Even a century ago Toowoomba was a socially active civic centre. There were many arts groups including the Ladies Literary Society and the Toowoomba Philharmonic Society (both still active today). The Austral Festival was drawing crowds of 10,000 with its celebration of music, arts and sciences. It was this cultural setting that led to the construction of the largest performing arts centre and cinema in regional Australia.
The Empire Theatre originally opened on Thursday 29 June 1911 with the latest technology installed to screen the emerging movie industry pictures. In November 1928, the Empire Theatre was upgraded to screen the new colour movies.
In the early evening of Wednesday 22 February 1933 fire broke out at the Empire Theatre and most of the original theatre was destroyed. Only the northern and southern walls were left standing and these were incorporated into the rebuilding of the theatre, which reopened on 27 November the same year. The 1933 theatre was built in the detailed art deco style, which was popular at the time. Its seating capacity was 2,400 patrons.
For many years the Empire Theatre was the cultural hub of Toowoomba, a meeting place and regular entertainment spot for the entire local community. However, by 1971 competition from other forms of entertainment including television resulted in the eventual closure of the large theatre.
After closure, the theatre was used as a warehouse and by the TAFE College before falling into disrepair. The theatre sat slowly decaying and it seemed it was to be lost forever. However, a need for Toowoomba to have a performing arts complex saw the Empire Theatre undergo an award-winning restoration to serve the people once more. The doors re-opened on Saturday 28 June, 1997.
Heritage listed, the Theatre now boasts the latest purpose-built facilities as well as retaining the grandeur and superb acoustics of the original theatre. The interior styling has been faithfully restored to the finest detail. The grand proscenium arch, thought to be the only one of its kind remaining in the Southern Hemisphere, is back lit with a parade of colours to create a perfect frame for performers and gives theatre patrons a grand sense of occasion. House lights are provided by a series of decorative sconces and a long art deco style light set into the ceiling.
This light became known as the “bomber light” during World War II either because its shape was reminiscent of a bomber or because during the war there were fears that bombing would create falling shards of glass from the light and pose a danger to patrons.
The foyers feature the original warm brick walls from 1911, with down pipes still attached. The modern additions lightly touch and compliment the original theatre, providing increased amenity to the venue.
Since reopening in 1997 the Empire Theatre, in its third incarnation, has received commendation from visitors, patrons and performers alike. The new complex retains the existing elements from 1911 and 1933 and compliments them with modern seating for 1567 people (1000 seats in the stalls and 567 in the dress circle), state of the art air-conditioning and relaxing bars and lounge areas. With the addition of the Empire Church Theatre, Empire Studio and the brand new building, the Armitage Centre, the Empire Theatres cultural precinct remains the largest performing arts theatre in regional Australia.
The Empire has a dedicated group of volunteers called The Friends of the Empire Theatre who support the venues by providing assistance through fundraising activities and a volunteer workforce.
To further serve the cultural needs of the community the company also launched the Empire Theatres Foundation in 2003. The Foundation is a registered charitable trust which seeks to provide performing arts opportunities to further the cultural experiences and professional development of young people in the Toowoomba region, to promote the performing arts for the benefit of the local community and to preserve and promote the movable cultural heritage associated with the Empire Theatre. The patron of the Empire Theatres Foundation is internationally renowned actor Geoffrey Rush, who first experienced live theatre at the Empire as a child growing up in Toowoomba.
In 2009 the Empire Theatre established its Projects Company to increase the breadth and depth of the community’s connection with the performing arts in the Toowoomba Regional Council area. In 2010 it launched Empire Youth Arts, with the aim to create opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds through the region to engage with the performing arts.
2011, the Empire Theatre’s Centenary Year, marked the launch of the Toowoomba Regional Arts and Community Centre, which was renamed the Armitage Centre on its official opening in September 2014. The building is a $5.5 million expansion to the existing Empire Theatre precinct, providing a 350 seat ‘black box’ theatre space featuring state of the art technical equipment and attractive bar and foyer spaces.
