The golden age of theatre and cinema in Chiswick

Gillian Clegg recalls the days when mega-stars such as Laurel and Hardy, Vivien Leigh, James Mason and Dirk Bogarde performed in West London


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Chiswick Memories - Chiswick High Road 1982 - 2003

Chiswick Pictures - don't miss the exhibition at Hogarth's House

Chiswick Pictures - Historic Print of William's Terrace in 1837

Chiswick Pictures - Strand on the Green by Henry George Webb

Chiswick Pictures - Chiswick Riverside from Harrison's History of London


The Empire `died with dignity' on 20 June 1959 when a lame-jacketed Liberace played to a full house

When Oswald Stoll first proposed building a music hall in Chiswick in 1910, the idea was vehemently opposed by the local populace who claimed it would lower the tone and `drive away the better class inhabitants'. Stoll persevered, the opposition was overcome and the Chiswick Empire opened at 414 Chiswick High Road on 2 September 1912.

The Chiswick Empire. The doors finally shut in 1959

The building was designed by Frank Matcham, who also designed the London Palladium, and could seat nearly 2,000 people. The decor was mainly electric blue and terracotta and it had a sliding roof. This proved a mixed blessing since it was rarely opened, and when it was, a cloud of dust descended on the audience! Less than a year after its completion, the Empire suffered a dreadful fire which destroyed the stage and damaged the auditorium. It re-opened three months later, the decor now pale cream and old gold with bottle green upholstery.

The Empire became one of the most prominent variety houses in the London suburbs, staging plays, concerts, revues, music hall turns and also sometimes opera and ballet. Particularly popular was the annual pantomime. Stars who appeared at the theatre before the Second World War included Marie Lloyd, Clara Butt, George Formby and Sybil Thorndyke. Like most theatres it closed at the beginning of the War but re-opened in 1941 and famous performers in the 40s and 50s included Laurel and Hardy, Vera Lynn, Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd, Terry Thomas and Alma Cogan.

In early 1959 the building was sold and plans approved for an office block. The news that the theatre was to close came as a complete bombshell to the 30-strong staff, since the theatre had been playing to capacity audiences. The Empire `died with dignity' on 20 June 1959 when a lame-jacketed Liberace played to a full house. `A night of sadness at the Empire' was the headline in the Brentford and Chiswick Times the following week. The theatre was demolished a month later and the office block known as Empire House erected on the site.

The Q Theatre. Stood opposite Kew Bridge Station
Picture courtesy of John Gillham

The Q Theatre (the name is a pun on Kew) stood opposite Kew Bridge Station on the site of what is now the block of flats called Rivers House. The theatre was converted from the Prince's Hall, which at various times had been a swimming pool, roller-skating rink and finally a film studio. The Q theatre was opened in 1924 by Jack and Beatrice de Leon. She was an aspiring actress who settled instead for a career in theatrical management; he a solicitor who became a talented playwright and director.

Due to the de Leons' astute management, the Q became one of the most important of London's small theatres (it could seat 490 peple), staging many plays that went on to become West End hits. The first works of aspiring playwrights such as Terence Rattigan and William Douglas Home were performed at the Q, and such luminaries as Vivien Leigh, Dirk Bogarde, Joan Collins, Anthony Quayle and Margaret Lockwood trod the boards here first. In the 1950s the Q Theatre fell on hard times: television was coming in, Jack de Leon died and the theatre needed major repairs. It closed in 1956.

Like most areas of the country, Chiswick embraced the new phenomenon of ‘moving pictures’ at the beginning of the 20th century. Chiswick's first purpose-built, but shortest-lived, cinema was The Palais at No 365 Chiswick High Road (the site is now occupied by Woolworth). This opened in October 1909, was fined in 1914 for Sunday opening and closed in 1916. It re-opened briefly in 1919 with a name change to the Palace of Entertainments.

The Electric Cinema, opened 1911 on the corner of Duke Road and Chiswick High Road
Pictures courtesy of Local Studies Collection, Chiswick Public Library

The Electric Cinema was opened in 1911 on the corner of Duke Road and Chiswick High Road. Various proprietors came and went – mainly into liquidation, which caused the cinema to close periodically. In 1927 its name was changed to The Coliseum and in 1929 it was converted for sound, but closed in 1932. It re-opened the same year specialising in newsreels when it was known as the Tatler but its licence was finally revoked in 1933.

The emporium now known as Old Cinema Antiques at 160 Chiswick High Road was formerly the Cinema Royal, but more affectionately known as The Cave because of its decor and narrow entrance. At one time it sported a flashing electric stalagmite outside. The building was originally the Chiswick Hall, which was licensed for music and dancing in 1888. It opened as a cinema in May 1912, was converted for sound but closed in August 1933.

Gillian Clegg is the author of Chiswick Past and Brentford Past and is the editor of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal

Article originally published in Westside Magazine - republished with kind permission

December 27, 2003

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