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Ulster log: Bare facts about young days up in Empire gods

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 09/04/2016

The Empire
The Empire

Here's a confession: when I was young and innocent, I used to take a pew in the gods of the lamented old Empire Theatre with my friend Robert on a Saturday night to gaze at the naked girls down there on the stage. They had to stand motionless like statues, but they weren't even allowed to wear earrings.

It cost us one old shilling and sixpence to sin our souls with a weekly ration of bare female bodies. If those young beauties had broken the rules and been seen to move by watchers from City Hall, the Empire could have been closed down.

I'm reminded of those naughty but nice shows at the Empire by a stage musical just opened in London, which tells the story of the Windmill Theatre, once of Piccadilly Circus, which was the first theatre in the UK to present nudity on stage.

It did so year after year - 'We Never Clothe' was their motto - until 1964. The Empire, a close second with its bare belly-buttons, put on revues in which the girl starlets were presented as mermaids. In their heyday, they were more popular than some of the pop singers and comics who were on the bill, too.

It all came to an end in 1961, when the Empire closed down for good. Those young ladies, who stood naked on their pedestals every Saturday night as the audience applauded, are grannies now.

After the final curtain on those naughty Saturday nights, it was across the road to the nearest chippie for a fish supper. Back home, mum, who knew nothing of our weekend exploits in the gods, would always ask how the Christian Endeavour rally downtown went. "Just tickety-boo," I would always reply.

Never mind the nudes, comic Ken Dodd launched his career in the Empire, which once dominated Victoria Square, and was finally demolished to make way for shops and offices.

Tears were shed on the night in 1961 when the final curtain came down, with Bridie Gallagher and Frank Carson among the celebs there to say farewell as the place went dark for good.

I like to think that a few of the girls who once played mermaids on their statues were in the audience one last time.

Belfast Telegraph

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