THEATRE lovers in York will know all about the Grand Opera House. It is the grand Victorian theatre in Clifford Street where you can catch big productions such as Saturday Night Fever or Abigail's Party, or see huge stars such as Dame Joan Collins or Michael Parkinson doing intimate 'an evening with' shows.

It hasn't always been known as the Grand Opera House, of course. And in fact, it hasn't always been a theatre at all.

It was originally created, at the turn of the last century, by knocking together two earlier buildings on Clifford Street: one a warehouse, the other a corn exchange designed by GA Dean in 1868.

A London architect, JP Briggs, was commissioned to convert these two buildings into a theatre. The conversion cost the princely sum of £24,000. And the new theatre opened, as the Grand Theatre and Opera House, on January 20, 1902, with a pantomime (Little Red Riding Hood) starring Florrie Forde.

In 1903, the theatre was renamed the Opera House and Empire Theatre. This was apparently a move designed to attract a mass audience, as smoking was not permitted in high-class theatres but was in music hall-style venues.

In keeping with its attempt to appeal to ordinary people, the theatre became one of the first venues in York to show the new 'animated pictures' - what we now call films. In fact, between 1903-1916, films became a permanent feature.

By 1916, the theatre was known simply as the Empire Theatre. And it continued under this name until 1956 when, according to, it was forced to close because of the 'crippling Entertainment Tax'. This was a tax on cinema seats which, by the 1940s, was so high that the tax on tickets often made up more than half of the price of the ticket.

Fortunately, the theatre wasn't closed for long. In 1958, it was bought by a colourful entrepreneur, Ernest Shepherd. He renamed it the SS Empire (the SS bit standing for Shepherd of Shambles). He took out the stage, and the rake to the floor in the stalls, so as to convert it into a level floor for roller skating, bingo and wrestling.

It remained in operation as the SS Empire for almost 30 years, before closing again in 1985. Our photos on these pages today date from the SS Empire days.

In 1987, the building was bought again, renovated back to its 1909 style, and in 1989 it re-opened as the Grand Opera House, with a performance of Macbeth.

Faced with mounting debts, it closed after only a couple of years, but then re-opened yet again in 1993, still as the Grand Opera House - the name it keeps to this day...

Stephen Lewis