2:48pm Monday 18th January 2010
By Caroline Taylor
In 1910 a group of passionate enthusiasts had a dream to erect one of the UK’s first purpose-built cinemas in Blackburn.
One hundred years later and although the cinema is long gone, dedicated local volunteers have kept the dream alive, having restored the building into a thriving community theatre.
We spoke to fundraising director Michael Berry about the highs and lows of the Thwaites Empire Theatre as it celebrates its centenary year.
VISIT the Thwaites Empire any night of the week and you’ll find a bustling little theatre filled with fun and laughter.
The community venue is the lifeblood of the local amateur dramatic scene, with dozens of groups of actors, singers and dancers using the rehearsal space and performing on its stage But it hasn’t always been this way.
The current building, as it now stands, is the cumulation of a 100-year-old dream to bring entertainment to this area of Blackburn.
And this year the theatre is celebrating its centenary by taking a trip down memory lane and remembering its humble roots.
“The building was built in 1910 as a silent cinema and music hall,” explained theatre fundraising director and chairman of the board Michael Berry.
“Before that there had been an old cobbler’s shop on the land. It was called the Electric Light Theatre and was very successful.
“They would play the films on reels and when one reel finished they had to put an other one on, so they’d fill the gap in-between with entertainment.
"They had a comedian called Billy who they used to have to drag out of the Aqueduct pub, so he was half-drunk by the time he came on, and they had a woman pianist who would keep a bottle of gin down her bra.”
But in the 1960s the cinema lost popularity and the building fell into disrepair.
In the 1970s a dedicated band of enthusiasts set up a charity aimed at providing Blackburn with a theatre that would be a focal point for amateur arts and entertainment and bought the building for £14,000.
“Until 1998 it was a case of trying to keep a roof over their heads,” said Michael.
“They tried to raise money with a few shows but they weren’t getting big money so the theatre remained shut.”
In 1998 Michael, a local businessman, was approached to help raise funds.
"And although he is far too modest to admit it, that’s when big things started to happen at the little theatre.
“In 1998 I started what we called the 20-year-dream,” remembered Michael.
“It had been a dream for 20 years but we hadn’t got very far.
"I started off by holding an open meeting at the theatre to get people worked up.
"Between 1998 and 2005 I pulled in every favour and found new people to donate and we raised about £750,000, with which we managed to open half of the theatre.
“I led the army of volunteers. We called ourselves the Red Brick Army and we raised money in all sorts of ways.
"We raised £7,500 in just one day once with a sponsored event where 100 people pulled a plane, a train and a boat.”
Many local companies pitched in too.
“I think a lot of them gave us money because they felt sorry for us,” said Michael.
“When I first went out to Thwaites Brewery to ask for a donation the managing director said to me: ‘Michael, why should I pay some money to get my name on your theatre when I’ve got 50 wagons a day coming into the town with my name on them?’ But he did and that’s where the name comes from.
Over the years the building has been known as the Electric Light Theatre, the Barn, The Empire, The Red Brick, The Thwaites Theatre and finally, in October 2002, the Thwaites Empire Theatre finally opened its doors to the public.
After further fundraising efforts over the next three years the balcony was finally added in 2005 and the building was re-opened as a complete theatre seating a total of 320.
The dream of those early visionaries had been realised.
Michael believes the gradual development of the theatre by volunteers has resulted in a unique atmosphere.
“Over the years countless local residents and businesses have made donations to the theatre, from a few pence to thousands of pounds, and the result is the magnificent theatre we see today,” said Michael “That’s why people have so much love for this theatre.
"It’s as much theirs as it is anybody’s. Volunteers have put their hearts and souls into this theatre.”
Many big names have performed there over the last few years, including Ken Dodd, Midge Ure, Howard Jones, Alan Price, Kenny Ball, the Tiller Girls and comedians Dave Spikey, John Thompson, Justin Moorhouse and Jason Manford.
But the fundraising team haven’t been resting on their laurels — just keeping the theatre running costs £2,500 per week.
And their latest challenge — which ties in with the centenary celebrations — is to raise another £100,000 in the “Raise the Roof Appeal” to repair the leaky roof, build better dressing rooms and create more rehearsal space.
As part of the appeal the theatre is auctioning 100 special gifts from its corporate sponsors, with everything from dog food to dancing lessons up for grabs.
And looking to the future Michael wants to grow the theatre by attracting bigger names.
“We’ve proved we can run a theatre now,” said Michael. “We’ve broken all records with our recent pantomime where we had 12,000 people coming through the doors.
"Now we want to build on that. I don’t think I’ll ever get megastars, but I think we can get some good popular acts.”
But one thing that will never change is the theatre’s dedication to local performers, said Michael.
“The number of children and parents who uses this theatre is huge,” he said.
“If it closed down it would be a disaster for so many families.
"The surrounding area of Mill Hill isn’t the most opulent area, but here we have a great little place in the local vicinity for mums, dads and grannies to come to.
"We have dance shows, Gilbert & Sullivan, Blackburn Musical Theatre and Blackburn Arts Club rehearsing and performing here.
"It’s always jam-packed and the warmth you get from people coming to the place is wonderful.
"Many have said to me: ‘I couldn’t do without this place, it’s changed my life’ and that’s what a community theatre should be like.”
1910: The Electric Light Theatre silent cinema opened.
1960s: The once-popular cinema has fallen out of use with the onset of TVs and talking movies.
1978: A group of businessmen bought the dilapidated building for £14,000 and set up a charity with the aim of providing Blackburn with a theatre for amateur arts and entertainment.
1998: Michael Berry was appointed to the board and over the next few years raised £750,000, which was spent on the loving restoration of the old building.
October 2002: Thwaites Empire Theatre opened its doors to the public.
November 2005: A balcony was added and the theatre was re-opened as a complete theatre seating 320. Star of stage, TV and film Anthony Valentine was named as patron of the theatre.
February 2009: The theatre was granted £47,900 from the Heritage Lottery to mark the centenary with a community celebration. A project called 2010 - One Hundred Years of the Empire Theatre in Blackburn was launched to encourage local people to discover the building’s rich history.
2010: The theatre officially launches its “Raise the Roof Appeal” with the dream of raising £100,000 to repair the leaky roof and build more rooms.
• Man with a van and skip: eight hours of support from Ken Wilkinson. Can he fix it? yes he can!
• Millionaire’s get-away: Flights for two to a top Southampton hotel, a day aboard a luxury cruise ship in first class with pampering in the onboard spa.
• Huntley’s at home: A top chef from Huntley’s will come to your home and cook a three-course meal with wine for you and five guests.
• Elvis at your party: Steve Preston, one of the world’s most celebrated Elvis tribute acts will appear live at the venue of your choice.
• A spring clean of your house and garden: A professional housekeeper will deep-clean your home, a handyman will do all those odd jobs you’ve been putting off, and a gardener will tidy up your outside space.
• Star in a pantomime: Buy your way to fame and fortune with this walk-one role in panto Mother Goose to be presented by Pendle Productions in December 2010.
• Doggy holiday: One week’s board and lodging for your pet pooch at Tail Waggers of Blackburn.
• Dancing On Ice with judge Karen Barber: TV judge and coach from the reality show will give six ice skating lessons at Blackburn Ice Arena.
• Day at the Lancashire Telegraph: Be part of the news by spending a day with a working reporter on the Telegraph.
* visit www.empire100.co.uk to make a bid and see all auction items.
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