Unlocking The Past | The Empire Theatre, a Cessnock colossus

MASSIVE: The New Empire Cinema Theatre was huge, and had a capacity of 1291 patrons.
MASSIVE: The New Empire Cinema Theatre was huge, and had a capacity of 1291 patrons.

For movie lovers one of the hardest things about the current social restrictions has been the closing of cinemas. Watching films at home just doesn't cut it.

The mystique of the big screen, where you suspend disbelief and disappear into another world for a magical couple of hours, is incomparable.

The Hunter Valley was once home to many cinemas and at 26 Vincent sat one of the largest, the mighty New Empire Cinema Theatre. Its site was enormous stretching from Vincent Street all the way through to Cumberland Street, a colossus of a building.

The stalls sat 991 people and the dress circle 300, a whopping total of 1291 patrons could fill the venue.

It was also an unusual site. Because it was built on the steep slope of a hill, after entering the theatre from Vincent Street patrons were faced with a long uphill climb to their seats.

A lovely description of its interior from the Newcastle Sun enthused: 'The sides of the ceiling are of Wunderlich metal, beautifully tinted and dotted with electric lights.... An item that will be appreciated, particularly by children, is the installation of a water fountain.'

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This enormous new picture palace, an impressive addition to Cessnock's cultural life, opened in December 1923. It showed movies four nights per week and also operated as a theatre, with its spacious stage and impressive piano attracting travelling theatre companies. The Empire's first owners were John, Harry and Don Smythe.

Culturally it was the roaring twenties; times were socially optimistic and economically prosperous. The horrors of WWI and the influenza pandemic were over and the unforeseen terror of the Great Depression was still years away.

In 1939 The Empire was beautifully renovated in Art Deco style. Business continued to boom and by 1950 it was screening films seven nights a week.

Amazingly the Empire survived the initial onslaught of television; up until 1969 it was still showing movies six nights a week and had two Saturday matinees. Sadly its fortunes changed dramatically soon after and with dwindling attendances it limped on for the next couple of years, finally closing in 1972.

The Newcastle Morning Herald reported: 'An era ended on Saturday when the last picture theatre on the coalfields, Cessnock's Empire, closed. Patronage had fallen away. The theatre had become uneconomical and had to be shut. It was the last of five theatres run in the area by Greater Union...'

The following year the Empire was sold. It remained closed, disused and deteriorating until 1981 when it was finally demolished.