Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, London.

Empire Cinema,

5 Leicester Square,

 London, WC2H 7NA


Original Owner:  Loew’s Inc. MGM.

Architects:  Thomas W. Lamb, of New York, in collaboration with Frank Matcham & Co. 

Building Contractor:  Anglo-Scottish Construction Co.,Ltd.

Cost: £750,000.

Original Seating Capacity:  Stalls~1,916. Balcony~1,234. Balcony loge seats~ 180.  Total: 3,330.

Date opened:  Thursday 8th November 1928.

First film shown:  “Trelawney of the Wells” starring Norma Shearer, Owen Moore.

Wurlitzer 4Manual/21Rank organ played at the opening by Sandy MacPherson.

Present Status:  In operation. Present owners~ Cineworld.


Before cinema came along the site of the Empire cinema Leicester Square was home to the Empire theatre which was originally planned by Thomas Verity and was altered according to a change of scheme by J and A E Ball. This was compared to The Eden of Paris.

Empire Theatre, Leicester Square.

The Grand opening took place on the 17th April 1884. In 1887 It became known as the Empire Theatre of Varieties. In 1893 Verity designed a new vestibule and side entrance. In 1898 the name, once again became just Empire. It was built on The site of Leicester House and before that Saville House, which burned down in 1865. The builders were a company called Bywater. The first production staged at the 3000 seat theatre was the opera Chilperic. Upholstery and decoration were in crimson and gold. The proscenium arch was 35ft high and 32ft wide.

In 1921 Simplex machines were installed for The screening of D W Griffith’s silent movie “Way Down East”. MGM took over in 1925. The last performance of the old Empire was on the 22nd January 1922 with the production “Lady, Be Good”.

The building was demolished and a new Empire was constructed with seating for over 3000. The cinema was run by MGM from the 8th November 1928.

Huge queues for this 1930/31 premiere.

The main entrance foyer.

The main entrance foyer.

The elaborate staircases and landings.

The 3330 seat auditorium of the Empire cinema, Leicester Square.

Equipment consisted of three Simplex M projectors with Hall and Connolly carbon arcs.  Western Electric sound equipment was first used. In 1934 wide range Western Electric sound was installed for the presentation of “The Merry Widow”. In 1937 RCA sound was installed. In 1950 It was back to Western Electric.

The first cinematic offering was “Trelawny of the Wells” starring Norma Shearer, Owen Moore.
The theatre also employed a Wurlitzer four manual/21 rank organ and was first played by Sandy MacPherson. He continued playing for the next nine years.

“A Matter of Life and Death” (1946) UK premiere

The first Royal Command film performance took place at the Empire on the 1st November 1946 with the film “A Matter of Live and Death”. It attendance were the King and Queen, along with the princesses. The King and Queen took their seats on gold painted armchairs in a flower-checked box in the centre of the Royal Circle. The amount raised for the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund was well over thirty thousand pounds. Seats that would normally cost three shillings and sixpence went for ten shillings and sixpence. Some seats sold for twenty-five guineas.

The stage lighting board.

Live performances were staged, accompanying the feature from November 1949 until February 1952. The first film to be screened with the addition of a stage show was “The Forsyte Saga” starring Greer Garson. The last stage show was the production of ‘Bravo’ on the 1st March 1952. The Empire ran 2736 live shows over two years.

1954 Premiere.

The cinema was converted to screen 70mm in 1959. The cinema had work carried out prior to the screening of the epic “Ben Hur” to allow a 70mm projection room to be installed in the centre of the stalls. This resulted in losing nearly half of the stalls seating. This was reduced to 1723. The projection had a straight throw of seventy-eight feet on to a fifty-two foot masked wide screen, which had been erected in front of the proscenium.
The equipment was the popular Philips DP 70 dual gauge machines with Western Electric sound. 70mm machines were in the stalls or balcony area in a number of theatres, including the Astoria Brighton, at the front of the balcony, the Dominion Tottenham Court Road, London in the stalls area, and the Abbey Liverpool, which had Cinemeccanica in a new projection box in the stalls. These measures ensure good sight lines for the wide format. Some cinemas didn’t need to add another box, the Odeon and Futurist Liverpool being two examples.

Empire Leicester Square 1959

After its long run of the epic “Ben Hur”, running for seventy- six weeks, starting on the 16th December 1959, the cinema closed for major alterations and re-opened on the 19th December 1962. Mecca ran the dance hall but the cinema part was operated by MGM. The cinema re-opened with Doris Day in the film “Jumbo”. The reconstructed hall was designed by notable architect George Coles. This was his last major project.
The seating was now on one level and seating was 1330. This was the circle, which had been extended. The old stalls area became a Mecca dance hall and in 2006 became a casino.

The Ritz photographed in 1961

Next to the Empire stood the Ritz cinema, also originally run by MGM, and was the fifth cinema to open in the square. It opened on 25th November 1937 with the film Double Wedding and was advertised as The Empire’s little sister. The Ritz usually screened films after their run at the Empire. In 1970 It closed for modernisation and re-opened on the 21st May 1970 with 393 seats. On the The 9th November 1972 it became Empire 2, opening with the film “Kansas City Bomber”. In 1973 it it became the Ritz once more. In 1978 more tinkering was done and seating capacity was reduced to 350. It once again became Empire 2. The entrance and the small foyer became home to a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlour. Most of the Ritz’s decorative features were removed, leaving, like the once splendid Empire bland. Patrons had to gain entry via the Empire. Seating was once more reduced to 304.

The garish 1983 frontage.

The final world premiere to be screen before more alterations took place at the Empire was “One Direction: This Is Us” on the 21st August 2013. The The George Cole’s designed screen one was closed on the 26th August 2013 with a horror offering called “Big Bad Wolves”. This was screened as part of an annual event known as Frightfest.
Screen one was sub divided to provide seating that was a fraction of the original, now being only 398. The new look Empire with what was called an Impact screen with Atmos sound opened on the 16th May 2014. The other screen was an Imax opening on the 30th May 2014 with seating for 723.
In July 2016 the once grand Empire, which by then was run by Empire cinemas was purchased by Cineworld.

Cineworld’s bold decision to bring this fabulous IMAX screen into the old Empire building. Breathing new life into the business.

In August 2017 The former Ritz closed for conversion into a 4DX screen to the plans of Chapman Taylor. This made its debut in March 2018 and seating is now 136.

Impressive! Cineworld’s 4DX screen, once the site of the Ritz cinema.


What is 4DX? Click the frame above for the details.

Sadly, many cinemas have lost their character due to today’s way of thinking. Many of those inviting auditoriums in the house of dreams are no more, including the once magnificent Empire.


David A Elliscopyright whitechestercinemas.co.uk