The Last Days of the Empire Theatre

The Last Days of the Empire Theatre

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Belfast, Empire Theatre





21min 43sec





black and white


Digitised as part of Unlocking Film Heritage


British Film Institute, ITV, UTV

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The final days of Belfast's beloved music hall.

The Empire Theatre opened to the public in 1894. Here, we join the staff on the last day before the doors closed permanently, in July 1961. These rushes from the UTV Archive feature poignant interviews with Frank Reynolds, the last manager of the Theatre, the playwright Sam Thompson, actor and performer, James Young, and Nan Stirling, who began serving in the Empire in 1915.

Watch out for a glimpse of the orchestra pit where, one Christmas, conductor Leslie Beresford fled to the back of the theatre, terrified by the sight of an elephant doing a handstand looming above him. 


In 1927 The Empire Theatre became the first theatre in Ireland to broadcast live from the stage. During the Blitz it only closed for one night due to damage during an air raid however WWII took its toll in other ways as cross continental shows became impossible. It staged ‘Over the Bridge’ by Sam Thompson playing a key role in this controversial turning point in Northern Irish theatre. Written in 1959 the play explores sectarian tensions in the shipyards. When the Ulster Group Theatre withdrew the play a fortnight before the opening resulting in a wave of resignations in protest, the play’s director James Ellis took it to the Empire Theatre. The building was finally demolished in 1965 and is now a shopping centre.

Shot List

00:00:00 to 00:00:55 - mute, ext images of the Empire Theatre.

00:00:56 to 00:03:20 - staff bid each other farewell and punch their time cards for the last time. Shots of the theatre being closed and secured by Manager, Frank Reynolds. Reynolds looks on as the neon sign for the 'Empire' dims.

00:03:21 to - 00:06:05 - Interview of Frank Reynolds. He recalls one particularly unhappy incident during a revue. The orchestra had just had a break and was returning to its place for the next song. One of the members stood up, collapsed and died from heart failure. Unaware of what had happened - and assuming it was part of the show - the audience howled with laughter.

00:06:06 to 00:07:13 - Interview with Bridget "Bridie" Gallagher (7 September 1924 – 9 January 2012). The singer - known affectionately as 'The Girl From Donegal' - was the last headline performer at the Empire.

00:07:14 to 00:08:19 - Reynolds is interviewed about his time as Manager of the theatre. He reminisces about guests who've come to the theatre, memorable shows - Siobhán McKenna in a performance of Playboy of The Western World, Dr. Hunter's Christmas circuses.

00:08:19 to 00:09:18 - Reynolds takes the interviewer on a tour of the premises - dressing rooms, the royal box (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. once visited).

00:09:19 to 00:10:49 - interviews with bar staff, asking them about famous visitors. Various int. shots of the bar.

00:10:50 to - 00:11:00 - shots of dancers performing on the main stage.

00:11:01 to 00:12:33 - interview snippets, then mute, ext. daytime shots of the Empire, shots of the ticket desk and staff at work. Images of the orchestra pit, bar staff.

00:12:35 to 00:14:21 - Norma Barry interview. Asked about the importance of 'the girls' in a variety theatre, supplying glamour. She formed the 'Norma Barry Young Girls', a troupe of female dancers and performers.

00:14:22 to -  The widow of Gerry Morrison (Manager circa 1920 to 1945) recalls how her husband kept the Theatre open, even after the bombing (Belfast Blitz) on Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941. He opened the theatre the following Monday, to an audience of four soldiers.


These rushes come courtesy of the UTV Archive.

Digitised as part of Unlocking Film Heritage.

Contributors: Sam Thompson, James Young, Bridie Gallagher, Norma Barry



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