The Empire Theatre reincarnation is the work of architect/designers Hassall Pty Ltd who ensured the three design periods of history remained evident.
A requirement of the heritage approval was clear legibility between the new and old buildings achieved with glass walls and a series of skylights lightly touching the existing brickwork of the 1911 walls.
The interior art deco styling has been faithfully restored to the finest detail. The decorative plaster work, its size, structure and tasteful appointments give theatre patrons a sense of occasion.
In 1933, the world’s largest cinema house light was installed. During the restoration the so called ‘bomber’ light was faithfully recreated after consulting local heritage groups and old photographs.
The ‘bomber’ light was named during the war years when locals took it down for fear that a bomb may be dropped, sending a shower of glass onto theatre patrons below.
This lighting installation won a commendation from the Illumination Engineers Society of Australia Awards in 1997. The 20 metre long opaque glass fitting is the main feature of the house lighting which also includes a series of decorative sconces along the walls.
To accommodate the expectations of today’s audiences, the architects added glass towers to the original building to house complimentary foyers on two levels complete with four bars, supper and lounge areas.
Craftsmen also restored the Empire Theatre neon sign on the roof, replaced broken leadlight panels and repainted the walls in the original cream and metallic gold colours. Paint scrapings of the peeling paint were taken to determine the original colours used in the heritage fittings and walls throughout the building.
The new foyers feature the original warm brick walls, acid washed and still bearing signs of their 86 years with light fittings and down pipes still attached.
The 1911 porthole air vents, installed with acoustic panels to stop sound escaping, blend aesthetically with the modern additions of a new fly-tower and contemporary glass towers.
The walls and roof of the auditorium were restored but its floor had to be reconstructed for theatre sightlines. This enabled a Krantz micro-climate air-conditioning system to be installed in the auditorium.
The system delivers a cocoon of conditioned air from the floor to only three metres above the audience, supplied via the seat-back registers from an under-floor plenum.
The design is reminiscent of the glory days of Hollywood even to the palm trees framing the exterior and in the metallic gold and bronze of the entry foyer, two plinth-mounted fish tanks.
The Brisbane based architects Hassall Pty Ltd consulted historical groups, old photographs and newspaper clippings to ensure the authentic recreation of the Empire Theatre.
Stage and Backstage
While the foyers and auditorium remain faithful to their art deco origins, backstage has been completely redesigned to include the modern facilities required to stage the most complex of productions.
The stage is over 13 meters wide and 8 metres high with more than 15 meters of wing space combined. It has 80 fly lines including 5 overhead lighting bars and an orchestra pit that can be hydraulically raised to audience floor or stage thrust levels.
Visiting crews find bumping in is fast and easy with direct loading dock access to the stage on the same level. Unloading can be assisted by the dock door scissor lift and smaller trucks can simply drive onto stage to unload.
Performers are also well catered for with individual facilities for 65 people in eight dressing rooms and below-stage orchestra dressing and tuning rooms. All dressing rooms are equipped with their own shower and toilet facilities, hanging space and lockers for personal belongings.
A laundry, wardrobe area and green room can also be found backstage. The green room is equipped with kitchen facilities and boasts a pleasant outdoor garden patio area.
Immediately behind the main stage, separated by large, sound-proof double doors is The Studio. It is suitable for small performances and seats 250 for recitals. It can also be set up for meetings and receptions and serves as a dance studio or rehearsal space with a floor size matching the main stage playing area.
The Empire Theatre also maintains and operates the Empire Church Theatre, adjacent to the Empire Theatre in Neil Street. An atmospheric 1877 vintage chapel complete with a fully operational pipe organ, the Empire Church Theatre stages a variety of performances including cabaret, comedy, choral work, fine music and jazz. The space is also perfect for conferences and weddings – both ceremonies and receptions.
The Empire Theatres Foundation aims to preserve and promote the movable cultural heritage associated with the Empire Theatre. The Foundation is always looking for unique historical items formt eh Empire Theatre's past. Please contact the Foundation Officer on 07 4698 9938 or [email protected] if you have any items of information.