90th birthday for historic Art Deco theatre

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

A historic gem of Wisbech - the Art Deco Empire Theatre – will celebrate its 90th birthday later this year.  

The 1,100-capacity theatre per se has long gone and the applause of audiences replaced with cries of ‘bingo’. 

But whilst the use has changed, the Grade II* Listed building retains most if not all of its characteristic and rich history.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

The Blackfriars Road was owned by entrepreneur Norman Jacobs and until 1970/71 was a cinema.  

Norman Jacobs MBE - the man who brought the Rolling Stones to the Wisbech Corn Exchange - died aged

Norman Jacobs MBE - the man who brought the Rolling Stones to the Wisbech Corn Exchange - died aged 93 in 2016. - Credit: Archant

In fact, it is a forum devoted to cinema history, Cinema Treasures, that reminds us of its long and chequered history.  

It was designed by Messrs F.B. Ward & C.E.A. Woolnough for Harry Bancroft who also owned the Hippodrome (demolished c. 1982) in the town. 

Cinema Treasures recalls that stage shows continued at the theatre until as recently as 2004.  

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

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“The building is now used solely for bingo with tables and chairs replacing the stalls seating,” it says. 

“However, the Empire is in such good condition that, if it were ever needed, it could return to live or film use within just a few days.”

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932.

The Empire Theatre, Wisbech, an Art Deco gem of a building, barely altered since it opened in 1932. - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

 The history of the Empire is in part the history, too, of Wisbech born and based Norman G Jacobs. 

In 1942 he formed the Jacobs Theatre Leisure group and either bought or leased theatres and Corn Exchanges across many parts of East Anglia.  

By late 1966, Norman had decided to move away from live bands and by 1967, and introduced bingo as his main attraction at some of his venues. 

The Empire, these days, is run by Winners of Thetford whereas the long-sold Hippodrome at March, which he also ran, is now a Wetherspoons.  

But as Cinema Treasures rightly states, the Empire itself is just as the late Mr Jacobs would have remembered it.  

“As soon as you enter the foyer the style hits you,” it says. 

“Beautifully inlaid doors with a five sided arch surround, ornate angular plasterwork, and the stair balustrade to the circle remain as built and lovingly maintained. 

“The auditorium is amazing with the richly moulded reeded and prismatic ornamentation. 

“The angular boxes at circle level, the impressive side circle openings, the ceiling decoration with the twin lighting troughs, the Aztec motifs on the balcony front all remain in glorious high Art Deco style.” 

Eyes down for a visit maybe?