a profit. Theatres are being built with convertible and adaptable stages / auditoriums. They can morph into whatever configuration is needed. Tony Young goes on to say: “When it’s back in operation The Empire can be the driver to help Garston re-invent itself as the vibrant shopping centre that it always was”.
Sadly, as theatres have adapted to modern times so have shopping centres. No-one can bring back shopping centres as they used to be any more than they can bring back theatres as they used to be. Even though it would be great to think a plan like this would succeed it clearly won’t. Harking back to “the good old days” sadly shows naivety…
All images – Ken Roe except for Palace Theatre Plymouth – Guy Harris
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