History

The Empire Theatre originally opened with the latest technology on 29 June, 1911 as ‘Empire Pictures’. In the early evening of Wednesday 22 February 1933, fire broke out at the Empire Theatre and  most of the original building was destroyed.

The northern and southern walls were the only thing left standing and were incorporated into the rebuilding of the theatre, completed and reopened on 27 November the same year. This rebuild was done in the detailed art deco style, popular at the time. It’s seating capacity was 2400 patrons.

For many years the Empire was the cultural hub of Toowoomba, a meeting place and regular entertainment spot for the entire community. 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 local TAFE before falling into disrepair. It sat, slowly decaying & seemingly lost forever, until a need for Toowoomba to have a performing arts complex saw the Empire Theatre undergo an award-winning restoration before holding a grand reopening on 28 June, 1997.

Heritage listed by the National Trust, the theatre now boasts the latest purpose-built facilities as well as retaining the grandeur and superb acoustics of the original building, with the interior faithfully restored to the finest detail. The unique grand proscenium arch, thought to be the only one of it’s kind in the Southern Hemisphere, is back lit with custom lighting to perfectly frame any occasion, combined with houselights provided by a series of decorative sconces.

 Another architectural hero of the theatre is the long art-deco style light set into the ceiling which become known as the ‘bomber light’ during World War II, either because the shape was reminiscent of a bomber or because there were fears a bombing would create falling shards from the light and cause danger to audience members.

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The foyers feature the original warm brick walls from 1911 with the modern additions complementing the original theatre.

Since reopening in 1997, the Empire Theatre has become a full performing arts precinct, receiving commendation from visitors, patrons and performers alike. The complex has expanded with the addition of the Empire Church Theatre, Empire Studio and newest space, The Armitage Centre, fixing its place as the largest performing arts theatre in regional Australia.

Recent Refurbishment

 

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From late 2018- 2019 the Empire Theatre undertook a significant refurbishment, requiring the closure of the main venue for several months, during which the Empire Church Theatre and Armitage Centre were fully operation and heavily utilized until the main theatre reopened for the Opening Night of popular musical, Kinky Boots in March 2019.

The Empire Theatre auditorium and foyers were completely repainted and recarpeted, a new seating system installed and the Ticketing Office was beautifully updated along with significant improvements made to bathrooms and foyer areas including The South Bar which was expanded to include a larger space toward to front of the theatre, now frequently used for pre and post show entertainment.

The final stage of the refurbishment, which saw an external lighting upgrade, dressing room renewal, Studio space functionality and amenity updates and a Stage Door reception area renovation, was completed in mid-2021.

The current building features modern seating for 1565 people, state of the art air-conditioning, bars and lounge areas with purpose built backstage areas and exemplary technical capabilities to stage the most complex of productions.

 

 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 Armitage Centre

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The Empire Theatre’s newest performance space, opened in 2014.  The Armitage Centre is a unique, medium sized and flexible venue, featuring high quality technical equipment and state of the art facilities including retractable rows of tiered seating that can easily be stowed away to provide 400m2 of open versatile space.

Boasting pleasant surrounds including an attractive forecourt as well as relaxing foyers (St Baker Foyer and Geoffrey Rush Room) and bar, it is the ideal location for a wide variety of events and performances.  

 

The Empire Church Theatre
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The simple Gothic inspired Wesleyan Methodist Church, now the Empire Church Theatre, was designed by the well known Queensland architect Willoughby Powell and was built in 1877 by Richard Godsall, later an alderman and Mayor of Toowoomba. The 1901 extensions to the church, carried out by William Hodgen Jnr, added two transepts with choir and ministers vestry. The exquisite circular stained glass western window is a rare and fine example of the work of Sydney manufacturers, Ashwin & Falconer.

Other stained glass windows bear testament to the faith of the well-respected Wesleyan pioneers of Toowoomba. An organ was installed in July, 1928. The Wesleyan adherents eventually became part of the Uniting Church group in 1977 and the church was purchased by the then Toowoomba City Council in October 1997.

 

The Empire Theatres Studio

Immediately behind the main stage, separated by large, sound-proof double doors is The Studio. It is suitable for small performances and seats approximately 120 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.

Architecture

The Empire Theatre 1997 reincarnation was 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. .This installation of the 'Bomber Light' 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 modern 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. 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.

 

 

Click to read our History Brochure

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Historical Collection

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 from the Empire Theatre's past. Please contact the Foundation Officer on 07 4698 9938 or foundation@empiretheatre.com.au if you have any items of information. 

COVID-19 Impact

 

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After close to four months off stage following the temporary closure of the venue due to government restrictions, the Empire Theatre re-emerged onto the live performance scene to capped audience numbers with the Empire Strikes Back Series in July 2020 which featured local and Queensland bands and musicians from everything from rock to jazz and country and musical theatre. This series was well supported, reaching capacity until more tickets were released with the relaxing of Queensland Government restrictions.

With the return of 100% capacity in November 2020 and thanks to the hard work of staff, the Empire Theatre has been able to operate safely and continues to fully operate under Queensland Government directives, welcoming artists and patrons to this extremely busy and thriving venue.