Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy playing with yo-yos backstage at the Empire Theatre in 1954.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy playing with yo-yos backstage at the Empire Theatre in 1954.

Edinburgh's Empire Theatre: 27 pictures from the 1950s and 1960s show what was happening on the famous stage in its heyday

It’s been a major part of Edinburgh’s cultural scene for nearly 200 years, and there were no lack of stars treading the boards at the Empire Theatre back in the day.

Wednesday, 2nd February 2022, 10:10 am

The Edinburgh Festival Theatre has had a number of different names since a playhouse first opened on its site in 1830 – including Dunedin Hall, the Royal Amphitheatre, Alhambra Music Hall, the Queen's Theatre, Pablo Fanque's Amphitheatre, and Newsome's Circus.

It became the Empire Palace Theatre in 1892, with a new 3,000-capacity building designed by famous British theatre architect Frank Matcham, featuring lavish interior plasterwork of elephants, Nubian riders, nymphs and cherubs.

It was a huge success, with crowds flocking to see the top artists of the age, but disaster struck in 1911 when a fire led to the death of 11 performers and backstage workers – including illusionist Sigmund Neuberger, better known as The Great La faye tte, who is said to haunt the auditorium to this day.

Remarkably all 3,000 audience members escaped unhurt and the theatre reopened just three months later, but was soon closed again for an extensive refit that would allow it to host bigger and more spectacular shows.

The Empire, as it was then known, opened its doors once more in 1928 and for the next 35 years was Edinburgh's leading variety, musical and opera house, attracting big names like Harry Lauder, Charles Laughton, Fats Waller, Laurel and Hardy, Max Wall, and Morecambe and Wise.

In 1947 it also became a principal venue for the Edinburgh International Festival, including performances by the Old Vic theatre company, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.

But by 1963 demand for theatre shows had dipped due to the growing popularity of television and the building became a bingo hall for nearly three decades.

It finally reverted to its original purpose in June 1994, renamed at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, with an eye-catching glass-fronted front leading into a restored version of the original 1928 interior.

Since then it has welcomed a huge mix of of shows, from popular music concerts to touring theatrical productions, as well as being used as the Edinburgh venue for both Scottish Opera and the Scottish Ballet.

Here are 27 pictures taking you back to the theatre in its 1950s and 1960s heyday.

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