The Empress is Singing & Dancing Once Again

It was once hailed as the Palace of Dancing and, thanks to substantial investment from a South Yorkshire businessman, Mexborough’s iconic Empress Building has finally got its groove back. 

Originally opened in 1928, The Empress was the cornerstone of Mexborough’s social scene for years, attracting many famed entertainers, musicians, dancers, beauty queens and boxers. The post-war years were its most illustrious, the renowned ballroom being the place to be seen for courting couples and teens who would and pick a partner on the dance floor that they’d ultimately spend their future with. Nights at the Empress were a welcome escape from the monotony of daily life, the ballroom walls reverberating with youthful joy that was in full swing. It is this atmosphere that Empress owner Jason Mace and manager Jemma Brannan are hoping to revive for the 21st century audience. Entrepreneur Jason, CEO of Gala Tent is based in the Dearne Valley, bought the building at auction in 2017.

The once glorious Empress was in a sorry state after the beautiful interior had begun to deteriorate. After the peak of popularity in the 1950s and ’60, ballroom dancing gave way to soul and Motown nights but by the Millennium entertainment nights at the Empress had ended.

Over the last five years, Jason has financed the renovation of the building to bring it back to its palatial splendour. In the 250-metre-square ballroom to the first floor, the sensational original 1920s sprung dance floor has been saved, along with the seven-metre stage and elaborate arched ceiling. The acclaimed Wimpey Café which was once run by Florrie Mountford is now the Goa Spice Indian restaurant, while the ground floor that was once used for dance lessons is now Grafters Ironworks Gym.  

The days when floor walkers would patrol the dance floor watching out for rock and rollers might be long gone, but the vision for the Empress is to bring it back to its heyday. Jemma is following in the footsteps of the Empress’ well-loved manager, Tony Tarver, who was responsible for booking all entertainment at one time, bringing the likes of Mike Sagar, Sammy King and the Voltaires, and Shane Fenton aka Alvin Stardust to The Empress. Jason tracked down Tony, now 92 and living in Swinton, to hear more about the glory days.  

Tony had been a professional dancer who trained at Saddler’s Wells ballet school in London after receiving a scholarship aged 15 from director Ninette de Valois. After the war, he performed at the re-opening of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in front of the royal family and even starred as Player Queen in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948.

However, Tony was deemed too short to progress as a premier dancer – Ninette even sent him to her surgeon husband for growth injections – so it was advised he train to be a dance teacher.

On qualifying, Tony moved back to Sheffield taking up a job at Constance Grant Dance School. In the early 1950s, Constance Grant bought the Empress from the original builder, John Woofinden. She opened a dance school there and also launched dance nights for the public in November 1955. As well as teaching tap to the dance school’s pupils, Tony was employed as the assistant manager to Mr Cobb and was also the ballroom’s MC.

When he became manager after Mr Cobb retired, Tony famously turned down The Beatles in 1962 because they put their appearance fees up by £5 to £25 after releasing their debut single Love Me Do. The fee would have been about £600 in today’s money, with Tony having long regretted his decision to bring the Fab Four to Mexborough. But as they say – let it be! Sixty years on, The Beatles are set to finally play the Empress this November – well, with a little help from their friends The Beatles Revolution.  

Also, on the bill for the end of year is a Michael Buble tribute and a family pantomime. By popular demand, the Empress are also reviving their Northern Soul heritage of the ‘70s and ‘80s with quarterly events planned. The immaculate sprung dance floor is the perfect base for shuffling and gliding, but past events have been a sell out so don’t miss out on booking tickets if soul and Motown is your thing. Profits from all events will be donated to Dearne Valley Personal Development Centre, a charity which provides alternative education to children and young people disengaged from mainstream school 

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