I haven’t really been to Sunderland very much. My Mum worked there for about a year in the late 1960s, in a shop on Fawcett Street, the main retail street of the town. (It was still a town then, it became a City in the early 90’s). Living in Newcastle, Sunderland was a 2nd rate place by comparison but one saving grace was the vast Empire Theatre. I had one theatre trip as a Teenager to see Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1974 and I wasn’t to know it, but my friend Mervyn was working there as the Board operator at the time.
The auditorium of the Empire is unusual- it doesn’t have conventional boxes either side of the stage, instead, it has tiered seating that resembles staircases sweeping down to the stage, although they don’t actually go anywhere. Bizarrely, there are substantial cupola topped boxes above at upper Circle level which have zero view of the stage and way too high for those who would have gone there in order to be seen.
Back to Mervyn, who worked seasonally at the Empire for much of the 1970s and researched much history of the building. He persuaded the then theatre Manager to let him take several artifacts that were otherwise going to be thrown away and he always wished that the Theatre Museum would accept them after he died.
Alas, the Theatre Museum (in the form of the V & A) were not particularly interested but the Theatre were delighted as they have gradually been recovering some of the treasures lost over the decades. So yesterday, we returned four items from Mervyn’s collection, namely a plant stand, an occasional table, a gallery ticket box and a mirror, along with some memorabilia in the form of Box office Cards and early programmes.
Here is the car loaded for the journey. The plant stand is on the passenger seat in this photo and we rearranged it several times to ensure the mirror was protected.
The mirror is very special- there were two very large and two small mirrors in the auditorium at Circle level and if you look closely at the lower photo on the front cover of this 1913 Programme, you can see the large one on the left below the swags and you can just see one of the small ones on the wall to the left of the curved box-like arcade frontages. (Obviously there is no way of telling which side of the Auditorium Mervyn’s mirror was hung).
When I visited in the ’70s, the theatre was green and cream, it is now red and cream, as can be seen from my camera snapshot. (We stayed for the show!) Much of the fine detail has been painted out and from talking to our host any form of historic restoration sounds unlikely, although there was an extensive stage house expansion in 2004 so that the venue can take the biggest touring shows.
By the way, the term “Makem” is mildly derogatory by Geordies but the Wearsiders obviously take it in good spirit, judging by these sweets spotted in an excellent sweet shop spotted in Fawcett Street.