TRIBUTES have been paid to a man described as being “the heart and soul of Blackburn Empire Theatre”.

Michael Berry, the theatre chairman, died on Sunday aged 80.

He was the driving force behind the theatre, raising over £1 million in a 25 year association with the venue on Aqueduct Road which saw it develop from a shell of a building into East Lancashire’s busiest community theatre.

The board and dedicated team of staff, said in this joint statement: “Michael worked day in, day out for the theatre on a voluntary basis, and his loss is a great shock for us all. The theatre has lost a champion, campaigner and chairman, but most of all a dear friend.”

Comedian Jimmy Cricket, a patron of the Empire Theatre said: “Michael was a quite remarkable man, he was a force of nature. For so many people he was the Empire Theatre, he was the rock at the heart of it.”

Michael took on the challenge of bringing the former Red Brick Theatre back to life after a successful career in business.

He built up his company Top Team Manufacturing from working alongside his wife Linda in his garage to a firm which employed 50 people and supplied many of the country’s biggest DIY outlets with a wide range of accessories.

Born in Feniscowles, Michael attended the Priory School at Pleasington and Darwen Technical School. In his younger days he was a keen footballer playing for several teams in the local leagues around Blackburn. He was also a good squash player.

Michael was a loving family man and he leaves his wife Linda, daughters Justine and Joanna and six grandchildren.

Linda said: “Michael never doubted for one minute that he would make the dream of opening what is now the Empire Theatre a reality. There were many people who doubted it would be possible but he was determined to make it happen.”

Michael’s 80th birthday last year was marked with a surprise party at the theatre.

“His enthusiasm for the Empire and his love for the people who work and volunteer with us, always shone through,” said the theatre.

“Although, he had a very successful business career before he retired, he was always a performer at heart. Never was he happier to see a large crowd in the audience for our Monday Afternoon Variety Shows, as he compèred the shows with his effervescent vigour, cheeky humour and singing skills. “

Yesterday’s variety show went ahead as planned in tribute to Michael.

Gary Worthy, chairman of Blackburn Musical Theatre Company, one of the many groups who call the Empire home said: “Michael was a very, very dear friend to BMTC – both as a society and to many of our members on a personal level. He has been a true hero on theatre in our town and will be very sadly missed by so many people. His legacy will live on in the beloved red bricks of the Empire Theatre.”