The Edinburgh Festival Theatre opened in 1994, on Edinburgh’s longest continuous theatre
site. The Nicolson Street locale has been a theatre site since 1830 – in sixty years it was
unedin Hall, the Royal Amphitheatre, Alhambra Music Hall, the Queen’s Theatre and
Newsome’s Circus.
On 7 November 1892, Edward Moss, as managing director of the Edinburgh Empire Palace
Ltd, opened the doors of his magnificent Empire Palace Theatre. Thus began the famous
Moss Empires’ chain of theatres. It was built by the great British theatre architect, Frank
Matcham, with lavish decoration: elephants with Nubian riders, nymphs and cherubs
abounded the plasterwork. The original Empire Palace Theatre sat 3000 theatregoers on four
plush levels of green, cream and tobacco gold.
At the opening performance were the massed bands of the Argyll and Sutherland
Highlanders, the Carabiniers, a thirty strong orchestra, vocal soloists, comedians, mimics,
horses, performing dogs and acrobats! Hundreds of top artists played the Empire, Vesta
Tilley, Marie Lloyd, Anna Pavlova and Charlie Chaplin to name but a few. There was
practically nothing that could not be performed in the early days – in one performance there
was even a large model airship, controlled by wireless, which dropped paper pigeons on the

On 9 May 1911 there was a disastrous fire on stage during a performance by The Great
Lafayette. The theatre was full to its 3000 seat capacity for the performance by the popular
illusionist. Disaster struck during the finale of his act, the “Lion’s Bride”, which involved the
use of tapestries, cushions, tents and curtains to create an oriental setting. As The Great
Lafayette took his bow a stage lamp fell and ignited a stage-drape. The audience were a bit
slow to recognise the danger, being used to Lafayette’s illusions, and only evacuated the
auditorium after the safety curtain was rapidly lowered, and the band struck up the National

All 3000 members of the audience walked to safety. The fire on stage took three hours to get
under control however and eleven people died, including The Great Lafayette. To add to the
mystery days before Lafayette’s death he buried his much loved dog Beauty in Edinburgh.
This was only allowed on the condition that he was buried alongside. Unfortunately for
Lafayette, the body of his “double”, who was used in his stage show to aid with the illusions,
was buried in his place for a while before his body was found in the theatre and laid to rest
with his dog. It is rumoured that his ghost still haunts the auditorium and the Scottish Power

After the fire, the stage was rebuilt in three months, and the stars returned, but by 1927 the
Empire decided to brace itself for the threat of the talkies by equipping itself for bigger shows.
In less than a year, the brothers W and T R Milburn designed and reconstructed a new
Empire Theatre. It opened on 1 October 1928 with the musical Show Boat. The architects reused some of Matcham’s structure, just as he had always re-used elements of previous
theatres. From 1928 to 1963 the Empire was a variety, musical and opera house, often
including ice shows. Big names like Harry Lauder, Charles Laughton, Fats Waller, Joe Loss,
and Laurel and Hardy appeared. Jack Buchanan, Max Wall, the singing cowboy Roy Rogers
and his horse drew large audiences and Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise and Harry
Worth cut their comic teeth at the Empire. Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer danced here;
Gracie Fields, Judy Garland and Sophie Tucker sang.

From 1946 to 1963 the Empire was one of the main venues for the Edinburgh International
Festival, and was particularly associated with international ballet. At the first Festival in 1947,
the Empire saw Margot Fonteyn in The Sleeping Beauty. At other times the Old Vic, the Royal
Ballet and the Royal Opera visited.

From 1963 to 1991 the Empire was a bingo hall, and its wonderful acoustics resounded with
the calling of numbers. But, pressed into service as a temporary live theatre for Festivals, the
memory and potential of the Empire remained.

The third major incarnation of the Empire Palace Theatre opened in June 1994. An
impressive glass fronted structure was created by architect Colin Ross as the new entrance
to the renamed Edinburgh Festival Theatre. It provides a perfect foil to the auditorium, which
is a wonderful restoration of the Empire Theatre’s former 1928 glory, a dramatic mix of art
nouveau, beaux arts and neo-classicism, encompassing perfect acoustics within a parlourlike

For more information click here to visit the Festival Theatre website.