The state of the Empire

First published in Memories Watford Observer: Photograph of the Author by , Nostalgia Editor

‘The Roman Empire may have fallen, the British Empire may have crumbled but the Watford Empire is still going strong – and on November 6 the Merton Road cinema celebrates its 65th birthday.”

So began an article in the Watford Observer of November 3, 1978, and, had the “still going strong” bit been true today, the Empire would this week be celebrating its centenary.

It wasn’t the first cinema in Watford. By the time the Empire screened its first films, Watford already had several other picturehouses including The Electric Coliseum which, the week the Empire opened, screened “absolutely exclusive to this theatre at great expense” The Great Battle of Waterloo in five parts. But when the Empire finally closed, in 1996, it had survived much longer as a cinema than any other in the town – nearly 83 years.

Two years before this birthday article, the independent cinema had been bought by EMI which fitted new central heating and a new ceiling. And as it celebrated its 65th birthday in 1978, business was booming.

The Empire Picture Hall, as it was originally known, was officially opened on November 6, 1913, by Mr W F Goodrich Esq JP, the then chairman of Watford Urban District Council.

The proceeds from that opening performance were donated to the Watford District Hospital and a report in the Watford Observer of the time noted the first class technical facilities at the new Empire: “As soon as the first film, a travel picture in colour, was shown, a remarkable steadiness and stereoscopic detail of the scenes were noticeable, an aluminium surface screen helping to produce this effect.”

The first films screened at the Empire included “the wonderful drama” The Living Corpse and “a stirring drama” called Protea. Comedy and travel pictures completed the programme. There were continuous performances from 6pm to 10.30pm and from 3pm to 10pm on Wednesday and Saturday.

The Empire could hold around 900, including a balcony on the first floor. A seat in the body of the hall cost 3d or 6d, whereas a seat in the balcony was more expensive – 9d or 1s. Saturdays featured special children’s matinee films with seats costing 2d, 3d, 4d and 6d.

Back in 1978 the cinema may have been thriving but it wasn’t that long before, as happened to so many, audiences dwindled and despite being split into two screens and renamed the ABC Cannon, it closed and is now a Muslim community centre, virtually unrecognisable from its cinema days.

Do you have fond memories of the old Empire cinema? Perhaps you used to work there? Please write and let us know.

Regular Watford Observer readers may remember our front page story from a couple of weeks ago when Clare Norton from Garston “was left perplexed” after spotting a bright UFO hovering over Watford at around 5.20am one morning.

Well, clearly strange goings-on in the skies above Watford are not a new phenomenon. Almost exactly 44 years earlier, on October 24, 1969, a letter appeared in the Watford Observer from Fred O Gardner, of Southsea Avenue, who was (and for all I know still is) the editor of the South Herts Unidentified Flying Objects Investigation Group Journal.

In it, he implores all those who have witnessed flying saucers “or any kind of aerial phenomena” to contact him and add to the “already enormous” number of reports from people who have witnessed strange goings on.

Sadly, 44 years later, it seems we’re still no nearer a satisfactory explanation. Oh well; maybe in 44 years’ time we’ll have the answer.

ONLINE TOMORROW: Pop star Nick Heyward fails his driving test - again - in Rickmansworth.

The above story formed part of the Nostalgia column first published in the Watford Observer on November 8, 2013. The next Nostalgia column – with information about a school celebrating its 75th anniversary and the 1978 Elton John calendar – can be found in tomorrow’s Watford Observer (dated November 15, 2013) or read online here from 4pm next Thursday.

If you have anything to add – or would like to tell us anything you think our readers may enjoy about Watford’s history – we are always pleased to hear from you. Contact Nostalgia, by clicking here watfordnostalgia@london.newsquest.co.uk

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