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Finsbury Park Empire: Forgotten music hall and variety theatre gets memorial plaque

PUBLISHED: 09:40 11 October 2017 | UPDATED: 11:57 11 October 2017

Finsbury Park Empire when it was opened in 1910. Picture: Islington Council

Finsbury Park Empire when it was opened in 1910. Picture: Islington Council

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One of Islington’s forgotten gems, the Finsbury Park Empire, has been commemorated with a memorial plaque. The Gazette pulls back the curtain to look at the history of the music hall and variety theatre.

Finsbury Park Empire, interior looking towards the stage. Picture: Nick Charlesworth, from Variety at Night is Good for You, ISBN 978 0 9526076 6 3 Finsbury Park Empire, interior looking towards the stage. Picture: Nick Charlesworth, from Variety at Night is Good for You, ISBN 978 0 9526076 6 3

Most people will have walked along St Thomas’s Road in Finsbury Park without realising there once stood one of London’s most famous variety halls and theatres.

A plaque commemorating the Finsbury Park Empire was installed this week after the public voted it one of three historic sites they wanted to see honoured.

The 2000-seat theatre, designed by top theatre architect Frank Matcham, opened in 1910 at a cost of £45,000 and played host to many stage and screen greats including Laurel and Hardy, Max Miller, Tony Hancock and even Harry Houdini.

“It was really the main north London palladium,” said Islington Local History Centre archivist Julie Melrose. “It was the Moss Empires’ main theatre outside the West End. There was very much a need for entertainment venues in the area at the time and they realised that.

Finsbury Park Empire, exterior. Picture: Nick Charlesworth, from Variety at Night is Good for You, ISBN 978 0 9526076 6 3 Finsbury Park Empire, exterior. Picture: Nick Charlesworth, from Variety at Night is Good for You, ISBN 978 0 9526076 6 3

“Shows would go from the Palladium in the West End and then to Finsbury Park. Then they would tour the UK, so it was a very well thought-of venue with big names performing there.”

It was built on an old Post Office sorting office on the condition that the nearby Hollow Empire stop acting as a music hall, which it did.

The first bill was headed by opera and concert singers Fanny Moody and Charles Manners and other early performers included George Formby, W. C. Fields and Marie Lloyd, who topped Britain’s first all-women’s variety show in 1914.

Magicians also performed at the venue, which became known for its “firsts”. It hosted the first public performance of the magic trick “sawing a person in half” which was performed by British magician P. T. Selbit in January 1921 and later was the venue for the UK’s first all-American variety show, in which singer Sophie Tucker made her UK debut in 1922.

Finsbury Park Empire, interior looking towards the circles. Picture: Nick Charlesworth, from Variety at Night is Good for You, ISBN 978 0 9526076 6 3 Finsbury Park Empire, interior looking towards the circles. Picture: Nick Charlesworth, from Variety at Night is Good for You, ISBN 978 0 9526076 6 3

When the Moss Empires took control of the London Palladium in 1947, the shows would start there and then move to St Thomas’s Road. That’s when Laurel and Hardy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Shirley Bassey and Tommy Cooper all performed there.

John Oliver (J. O.) Blake, a founder member of the British Music Hall Society, wrote in his book Variety at Night is Good for You about Syd Kaplan, the theatre’s music director.

“A good MD in the pit is essential in a successful variety theatre,” he wrote. “And in Syd Kaplan Finsbury Park had one of the best.

“He came in from Lewisham Hippodrome on that hall’s move to films in 1952, his arrival even being billed onthe box office cards that week. Kaplan had been the popular conductor for many years at the Holborn Empire before it was bombed.”

With the introduction of cinema the theatre began to decline in popularity, partly due to the rise of the Finsbury Park Astoria and later Rainbow Theatre around the corner.

The last show held there was in 1960 and starred Emile Ford and the Checkmates, The Lana Sisters – one of whom would go on to fame as Dusty Springfield – and Chas McDevitt and Shirley Douglas.

Manager Dave Wilmot moved on to the London Palladium and the curtain was only lifted once more: Cliff Richard film The Young Ones features scenes shot inside and outside the Empire in 1964. It was demolished a year later and is now Vaudeville Court, a council housing block.

On Tuesday, Adam Borzone, chairman of The British Music Hall Society, and Mark Fox, chairman of the Frank Matcham Society, unveiled a people’s plaque at the block.

Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, Islington Council’s community development chief, said: “The Finsbury Park Empire is part of Islington’s very strong tradition of arts and culture that continues to this day with major theatres and venues, and a thriving culture of creativity at all levels.

“The Empire was one of London’s best-known venues and still holds a place in people’s hearts, and we’re delighted to commemorate it with an Islington People’s Plaque, as chosen by popular vote.”

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