East End Memories


The Hackney Empire


It has been many years since I went to the Hackney and sat in a fort-tell or Box J. Upon reflection, I am sure that my memories have been clouded and distorted with the passage of time and have become perhaps more than a little glorified. However, despite the distortions and glorifications caused by the passage of time, the Hackney will always hold a very special place in my memory and in my heart. As far as I am concerned, the importance of the Musical Hall circuit and the Hackney in particular, is that it exposed and introduced me to a range of entertainments – to variety in fact, in its true definition. As a child, I watched many types of acts – some good, some bad, some memorable and many forgettable. However, each left or added to an impression on me by exposing me to a variety of types of music and entertainment forms.

It was at the Hackney that I first saw ballet. I am sure that it was not a particularly good example of it, but none the less by seeing that troupe of young girls in short white skirts on points and men in tights make their way across the stage, I became interested and full of questions about what on earth they were doing, which my parents tried their best to answer. Trips to the library and then to the Stoll Theatre further exposed me to this type of dance and allowed me to see The Festival Ballet and a performance of Where the rainbow ends and an opportunity to see Anton Dolin leap through an open window and into a young woman’s bedroom in spectacular fashion.

On a more lighthearted note, it was at the Hackney that I first heard that part of Offenbach’s Orphee aux enfers and totally fell in love with a gang of swirling, twirling, leaping, cavorting danseuses as they swept across the stage in the midst of yelps and squeals in apparent chaos. I was told that I became very animated during the dance and needed restraining since I wanted to jump up to fling myself into the leaping with the women in their amazing dance. Some years later I learned that this dance used to be performed around the audience, as they stood on the dance floor of the Moulin Rouge in wonderment. If I have any regrets in my life, it is not having been alive then as I would have enjoyed being one of les anglais au bal du Moulin Rouge that had his top hat kicked from his head by a lovely black silk stocking covered leg belonging to some audacious danseuse.

It was also at the Hackney that I heard my first aria sung in Italian. Again I expect that it was not of the level that would be acceptable at Covent Garden, but it was sung in another language, and this allowed me to learn that not everyone in the world spoke English. As a result of my exposure to different forms of entertainment – to variety – I happily credit the Hackney and acknowledge these initial exposures with giving me the opportunity to develop an eclectic taste.

My first realization that times were changing came in the summer of 1955 when I noticed the large play card on Bethnal Green Road where the Hackney used to advertise its latest production carrying a particular ominous proclamation. In place of next week’s production, appeared the news that the Hackney would be CLOSED FOR VACATION. What was a VACATION? I had never heard this word before. I remember looking the word up in a dictionary and was horrified to find out the meaning. I did not understand. Why did the Hackney need a holiday? Did all the employees want to take their holidays at the same time? This, of course, was the thin end of the wedge. Worse was yet to come.

In 1956, we moved from the East End of London to one of those new towns that were engulfing old towns about London and so our frequent trips to the Hackney came to an end. Although our new town was only eighteen miles from London, in those days, this was no short distance. I am still surprised to think that the journey from where I lived to London now takes only about twenty minutes if the motorway is taken. Once we moved, we would visit London and make trips to the East End occasionally and would sometimes pass by the Hackney. The place would still be standing, which was no mean achievement then as many of the old Empires were either closed or about to close. I watched with regret as the Finsbury Park Empire was demolished - then The Metropolitan in the Edgware Road – next The Collins, which claimed to be London’s oldest Music Hall – and then Wood Green, East Ham ……….. on and on it went. Old long and forgotten devastated Empires and derelict theatres, victims of the Second World War were also, at last, being demolished to make way for more office buildings: the Gaiety in the Strand, the Holborn Empire, and two nameless dilapidated theatres in the Hackney Road and in Stratford that I only ever knew as burned out shells. It was a miserable time for the Music Hall.

The mid-1950’s was a time for television. Here Variety was being presented at no cost to the viewer. The need to attend a theatre was no longer required to be entertained. Soon cinemas would be closing too and would be turned either into Bingo Halls or Leisure Centres or else would be demolished to make way for new buildings. Worse yet, many spectacular theatres and cinemas each of architectural wonder were left to rot away with time. A few can still be found rotting away today in South London as well as in other parts of the country.

The Hackney did not suffer this fate. What had helped bring about the demise of Music Hall actually saved the Hackney from demolition. The new commercial television company, the Independent Television Authority, ITV, used it for a while to produce some of its programmes. ITV’s answer to the BBC’s 6-5 Special, was called Oh Boy and was produced at the Hackney as were some episodes of the early medical serial, Emergency Ward Ten. As television developed and evolved, it outgrew the Hackney. Again it was saved from demolition and became a Mecca Bingo Hall. Although it was saved, the interior apparently became painted in orange and black and the wonderful décor was temporarily lost. In addition, the balcony was gutted and left to rot. But even its usage here did not last and it was once again threatened with the wrecking ball.

Have you noticed that the trouble with clichés is that often they are true? One such cliché states that every cloud has a silver lining. Well, as hacknied as this old saying is, when it comes to the Hackney, it has turned out to be true. As a result of the hard work and great effort of a number of unsung heroes, the threat of demolition mustered a number of valiant men and women to rally to the call and the Hackney was saved. And like a phoenix, has risen once more from the ashes. You may feel that these are dramatic and perhaps slightly exaggerated words. Well, perhaps they are, but this is how I feel each time I hear that the Hackney is still in business. The Hackney brought me many happy memories during my childhood and helped determine and develop some of my interests. I cannot over emphasize the pleasure that each trip there brought my family and me.

A few years back, I went to see a production of Hamlet on Broadway. It was a production from Britain and starred Ralph Fiennes in the title role. I was very proud to attend this production and made sure that everyone about me knew that this production had been imported after playing at the great Hackney Empire. I also made certain that everyone within earshot learned something of the history of this wonderful theatre.

Hackney Empire now

It gives me great pleasure to know that the Hackney has been renovated, thanks to contributions from the public and from the generosity of the National Lottery and has regained its position as a living theatre and so can continue to be a vital part of the life of Hackney. I wish all those involved in its maintenance and all those who are working hard to bring further success to the theatre the very best of luck in all future endeavours. I hope that the theatre will continue to live and thrive and make many vital contributions to theatre.

Marie Lloyd, considered by many to be the greatest Music Hall entertainer of all, came from Hoxton.  In the early 1970s, a plaque of remembrance was placed on the house where she lived.
  This picture was provided by Mr. Duncan Rimmer.
Incidentally, Marie Lloyd was a relative of my mother.

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Copyright© 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins