The Festival Theatre Through The Years

The Festival Theatre sits on Edinburgh’s longest continuous theatre site. The 19 Nicolson Street locale has been a theatre site since 1830 – in sixty years it was Dunedin Hall, the Royal Amphitheatre, Alhambra Music Hall, the Queen’s Theatre (destroyed by fire) and Newsome’s Circus (destroyed by fire and rebuilt).

Monday 13 April 1896 – the first moving pictures were shown here, at the then Empire Palace of Varieties: ’the greatest novelty of the age and the latest scientific triumph’

Tuesday 9 May 1911 – The illusionist ‘The Great Lafayette’ and ten of his company perished in the fire that burnt the Empire Palace Theatre to the ground.

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The auditorium at the Empire Palace Theatre

Monday 1 October 1928 – the Empire Theatre including the lovely Edwardian auditorium we still enjoy today had its grand opening.

1947 – An exciting year at the Empire. Dame Margot Fonteyn, widely regarded as one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of all time, performed at the theatre as part of the first ever Edinburgh International Festival programme and later in the year, Laurel and Hardy enjoyed a short season of sell-out shows.

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A publicity pic signed by Laurel and Hardy during their visit to the Festival Theatre

From Monday 7 November 1892 until Saturday 27th January 1962, The Empire (as the Empire Palace and then the Empire) existed as a variety theatre, during which time many millions of patrons enjoyed ‘good clean fare within its walls’. Big names like Harry Lauder, Charles Laughton, Fats Waller and Joe Loss appeared. Jack Buchanan, Max Wall, the singing cowboy Roy Rogers and his horse drew large audiences and Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise and Harry Worth cut their comic teeth at the Empire. Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer danced here; Gracie Fields, Judy Garland and Sophie Tucker sang.

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Programmes from the Variety era

From 1946 to 1963 the Empire was one of the main venues for the Edinburgh International Festival and was particularly associated with international ballet. At the first Festival in 1947, the Empire saw Margot Fonteyn as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. At other times the Old Vic, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera visited.

Tuesday 6 March 1963 – on the same day that country music star Patsy Cline was killed in a plane crash, the new Empire Casino Club opened with a membership of 25,000. The stage was maintained though and used by the Budapest Ballet during the Festival that year.

From 1963 to 1991, the Empire was used as a bingo hall by day, and by night for many years during the 70s and 80s as a rock concert venue. Some of the highlights in these years included T.Rex on Saturday 30 October 1971 (the tickets were 60p) and two visits from David Bowie at the height of his Ziggy Stardust fame in 1973.

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David Bowie at the Festival Theatre (Credit: Julie Tomlinson)
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The Empire Mecca Bingo Hall in the 1970s

The third and final incarnation of the Empire Palace Theatre opened in June 1994. An impressive glass fronted structure was created by architect Colin Ross as the new entrance to the renamed Festival Theatre. It provided a perfect foil to the auditorium, a wonderful restoration of the Empire Theatre’s former 1928 glory, creating a dramatic mix of art nouveau, beaux arts and neo-classicism, encompassing perfect acoustics within a parlour-like intimacy.

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The Festival Theatre now