The story of The Empire Theatre is both inspired and inspiring.
The Birth Of An Empire
The building at 321 Front Street in downtown Belleville dates back to 1938 and started out as the McCarthy Theatre. It featured films and live performances. That lasted until the mid-1960s when it closed and sat vacant for more than a decade. The building’s life then took an unexpected turn and became a sports and hobby store. Miraculously, the owner at the time had the foresight to leave the majority of the interior intact with the hope that someday it would again host live shows and movies.
This is where the expertise of professional musician, recording artist and Royal Lepage ProAlliance broker/owner, Mark Rashotte, comes in. In 2002, Rashotte bought the McCarthy building with a vision for creating a state-of-the-art theatre for live performance and films. Twenty years later, after many renovations and upgrades that somehow kept the essence of the heritage architecture, it continues to be a distinct, privately-owned and sought-after venue for live performances.
The Empire Theatre is born from a unique perspective that can only be gleaned from years of hard-earned experience as a travelling musician. The theatre’s success is woven within that breadth of knowledge; nestled between artists that love the warm welcome of performing at the Empire, and a community that can witness world-class live performances in its own backyard. “Mark’s dream was to create this,” said Promotions Manager, Andy Forgie.
He and Rashotte have been bandmates in several bands over the years, but their 1970s success story, Photograph, found a place in the charts and toured from the Rock to the Rockies. Forgie notes that having a place like The Empire Theatre was often talked about on those lonely drives between gigs.
With that exceptional viewpoint, and after continued conversations with other musicians, Rashotte spearheaded one of the most well-loved spaces for artists to perform in the region. “Because Mark is a professional musician in his own right, he has a keen eye for what a performing arts theatre should incorporate for both the audience and the artist,” Forgie said.
As a result, it’s a comfortable place for bands to be. Behind the stage, there is a condo-type space with a nice shower, bathrooms, and sitting area – which Forgie said serves as a spot for artists to call home while they’re at the theatre. Couple that with recently upgraded state-of-the-art lighting, sound, as well as professional tech crews and it’s like a slice of heaven for road-weary entertainers.
Forgie said it’s that attention to detail, as well as expertly curated programming, that attracts renowned artists to perform at The Empire Theatre. The shows always prove memorable; whether it’s comedy or diverse styles of music from jazz to classical to rock, artists like The Tragically Hip, Alice Cooper, Randy Bachman, Slash, Gordon Lightfoot, Blue Rodeo, Meatloaf, Tom Cochrane, Sum 41, have flocked to the Empire. Since it opened its doors in 2003, The Empire Theatre team has been turning the vision into reality and elevating the arts community in the process.
Coming Soon At The Empire…
The Empire Theatre is known for presenting the finest in national and international recording artists, Grammy and Juno award winners, as well as Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. This season’s upcoming talent is no exception. Over the next few months, audiences can prepare for big laughs, big music and big holiday feels.
Forgie said the theatre has a nice complement of seasonal holiday shows coming up, as well as major recording artists.
The Empire Theatre welcomes:
Tyler Shaw – The North Star Tour on November 17;
Comedian Shaun Majumder – The Love Tour on November 24;
The timeless classics of Brass Transit Christmas Show on December 3;
The Barra MacNeils, An East Coast Christmas on December 4;
O Christmas Tea, A British Comedy on December 13;
Hotel California: An Eagles Tribute on January 14;
Green River Revival: A CCR Tribute on February 11;
Kim Mitchell on February 17;
Jann Arden on February 21; and
The Irish Rovers: No End in Sight 2023 Tour on March 15.
“We’re starting to wake up after two trying years; getting our feet back under us again,” Forgie said, noting what a challenge the pandemic has been for performing artists and venues like The Empire Theatre.
Timeless Movie House
The Empire Theatre’s roots were in cinema – and it’s coming full circle as movies are once again being showcased at the theatre. “It’s still a movie house,” Forgie said, adding Quinte Film Alternative brings international, thought-provoking movies to the big screen at the Empire. Quinte Film Alternative hand-picks films which share new perspectives by showing a variety of cultures, intriguing new international films, fan favourites and critically acclaimed movies. As such, films are presented at the Empire Theatre bi-weekly on Wednesdays.
Taking It Outside
Empire Rockfest returned this summer and saw the parking lot adjacent to the theatre transformed into a professional stage for a three-day, full-tilt outdoor rock festival. With the Glorious Sons, the Jake Clemons Band, TLC, the Headstones, the Tea Party, Crown Lands and more, getting back to presenting Rockfest was almost a homecoming for the theatre and the Quinte community. Forgie said the event had a pandemic-induced hiatus for several years but was back in July 2022 when crowds went wild for the 90s icons and some of Canada’s biggest bands. He said plans are already in the works for the 2023 offering with artists being unveiled in the coming months.
For more information or tickets to upcoming shows at The Empire Theatre, visit theempiretheatre.com, follow along on Instagram @theempiretheatre or call the box office at 613-969-0099.