This is how the Burnley Empire Theatre was saved

Sophie Gibson, the chair of Burnley Empire Theatre, is leading a mission to restore the venue to its former glory. (s)
Sophie Gibson, the chair of Burnley Empire Theatre, is leading a mission to restore the venue to its former glory. (s)
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The next in a series of articles about the support for The Burnley Empire Theatre is with Sophie Gibson.

Sophie has worked extremely hard to bring attention to the theatre through meetings with like-minded people, the council, and theatre trust. She has worked tirelessly and is now The Burnley Empire Theatre Chair.

Madame Paula, known as the Queen of the Alligators, performed with dangerous reptiles at the Empire in 1895. (s)

Madame Paula, known as the Queen of the Alligators, performed with dangerous reptiles at the Empire in 1895. (s)

How did you get involved in the project?


I have always been intrigued by the building. I saw something online about a group of people getting together and I happened to be in the same place the same day they were having the first meeting.


It started off with a group of people gathering ideas, researching what to do and then we went on to form BETT (Burnley Empire Theatre Trust).


As soon as I was aware of what was behind those walls I was involved!


I felt guilty that the building had been abandoned for all those years and if there was something I could do to help I was willing to try.

What is the best and worst thing about being involved in this project?


It’s great when people appreciate what we’re doing, because we are just people of the town. We are everyday members of the community who followed an idea we believed in.


A really interesting aspect of this has been finding out about the incredible acts who performed at the Empire.


Shaun in the group is a magician and naturally has an interest is music hall performers so I’ve learned a lot from him.


In all honestly the positives and the potential far outweigh the negatives.


The downside is that it isn’t an overnight project, or even a year.


But part of the process is the journey to make it happen. We are learning, and it’s also about creating those unique opportunities along the road and restoring through new interesting ways.

What is the perfect case scenario? What is the best thing that could happen next?


Towards the last half of 2018 we found ourselves as campaigners in a limbo state.


We had hoped to form a building preservation trust since the Viability Study which didn’t happen but as you know we recently took the decision to take ownership of the building ourselves.


The situation was that the Empire was listed for auction for a second time but even after months of negotiation, letters and phone calls there wasn’t any hope of stopping it unless we took up the Duchy’s original offer.


We realised that the only way for us to continue to safeguard the future use of the Burnley Empire for the community and future generations was to take ownership.


Everything had to be in place which we managed to do just in the nick of time.


It’s also thanks to an anonymous donor who said we deserved a chance and with that said we became the new proud owners.


Support has grown ever since. It’s been overwhelming and reassures us we made the right decision.


It’s not an easy task but I’m not about to abandon what we started. Everyone within BETT have really pulled together to make this happen past and present.


I’m proud to say I know these people and it’s saving the Empire that’s brought us together as friends also.


Fingers crossed for onwards and upwards.

What work have you already done since purchasing the Empire?


Last weekend we decided to have a tidy around the old place and when I say around I mean on the outside!


There was a lot of rubbish between the fencing and building and hopefully people passing by will now see a difference and notice a positive change.


We had lots of nods from football fans and well wishes passing by voicing their support. It was great.


Earlier this month we had a visit from Theatres Trust, National Trust and Theatresearch who are all really looking forward to seeing progress. Their support has been key to moving forward.

Are there any regenerated theatres in the UK that The Burnley Empire should follow in the footsteps of?


There are lots of people out there pulling together to save irreplaceable buildings like the Empire and there’s many fantastic venues across the UK that are operating as modern venues, whilst retaining glorious architectural design that add to the atmosphere and wow factor of live entertainment.


Liverpool Olympia is an incredible building. I’ve been there a few times and although it’s much bigger than the Empire it’s a good example of how these special buildings can be brought back to life and operate.

Do you have a favourite act that performed at the Empire?


It’s really difficult to pick one, perhaps Madame Paula from Paris, known as the Queen of the Alligators. She performed at the Empire in 1895. She was on stage with several snakes and wrestled alligators. She was a tough act to research, but she would have been wll-known in her heyday. I found her illustrated in a Pippi Longstocking story as a snake charmer when Pippi goes to the circus. And just think, she was at the Burnley Empire. We’ve built up a fascinating archive of the acts that performed at the Empire; I could go on all day.

Once The Burnley Empire has been regenerated and reopened what will its major uses be?


It’s very early days to say but we have always championed a multipurpose entertainment venue along with other forms of community use. At the very being of our campaign there was a lot of misconception about wanting to restore the Burnley Empire back into a traditional theatre which was never the case. The building was built in the first place to offer the people of the town a variety of entertainment and we’d like to see modern day variety and all forms of different live entertainment at the Burnley Empire. The theatre has seen many different uses since 1894: music hall, moving pictures, pantomime, live bands and bingo.


This is a large capacity venue; it’s unique and can cater for big names like it once did before, many years ago, when Burnley was the capital of the entertainment world!