By Ade Blackburn
Liverpool has a fascinating and rich heritage of theatres and cinemas. These architectural gems stand as a testament to the city’s passion for entertainment and the arts throughout the decades. Here’s a selection of some of the most-loved and celebrated venues in the city.
1. The Futurist
Opened on 16th September 1912, as Lime Street Picture House, the venue was a very upmarket city centre cinema, with a tiled Edwardian façade and circle auditorium, richly decorated with plasterwork in the French Renaissance style.
In 1920, the building was renamed The Futurist, a name the building still held until its demolition in August 2016. The ABC owned Futurist was very popular, despite competition from the huge Paramount and Forum cinemas nearby, which sometimes forced The Futurist into taking off-circuit films.
Eventually, as ABC tripled their main cinema (the ex-Forum directly across the street), The Futurist was closed in July 1982, during a run of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.
2. Royal Court Theatre
Built in the 18th Century, the circus owner, John Cooke, bought the site for his circus shows, plays, operas and concerts, and it became known as Cooke’s Royal Amphitheatre of Arts. In 1881, the building was redesigned by Henry Sumner as a regular theatre and re-opened as the Royal Court Theatre.
The interior of the building displays a nautical theme, in line with Liverpool’s seafaring traditions. The basement lounge even has its design based on the Queen Mary Liner.
Although the Blitz of World War Two destroyed many of the surrounding buildings, The Royal Court remained intact. Throughout the war, many well-known artists performed in the Royal Court, including Ivor Novello, Margot Fonteyn, John Gielgud and Richard Burton. In 1990, the building was finally listed as Grade II.
3. Rialto Cinema
The Rialto Cinema in Toxteth was a famous landmark throughout the 1950s and early 60s. The Liverpool architects of the building were Gray and Evans of North John Street. They were tasked with designing a complex that would accommodate a cinema, ballroom, billiard hall, a large cafe and twelve good sized shops, all under one roof!
The ballroom was decorated with large painted murals on the walls, providing grand Venetian views for their customers. The Liverpool Echo even described the interior of the Rialto as staggering.
The Rialto closed in February 1964, with a screening of Doris Day in The Thrill of it All and the venue was later converted into a bingo hall. The historic building was burned down in the L8 uprising of 1981 but has since been rebuilt and now houses offices, flats and shops.
4. Playhouse Theatre
This much-loved Liverpool venue originated in 1866 as a music hall, and in 1911 developed into a repertory theatre. The grand interior was decorated in an impressive Greek Revival style.
The Playhouse is the oldest repertory theatre in the UK and nurtured the early careers of many actors, some of whom went on to achieve national and international fame. Future stars who learned their craft at the Playhouse include Noel Coward, Richard Burton, Patricia Routledge and Anthony Hopkins.
The theatre also helped foster the early-careers of many Merseyside writers, including Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. One of the Playhouse’s great successes was a staging of Russell’s Blood Brothers in 1983.
5. The Gaumont Palace
The Gaumont Palace cinema was based in Anfield, a large art deco building, just one hundred metres from the football ground. Central marble steps led customers to five pairs of glazed oak doors, which were complete with stainless steel fittings. The cinema even had gold stage curtains and a movable floor to accommodate an orchestra.
The Gaumont’s heyday was the 1940s but the building has since played an important role within the local community. In the nineties, the venue reopened as the Liverpool Lighthouse, operating an Urban Gospel Arts Centre in the heart of Anfield.
Liverpool Lighthouse still thrives today, with a wide range of activities for the community. They received a Health and Wellbeing award from Liverpool City Region Culture and Creativity in 2023.
6. Olympia Theatre (Renamed Eventim Olympia)
The Olympia Theatre was designed by architect Frank Matcham in 1905. The auditorium boasted three balconies and its ornate interior was decorated with elephants and Indian panelling.
The theatre had a vast stage and was also designed to house circus events – the elephant, horse and lions’ accommodation still survives below the stage. Performing animals would appear in the auditorium by being lifted from the basement where they lived. Evidence of the lift mechanism and living areas can still be found under the theatre.
Since reopening as a music venue, the Eventim Olympia, has played host to some legendary gigs, including Mogwai, The Specials and Ocean Colour Scene.
7. The Epstein Theatre
Liverpool’s legendary Crane Brothers’ music shop had been trading for several years, when they opened a music hall above their store on Hanover Street. Many amateur drama groups staged productions there, and led to its renaming as the Crane Theatre in 1938.
The venue is a stunning Grade II listed building and retains many of its impressive original features. The interior has a proscenium arch-type stage and superb acoustics for music shows. The theatre was renamed The Neptune by Liverpool Corporation in 1967, the new name being a reference to the city’s maritime history.
Since it’s 2011 reopening as The Epstein Theatre, the venue has firmly re-established it’s place as a popular destination for drama, panto and comedy.
8. Everyman Theatre
Originally known as Hope Hall, the building was conceived as a dissenter’s chapel, opening in 1837, but was soon re-imagined as a concert hall, and later as a cinema, known as Hope Hall Cinema.
The cinema’s situation on Hope Street, and its friendly and bohemian environment, meant that it gradually took on another role in the 1960s, becoming an unofficial meeting place for artists, musicians, poets and actors. The people became known in the area as ‘The Liverpool Scene’.
This group of artists eventually took on the task of converting the building into a theatre with a new apron stage, new seating, and new dressing rooms for its artistes. The Everyman Theatre opened in 1964 and soon became the spawning ground for a great many well known names of today.