Grangemouth Empire Electric Theatre

Station Brae

In July 1913 plans were presented to the Dean of Guild Court for the construction of a picture theatre to be known as the “Empire Electric Theatre” adjacent to the Town Hall.  The Caledonian Railway Company intimated some objections and to allow an agreement to be reached between them and the architects, Wilson and Tait, the case was continued for a week.  Meanwhile subscriptions were opened on 17 July for a year for a new company to be called the EMPIRE ELECTRIC THEATRE, GRANGEMOUTH, LTD, incorporated under the Companies (Consolidation) Act 1908.  The capital was set at £4,500 divided into 4,500 Ordinary Shares of £1 each.  At the time of its launch the directors were John Edward Atkinson, Rosehall Terrace, Falkirk, managing director of Falkirk Electric Theatres Ltd and director of Atkinson’s Electric Theatres Ltd; Alexander Spence Millar, Abbotsville, Ronaldsay Crescent, Grangemouth, one of the directors of Greenock & Grangemouth Dockyard Co Ltd; and John Gardner, 9 Athole Gardens, Uddingston, ironfounder.  Two further directors were to be appointed by the shareholders at the first statutory meeting.  Andrew Hunter was the secretary.

The objects of the new company were given as “acquiring a vacant plot of land situate at Station Road, Grangemouth, between the Town Hall and Bank of Scotland, and of erecting thereon an up-to-date excellently equipped Cinematograph and Variety Theatre with all the various improvements now customarily comprised in first-class modern places of entertainment.  The selected site, which extends to 700 square yards or thereby, is admirably suited for the purpose, situated as it is in the very centre of the town in close proximity to the railway station, and the entrance to the Docks with a frontage of 109 feet 6 inches or thereby to the main road.  All the principal public buildings and business premises are in the immediate vicinity, and the Theatre when erected will be within easy reach of the inhabitants of the Old Town and the New Town.”  Grangemouth had a population of over 10,000 and growing, yet prior to this the residents travelled to Falkirk for much of their entertainment.

The economic case put forward to potential shareholders is of interest in showing the estimated costs of the operation.

Allowing but for one house per night and the hall only three parts full each evening,
the receipts for the year would amount to
Estimated income from rent of advertising curtain, and programme, advertisements, etc£100.0.0
Less average weekly expenses£3,380.5.0
Deduct for repairs, depreciation, assessments, licences, feu-duty, etc£300.0.0
Estimated balance available for dividend£1246.0.0

The figures provided showed a dividend of over 25 per cent on the share capital.

Illus 1: Main Entrance to the 1913 Empire Electric Theatre.

An agreement having been reached with the Railway Company the plans were duly passed that month.  Building operations commenced a month later on the site which until 1901 had been occupied by Brownlees’ sawmill and office.  Just over 12 weeks later the 900 seat theatre officially opened on 22 December 1913 – quite a feat!  The estimated cost was £3,000.

In front of the huge barn-like hall the face onto the main road consisted of a vestibule section faced in red terracotta bricks with sandstone dressings with Scots Renaissance detailing providing a building of unusual character.  The seven-bay façade is nearly symmetrical with a two-storey ogee-roofed pavilion at either end of a single-storey parapeted entrance block. The pavilions are framed by large pilasters with Corinthian capitals and each has a small three-light window under the broad eaves course and a wide entrance on the ground floor set under a moulded doorpiece with a broken segmental arched pediment containing a tablet-stone.  The tripartite windows of the pavilions are reflected in three of the five vestibule bays, the other two having entrances.  Each bay is separated by a panelled pilaster surmounted with a short obelisk. 

The central bay is occupied by a pilastered entrance under a square tablet flanked by scrolls and topped by an obelisk-finialled swan-neck pediment, all flanked by more obelisks.  The parapet stone contains the words “EMPIRE ELECTRIC/ THEATRE” in low relief.

The plain auditorium block behind the vestibule steps down slightly in height from left to right with bays marked out by brick pilasters.  Inside, a curved rear balcony faced the proscenium arch and stage with cartouche detail.  The auditorium had a segmental-arched ribbed ceiling.

The grey slate pavilion roofs contrast with the red Scotch-bond brickwork and the white rendered brick auditorium; complimented by the high quality buff coloured stonework.  The stone is used in the horizontal features such as a shallow base course, a moulded cornice, a blocking course and the window margins, as well as the vertical features such as the pilasters, door frames, pediment and obelisk finials. 

The Empire Theatre in 2010.

Illus 2: The Empire Theatre in 2010.

Alf Power was appointed as the resident manager with Ian Maurice as the orchestra conductor.  At opening the prices were 9d for the circle (plush tip-up seats); 6d for the orchestral stalls (plush tip-up seats); 3d for the pit (upholstered seats); and 4d for the pit on holidays and Saturdays – extra for early doors. From the beginning the Grangemouth Empire Electric Theatre was used for a combination of cinematograph and vaudeville fare.  In February 1914 it also introduced pantomime (Mother Hubbard), which was rare at that time. 

An idea of the mix of entertainment can be ascertained from the following newspaper extract:

“An engagement has been secured of the Mojis, Japanese equilibrists and top spinners, who will present their splendid three-ladder act. Another feature of this performance is the blindfold slide by Moji from the roof to the stage. Ray Carrol, juvenile comedienne and dancer, will contribute a pleasing item which is sure to delight her audience, and Cling and Clancy will lend much humour to the performance with their splendid comedy work. Their dancing too, may be expected to be of a high standard. Two different programmes of pictures will be submitted during the week, the first series of films being exhibited on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, and the second on the last three evenings of the week. The leading film for the first three nights will be “Heart Throbs”, a picture of 2000 feet in length, and for the end of the week the feature picture is the thrilling Western drama, “The Seal of Silence” – also 2000 feet long. The Empire orchestra, under the conductorship of Mr Ian Maurice, will contribute selections of music during the evening.”

(Falkirk Herald 20 December 1913, 6).
Illus 3: Drawing of the Empire Theatre.

From an early date the cinema became an intimate part of the local community and many fundraising events were held in it. In May 1914 there was a matinee on behalf of the Grangemouth Children’s Day and Atkinson donated a bicycle to be competed for by girls on the Day. Many more charitable collections and events were participated in during the First World War. On 19 November 1915, for example there was a grand choral and orchestral concert on behalf of Winter Comforts for Grangemouth Soldiers and Sailors.

In April 1916 the Empire Theatre in Grangemouth was taken over by Atkinson’s Electric Theatres Ltd. Atkinson had been the principal director responsible for bringing it into existence. However, he did not hold onto it for long and in a matter of weeks it passed into the hands of the Lanarkshire Cinema Company whose general manager was Alexander King of Glasgow. At a meeting of the Empire Electric Theatre (Grangemouth) Ltd on 22 May the shareholders confirmed the arrangement whereby the theatre was to pass under new control and noting that the Glasgow company was to rename it the “La Scala.” It was November 1920 before the Empire Electric Theatre (Grangemouth) Ltd went into voluntary liquidation to be wound up in consequence of the Theatre having been sold.

G.B. Bailey, 2021