In the early part of the 20th Century, at a time when Australia was producing more feature films than any other country in the world, Empire Theatres opened.
Beginning with The Story of the Kelly Gang, which was regarded as the first full-length film ever screened, the period was remarkable for the activity in the industry. This led to a total of 50 feature films being produced in 1911 alone.
It was on June 29 of that year that the landmark Empire Theatre in Toowoomba was opened to capitalise on this wave of enthusiasm. In the years since, the theatre’s successive managements have, however, had to overcome a number of challenges to ensure that the theatre retains a place of importance and relevance in Darling Downs society. The first of these threats to the Empire’s existence came in February 1933 when fire swept through the building.
Quite remarkably, it was rebuilt by the end of the year in art deco style, said to be reminiscent of the “glory days” of Hollywood, with palm trees framing the exterior and two plinth-mounted fish tanks set amidst the metallic gold and bronze of the entry foyer. Other highlights of the reconstruction work were a grand proscenium arch on Neil Street and the inclusion of the world’s largest cinema house light.
However, during World War II in 1939 the theatre was again closed down. The immediate post war era proved to be halcyon years for the Empire but as the sixties evolved, television began eroding audiences at the movies and in 1971, the doors were closed. At that point everything fell apart with the theatre being used variously as a department store, a gymnasium and TAFE College before, tragically, being left to the pigeons. Then, in 1997 the Toowoomba City Council – now the Toowoomba Regional Council ¬ purchased the site and began returning the Empire to its 1933 art deco styling with state-of-the-art technical equipment and patron comforts.
The work was so effective that, in the following year, the Empire was chosen as ‘The Best Theatre in Australia’ by Australian Leisure Management magazine.
There was a further development in 2005 with the extension of the conference precinct into the adjoining heritage church – which was also purchased by the Council in 1997 – to incorporate Encores restaurant. “There was a lot of controversy in the 1990s over whether the theatre should be knocked down or rebuilt,” says events manager Margaret Turnbull, who has been with the organisation since the latest re-opening. “In the 17 years I have been here we have broadened our scope and our appeal to patrons. There are people who think nothing of driving three or four hours from the west, the south or the north to attend a performance. We also do a lot now for the youth of Toowoomba and surrounding districts that wasn’t done previously.”
As part of that development, the Toowoomba Regional Arts and Community Centre will open in the north eastern corner of the Empire Theatre precinct in September. With a seating capacity of 350, the new theatre will be more practical for youthful performers and school children than the 1567 seat main theatre.
Words By Graeme Kelly | Images supplied by Empire Threatres