Restoration of the Empire Theater

The Empire theater became the AMC Empire 25. As part of the development of an entertainment complex, Forest City Ratner moved the theater 168 feet west toward the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

THE EMPIRE THEATER was built in 1912 by producer Al Woods, who originally named it the Eltinge after his biggest star Julian Eltinge—the top female impersonator in America (who never played at the theater). Designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb, the Empire is one of 42nd Street’s most architecturally distinguished theaters with a broad 80-foot, terra cotta facade, illuminated by a triumphal arch window. Although some of the most important interior elements have been lost—murals by the painter Reginald Marsh—a large part of the decorative work remains. Notable elements of the theater’s Beaux Art interior are the proscenium arch with its heavy rope-like medallions, the balcony fasciae and its elegant domed ceiling.

The theater opened on September 11, 1912, with Within the Law. The show ran for a house-record 541 performances and was followed by a string of bedroom farces and comedies. After a brief attempt at serious drama—East of Suez by Somerset Maugham, Ghost Train with Claudette Colbert and Crime with Sylvia Sidney—the management began to present The Eltinge Follies, a burlesque show which played for over a decade. In 1935, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s comedy act debuted as part of The Eltinge Follies. After Mayor LaGuardia’s crackdown on burlesque houses in the 1940s, the theater was renamed Laff Movie and began showing Hollywood features. In 1954, new owners changed its name to the Empire, and the theater presented second-run films for the next three decades.

In 1992, the exterior of the Empire was used for the filming of Columbia Picture’s Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The facade was redone with faux terra cotta swags, adding another visible layer to the theater’s history. On March 1, 1998, Forest City Ratner lifted the historic Empire theater, placed it on a specially made track and moved the structure 168 feet west down 42nd Street to its current home. The theater re-opened on April 17, 2000 as the entrance to the AMC Empire 25 cineplex.

The New 42nd Street signed a 99-year master lease, during May 1992, with the City and State of New York for six theaters known as the Apollo, Liberty, Lyric, Selwyn, Times Square and Victory. (The Empire theater came under The New 42nd Street’s master lease once it was fully restored in April 2000.) A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in July 1995 between The New 42nd Street and Forest City Ratner for the Liberty, Harris and Empire theaters. Construction began in August 1997 on a five-story entertainment complex which includes a 25-screen cineplex operated by AMC, the renowned Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and a variety of entertainment-related retail uses.

View a photo tour of the theater from UntappedCities.com.