25 Years of the Festival Theatre

As we approach our 25th anniversary, we cast our minds back to remember its humble beginnings, Kings, Queens, Divas, Dames and Simon Cowell’s up-light. 

1. The Scottish capital waited the best part of half a century – including ‘decades of debacle’ over the original Castle Terrace site - for the grand arrival of its own opera house. Transforming the former Empire Theatre, by 1991 a run-down bingo hall, into an opulent theatre venue cost £20million, nearly of quarter of which was raised from the private sector.

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2. The now iconic glass frontage of the ‘Festival Theatre, the ‘fish-tank foyer’ designed by LDN architect Colin Ross was immediately passed by the planning department. Current Lord Provost Frank Ross recently speculated that the 82-foot high structure wouldn’t pass the planners now.

3. The Festival Theatre opened with ‘Meet Me At The Empire’ a gala variety performance featuring The Krankies on 18 June 1994. Then Lothian Councillor Paul Nolan poured scorn on the programme saying it was ‘an insult to Scotland’s culture’. The then General Manager Paul Iles responded to his comments saying ''There will be more of the same. We've got Francie and Josie coming for two weeks before Christmas -- so I hope Mr Nolan likes that.''

4. In fact the auspicious opening of the Festival Theatre was marked by two gala openings. ‘Meet Me At the Empire’ was swiftly followed by a gala performance of Scottish Opera’s Wagner's Tristan und Isolde to demonstrate in Paul Iles’ words the venue’s role ‘as both a variety lyric theatre and an opera house'. Marking 25 Years of the Festival Theatre in June 2019 we are hosting a gala variety show on Saturday 1 June, 25 Live and also celebrating the silver anniversary with a special performance of Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute on Saturday 15 June.

5. The refurbishment of the original 1928 auditorium of the old Empire Theatre included the installation of a two-metre high art eco chandelier comprising 76 lamps and 180 glass facets. The twenty smaller chandeliers contain a total of 1404 separate pieces of glass. Although these fittings look like integral period pieces to the original design scheme, when the Empire opened in 1928 times were hard and the fixtures would have been far less grand.


6. One of the most significant architectural features of the Festival Theatre is the grand central staircase. ‘It is the only theatre in Britain that has a single, central staircase leading up into the auditorium. I’m not sure that we were even aware of that even while we were doing it at the time,’ said the lead architect on the project, Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith CBE. ‘The nice thing about that is that everybody that comes into the theatre meets everybody who’s also coming. That creates a very important feeling that the audience is one audience, and the more that everyone mingles together, the better’.

7. On 24 November 2003, the Festival Theatre hosted the Royal Variety Performance, attended by HRM The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Compered by Cat Deeley, the show’s stars included Luciano Pavorotti, Busted, Dame Edna and Jamie Callum. Gloria Estefan was spotted being beyond excited backstage waiting to get her photo taken with the Osmond brothers, who later stole the show when they stepped out from behind cardboard cut-outs of themselves to be the surprise guests performing with Donny Osmond who was billed as performing solo.

8. From the Queen to very different royals – the Kings of Leon were at the Festival Theatre for the screening of their documentary film Talihina Sky in the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 25th June 2011. The band were having a few ‘issues’ at the time, and the post show Q&A with BBC Radio DJ Vic Galloway was a tad fraught. Galloway reflects: ‘It was the WORST thing I've ever done professionally! It nearly made me stop what I do. They were THE most horrendous people, and occasionally I'm reminded of that event and shiver... I had the head of Sony/Columbia phone me up and apologise the next day. I have only one 'diva' rule at the BBC now... I will NEVER play Kings of Leon on air EVER again. The EIFF and the Festival Theatre were both 100% on my side and kicked the band out of the venue after the Q&A. Such a terrible night!!’

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9. The filming of auditions for Britain’s Got Talent at the Festival Theatre generated much excitement. Simon Cowell and co have been in the building twice - once in November 2012 and again in January 2015. On the second visit, David Walliams wore a kilt, took time to sign autographs and pose for photographs with fans and pretend played the bagpipes to pipe Simon Cowell into the building. The auditorium looked spectacular for the filming, with a huge array of lighting kit brought in including a special up-light to make Simon Cowell look his best.

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10. Dame Edna Everage was back in the building in March 2013 ahead of her Eat Pray Laugh! tour in November that year. Arriving to red carpet treatment and a crowd of screaming fans, Dame Edna went on to entertain guests at a Group bookers event with her distinct brand of light repartee, handing out her signature gladioli and joking that had she known The Full Monty was on at the Festival Theatre at the time, she would have got her bikini line done.


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