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2. Under Attack from Cinem...
History of The Mayflower
Chapter 2: Under Attack from Cinema and Hitler
Many other musicals and concerts followed but by 1933, it was clear that despite the best efforts of the general manager Ernest Lepard, the theatre was going to have to give in and welcome in the brash newcomer, cinema. A projection box was built at the very back of the Balcony, or third tier, and a screen installed that could be raised and lowered at the front of the stage. On 14 May, the first film was shown. Elsewhere in Southampton, The Grand Theatre and The Hippodrome continued to present pure theatre, whilst cinemas sprung up all around.
At the time, Southampton, still the country's number one passenger port, was recovering from the recession with a new dry dock opening in 1933 and the Eastern Docks built on reclaimed land and opening in 1934. The building's reincarnation as a cinema with occasional live entertainment such as The Crazy Gang or the Tiller Girls proved a success and full houses were soon applauding the latest Hollywood hits. However, another threat was looming.
When war was declared in September 1939, the Government initially ordered the closure of all theatres and cinemas, because of the fear of bombing. When the feared massive casualties did not materialize, places of entertainment reopened and became an essential part of morale boosting. Now the Empire was almost entirely a cinema and in 1942, The Gaumont British Picture Corporation took over from Moss Empires.
The theatre sustained damage in the blitz at the end of 1940 when two bombs left holes in the back wall. John Shawyer was on fire watch with the Territorial Army in 1942, when he was called the theatre to kick incendiary bombs off the roof, a task that also fell to Empire staff such as Arthur Smith.
During the latter years of the war and just after, Police Concerts often took place on Sundays. Memorably in 1945, Ted and Barbara Andrews introduced their ten year old daughter Julie Andrews to the stage. She stood on a box to join her father at the microphone and, reports Shirley Wilson who was herself ten at the time, sang 'most beautifully'.
Although the Second World War finished in 1945, large scale theatre shows did not resume until 1950, the year in which the name was changed to The Gaumont and in which Ernie Lepard died while still manager.
Ernie was a live theatre man through and through, so he may have been disappointed that he ended up managing a cinema rather than a theatre. On the other hand he could be proud that the Empire Theatre had become in a few short years an indispensable part of the Southampton scene, so much so that there was a public outcry at the change of name. He had been a popular figure - a knowledgeable manager, an entertaining host and a caring employer.