In the Official Matchday Programme, Tom Watt examines the many links between Arsenal and the borough that's been our home since 1913.
We’ve all got our own ways of getting to the Home of Football. If yours brings you out of Finsbury Park station and down St Thomas Rd, you’ll know the council block on your left that announces itself as Vaudeville Court, so named because it sits on the site of the old Finsbury Park Empire.
Music Hall was what people did for fun in N5 before the Arsenal arrived; actually, it was what people everywhere did for fun before the movies arrived.
One of London’s most famous theatres at the turn of the 20th century was Collins Music Hall down at Islington Green, which had already been packing them in for nearly 50 years by the time the Empire opened in 1910. When Henry Norris built Highbury, he sent for the top man: Scottish stadium architect Archibald Leitch.
So, when Moss Empires Ltd decided that Finsbury Park needed a Hall of its own, they got in his showbiz equivalent: Britain’s greatest-ever theatre-builder, Frank Matcham.
The Empire held 2000 people and, right through until it closed in 1960, there’d be Arsenal players in the audience, taking advantage of the offer of free tickets for matinee shows. The Empire also advertised in the Arsenal programme from the early 20s onwards. Over the course of 50 years, all the great names of variety played Finsbury Park, from Houdini through to Max Miller and Arthur Askey. During the 50s, the Beverley Sisters were regularly top of the bill and later brought their very English glamour to Highbury while Joy’s husband, Billy Wright, was Arsenal manager.
The Empire’s greatest claim to fame, though, was as the first theatre where the Saw-The-Woman-In-Half trick was performed, in January 1921. Hampstead-born magician Percy Selbit was the man responsible for what the papers described as ‘bloodthirsty, hair-raising spectacle’. Selbit made sure the word got round, parking an ambulance outside the front door in Rock Street and getting stagehands to carry buckets of fake blood out through the theatre between performances.
Arsenal’s closest personal connection with the Empire, though, was rather tamer. Harold Walden isn’t one of the club’s most famous names but perhaps deserves a bit more by way of his billing. An amateur centre forward, he scored one of the goals that saw Great Britain beat Denmark 4-2 in Stockholm to retain their Olympic title in 1912. There was more to Walden than football, however, and more people saw him on stage at the Empire than during his very brief Highbury career.
Walden’s career in the Halls began in 1919 when he was talent-spotted at the Bradford Alhambra. A year later, he made his debut on the silver screen, playing a centre forward in a silent movie called The Winning Goal. Walden signed on at Arsenal shortly after that and scored in one of his two league appearances but, by the end of the season, had returned to his pre-War club, Bradford City, where he saw out his playing career.
That wasn’t the end of Harold and Islington, though. Once his playing days had finished, Walden went back to the evening job. Originally a singer, he turned up on the bill at the Empire as a ‘Yorkshire Comedian’ and was apparently only too happy to be out of the game.
Asked to compare football and his new career, Harold replied: "With football it's 45 minutes each half, rain or snow, with a 10-minute interval and a raspberry from the crowd if you don't score.
"On the Halls it's 10 minutes each show,'twice nightly', and a two-hour interval in between. And there's a benefit at the end of each week, whether you score or not."Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source