The New Empire theatre had what might initially appear to be an Art Deco-style frontage. However, it was in fact built in a vaguely Neo-Classical style in 1896 by Frederick Marlow. He owned a public hall previously on site which became the original Empire Theatre in 1892, but this burnt down in 1895 hence its rebuilding into something better. It was allegedly ‘the prettiest theatre outside of London’ according to local press. Obviously predating film, it played a variety of musicals, concerts, plays, and classic music hall – what people would rock out to before records existed. With the advent of cinema around 1919, the theatre decided to enlarge to make way for an enlarged viewing hall. The cinema was called the Rivoli which thrived from 1921 to 1962, and had sound equipment added in 1929 for talking pictures. It was taken over by the ABC chain in 1962, with an underground Marine Bar added in the old Empire’s passageways. A second smaller cinema was twinned to the Rivoli mezzanine level in 1982. However, by 1998, the cinema’s situation looked dire as multiplex cinemas took ever, such as the new highstreet Odeon. Southend’s many traditional cinemas closed around this time including the New Empire, showing its last film in February. It remained for a while as one of the last survivors of Southend’s theatre heyday.
It suffered a severe arson attack in 2015 which caused roof collapse and destruction of the first floor auditorium. The theatre survived until March 2017 when it was sadly demolished, but not until after we had recorded it as best we could. We visited the theatre in 2012 with the intention of finding a way inside. we were mostly unsuccessful but managed to capture some photographs of the exterior as well as making our way down into the passages below street level to the rear into what we believe was an air ventilation shaft. Perhaps this was close to the underground Marine Bar. We also visited again c. 2015/6 and in 2017 to capture it pre- and mid-demolition.