Vesta Tilley laid the foundation stone of what is now the Sunderland Empire on 29 September 1906 and took to the stage on 1 July 1907 to officially declare the theatre open.
The theatre was a partnership between Edward Moss, Oswald Stoll and local man Richard Thornton. It has a 90ft round tower crowned with a dome and a revolving sphere, which bore the statue of “Terpsichore” the Greek Goddess of dance.
Some of the top names in entertainment have appeared at the Sunderland Empire including Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, George Formby and the Beatles. Theatre attendance was low in the 1950’s due to the advent of television and cinemascope, so it closed in May 1959. Sunderland Corporation took the unprecedented step of buying the theatre for £50000 and it became the first “number one” theatre under civic control in the UK, and has operated as a theatre ever since under various management.
In January 2010, the Ambassador Theatre Group LTD (ATG) took over the management of the building which is owned by Sunderland City Council. ATG is one of the world's leading live entertainment companies, co-founded by Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire and with Greg Dyke as executive chairman. ATG’s ownership cements Sunderland Empire’s status as a superpower in theatre and ensures that the venue continues to thrive, attracting leading producers to Sunderland.