The Empire Theatre was opened in 1911. It was built by the local firm, Harman’s. It was designed by the architect, Arthur Samuel Hewitt, who also designed the Windmill Theatre, further south on Marine Parade. The theatre’s auditorium contained stalls and one horseshoe-shaped circle, which curved round to almost reach the proscenium. The theatre was equipped with dressing-rooms and a band-room under the stage, which was 40 feet wide by 48 feet deep, and had a proscenium opening of 25 feet, and a fly-tower with grid and fly-rails, which are all still in existence, although the building is no longer used as a theatre.
The Empire operated as a cinema until the late 1960s, when it switched to bingo. However, it continued to screen late night shows after the evening bingo session had finished and it also showed morning cartoon shows between 10am and 1pm during the summer season from May to September. When the ABC Regent closed to become a bingo club, there was a short period during the late 1980s to the early 1990s when the Empire became a full-time cinema again. From 2006, the Empire was used as a nightclub, called ‘Zen’, until that closed down in 2009. Since then it has been left empty and the downstairs area (most recently used as a cocktail bar) has been repeatedly flooded.
The building has been owned by the Jay family since 1937. The Empire Picture Playhouse is a Grade II listed building. It is of historic interest as an early purpose-built cinema, which retains some features indicative of its original use. It is of special architectural interest for its elaborate façade and as an example of early cinema architecture in Britain. Inside it contains good quality decorative plasterwork to the ceilings, the walls and the balcony. Despite some later 20th century alterations, it retains its form and decorative detail. The Empire was built of gault brick and its façade is clad in Leeds Fireclay Company vitreous buff terracotta. The east façade is of three bays and the building is thirteen bays long. On the façade, the wider and taller central bay is framed by pairs of giant reeded and fluted Ionic columns rising from pedestals to block entablatures with tall blocks over. Each of these blocks contains a wreath encircling the date, 19 and 11 respectively. Between the pedestals, wide steps rise up to the timber panelled entrance flanked by curved ticket booths and set within a wide decorated round arch. The entrance is partly glazed, including the ticket booths. Above the arch is a moulded cornice below a balcony with balustrade and three round-headed arches fronting deeply recessed windows. The three arches are slightly recessed below a wide segmental arch, above which is the name of the cinema, The Empire. Above this, the cornice that originally spanned the three bays is missing. The north and south elevations continue with decorative terracotta cladding for one bay, the remaining twelve bays are marked by blind arches below with mainly blind round windows above. Inside, the entrance lobby has a terrazzo floor and a decoratively patterned plasterwork ceiling. Stairs rising from the lobby to the balcony are lined with marble, and lit by round stained glass windows at the upper level. The auditorium has a barrel vaulted ceiling with an apsidal end with decorative plasterwork ribs, each rib curving down to meet the pilasters that line the walls at balcony level. These rise to a moulded cornice. Between the ceiling panels and the cornice are curved panels decorated with cherubs and garlands and between the pilasters are roundels, decorated with leaf swags. The ground floor has arcaded panels to the side walls. The balcony sweeps round the auditorium almost all the way to the proscenium arch and is decorated with leaves, swags and paired mermaids, their forearms projecting outwards. The side pillars of the proscenium arch have been removed, presumably to allow for a wider screen, although their capitals remain, supporting a deep cornice above which, at either end, are urns. Behind the arch is a fly-tower and balcony. All the ground floor auditorium seating has been removed, but the seats in the balcony remain.