Historic Toowoomba – the Ups and Downs of Showbiz

The Empire Theatre, Toowoomba

We love the arts. Music, dance, musical theatre, film, literature…we love them all and enjoy expanding our horizons and experience of the arts whenever we can. Toowoomba has the largest performing arts centre in regional Australia, the Empire Theatre, and it has a fascinating history. We have attended many performances at the Empire Theatre and I have written about it on number of occasions. Here is a brief history of the Empire Theatre from A Night Out at the Theatre that I wrote back in July 2018…

One of our favourite historic buildings is the Empire Theatre. It was opened on the 29th June 1911 and had the latest technology of that time to show the most exiting advent in entertainment – big screen movies! Sadly, much of the original theatre was destroyed by fire on 22 Feb 1933. Despite this devastating setback, the theatre was rebuilt and the two walls that were left standing after the fire were incorporated into the new design. Amazingly, the theatre was able to reopen at the end of the year on 27 Nov 1933.

The Empire Theatre continued to be at the centre of Toowoomba’s cultural life for many years. Unfortunately, the lure of the television set and other entertainment led to the theatre’s closure in 1971. For a while it was used as a warehouse and then as a TAFE college and then sadly, it just fell into disrepair. Fortunately, this was not the end of the story.

Eventually the need for a performing arts centre resurfaced and the Empire Theatre was restored and reopened its doors on 28 June 1997. Today, the theatre blends contemporary technology with the architectural grandeur of its past, still retaining some of the features from both 1911 and 1933. One of the most outstanding features is the grand proscenium arch, which is possibly one of the last of its kind left in the southern hemisphere. The arch is back lit with a rainbow of colours and provides a stunning frame for centre stage.

The Strand, Toowoomba


Just a short walk down the street from the Empire Theatre you will find The Strand, the longest operating purpose-built cinema in Queensland. It first opened in 1914 under the name Crystal Palace Picture Gardens and could entertain up to 1000 patrons with a variety of shows including movies, boxing troupes and concerts. Interestingly, the Crystal Palace was unroofed, so I don’t know what they did when it rained. The following year it was replaced with a new theatre and renamed The Strand. A grand opening was held in April 1916 accompanied by The Strand Symphony Orchestra – yes, it had its own orchestra to accompany the silent movies of that time.

By the early 1930s management had been taken over by Birch and Carroll, and the theatre was fitted out with sound projection equipment for the next new thing in entertainment – the talkies! In 1933 the interior was redesigned in Art Deco and there have been at least three more renovations since that time. In 1992 The Strand underwent a major redevelopment which saw the addition of four new theatres while the original cinema theatre was converted into a foyer. Unfortunately, little remains of the interior from the early days except for the metal pressed ceilings and a few other decorative features. The Strand is not the only cinema theatre in Toowoomba, but for movie goers used to big city theatres, its little boutique cinemas offer a very intimate experience that evokes the feeling of a bygone era.

The arts have been hit with a savage blow during Covid. Many tours and shows were postponed or cancelled, leaving performers and companies in financial stress. So it is especially important to support the arts industry as it struggles to get back on its feet. We have been quite fortunate here in Toowoomba to have been relatively protected from the worst of Covid, and notwithstanding the merry-go-round of border closures, we are more or less, living life in the new normal of social distancing. We count it as one of our greatest pleasures to be able to support Australian performers right here, where we live in regional Queensland, and being able to do that in heritage buildings like the Empire Theatre and The Strand makes it an especially memorable experience.

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