The Site of the Original Building
On this site in North Street, there originally stood a small collection of cottages, a wheelwrights and coachbuilders. The Batchelor family ran this business from 1794 until they sold out in 1870 to the Linington brothers from the Isle of Wight. They ran their only branch of the famous Portsmouth coach building business here, until the site was sold by Richard Ellis.
In 1913 Southern Entertainments purchased the land and dwellings in North Street, from Richard Ellis, retired licensed vitualler, for £600. It was situated on the west side of North Street, on what is now the corner of Elm Lane and the entrance to the Meridian Centre car park.
The Empire Opens
The cinema opened on 14th July 1913:-
"……..without any advertisement or preliminary flourish of trumpets the Havant Empire opened on Monday evening. Good houses assembled at both performances. The pictures were steady and clear. The building much improves the appearance of North Street and has the very latest improvements in construction and fittings." (Southsea Observer and Hampshire Post 1913)
The cinema's architects were Messrs Bucknell and Bullock. Local builders, Alec and Fred Hobbs of West Street Havant constructed the building. They also built the Pavilion in Havant Park.
In the early days acts were put on between the short silent films, and on the 21st April 1913 Lillie Keith, the Daintee Comedienne, entertained the patrons with The Delmores, Eddie and Gertie, singing "The Principle Boy and the Chorus Girl".
The projectionist during the First World War was Mr Smart, who also had a tinsmith's business at the rear of the Dolphin Hotel in West Street. The charge for front row seats at the time was 3d, and the projector was driven by an electric dynamo powered by a gas engine housed in a small building at the rear of the cinema.
A story is told that a free seat was given to a man from the gas power station as repayment for keeping up the gas pressure. Lowering of the gas pressure would slow down the gas-powered engine. This engine drove the dynamo, and any reduction in power reduced the electricity it produced, and this in turn slowed down the projector, much to the amusement of the audience!
The 1920's - Local Initiatives
When a breakdown occurred, power was maintained from a shop across the road run by Mr Scorer, photographer, local councillor, businessman and inventor who had his own generator. He ran a cable across the road to the cinema's projector to keep the show going. The managers of the cinema up to 1920 were Mr and Mrs Souch of Elm Lane, Havant. The next manager was John Cheadle Walker and his wife of Beechworth Road, Havant.
One film shown at this time was "Trader Horn", Mr Walker had spent sometime in Africa big game hunting, so as an added attraction, he dressed the cinema foyer and stairs with mounted animal heads, shields, spears and skins.
The first commissionaires were Joe Simmons (until 1919) and Harry Rook (until 1929), the chief projectionist from 1921 to 1936 was Mr F Dorman, who later worked at the new cinema in East Street until 1969.
In 1921 the cinema was a single storey building with no ceiling, only a roof with exposed girders. Above the cash desk at the front of the building was the projection room, its only window was large and semi-circular glazed with small panes of dark red glass. The front seats were narrow wooden plain-backed benches the rest brown upholstered tip-up seats. The screen was at the back of the building with a small stage area and dressing rooms behind the screen.
A typical advert from the Evening News 27th June 1927:-
"At the EMPIRE KINEMA Havant for the first part of next week, Tom Mix, the popular star is announced to appear in his latest and greatest film, "Yes, we have no temper". The story is that of an inheritance depending on the ability to control a temper during 30 days. Stage acts continued to support the films, such as the "Lady in Red" who rendered her version of "La Paloma" to her own accompaniment on the ukulele. Admiration of these stage acts went as far as one of the commissionaires naming his daughter "Lola" after Lola Trent, one of the entertainers who appeared at the Empire. At this time the usherettes wore black dresses with white aprons.
Success and the 1930's
During the late 1920's the building was refurbished by Hunts the builders, they extended the building by 12 feet and added a balcony, which increased the seating capacity to 450. Prices of seats were from 6d (2.5p) front downstairs, to 1s 6d (7.5p) in the back balcony.
From 1929 to 1936 "Pop" Walls took over as Commissionaire and Miss Botting was cashier from 1930 to 1936. Musical support was given at first by pianist Miss Farrell, and later by a small orchestra including Ray Till, violinist, Florence Halford, pianist and Marjorie Wolf, cellist. When special effects were called for, such as the showing of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", they called on the expertise of drummer Jack Yalden.
In June 1930 Western Sound came to the cinema, the best system at the time, and was introduced with the showing of "Broadway Melody". The pianist was retained to put on the records while the advertisement slides were showing. Early films had the sound on records, which meant sound and film had to be matched! Rehearsals were held in the mornings and the manager would invite railwaymen to see the film. Railway men who worked on late shifts were unable to see the normal shows, so this was one way of advertising the films.
The main problem with matching film and sound on record, was that the groves on the records were very narrow and shallow, so the vibration of large vehicles going passed the cinema often cause the needle to jump, putting the sound out of "sinc". The problem of getting the needle back in the correct place to match the film while it was still running, caused the audience much hilarity!
The Empire continued with increasing use until 1936. Many times with people sitting in the aisles! The last film shown here was "Evergreen" starring Jessie Matthews to a packed audience.
It was decided to build a new cinema in East Street. The NEW Empire opened in August 1936 at a cost of £20,000. Designed by Mr R.A. Thomas, F.R.I.B.A.
From Bombs to Bricks to Books
As a result of the heavy bombing of Portsmouth during the Second World War, stores of ammunition required by the military were moved out of Portsmouth Dockyard to various sites in the area, e.g., the old Portsdown and Horndean Light Railway building in Cowplain! Here in Havant, the old cinema building in North Street was used to store torpedoes. Some local people can recall "fire watching" in this building at this time, their main job was to put out "incendiary bombs" before a major fire took over.
Later the old cinema was purchased and gutted. The building was the home for many years of Reeves the builders. The owners constructed a complete first floor with a flight stairs, windows were put in on the north and west sides on the building. In 1970 the building was purchased by Hampshire County Council and opened in June as Havant Area Library. It was very busy and successful library. With the redevelopment of the area, it finally had to move out and this building was demolished in 1989. A whole slice of Havant's past has now disappeared and only exists in pictures and text.