The Hackney Empire has been saved thanks to a £1.3 million donation from former Tottenham Hotspurs chairman and computer industry tycoon, Sir Alan Sugar, it was announced yesterday. The cherished east London venue, located in one of the city's poorest boroughs, faced an uncertain future if it did not succeed in securing adequate funding by this spring.

Built a century ago, the Hackney Empire is best known as a comedy venue, where numerous, now highly successful comedians - including Alan Davies, Jo Brand and Jenny Eclair - launched their early careers. For many years, it operated as a bingo hall before being reopened as a theatre in 1986. It has played host to many notable characters during its history, including Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, Liberace and King Edward VII's mistress Lillie Langtry. In 1995, the theatre was famously the scene for Ralph Fiennes' acclaimed Hamlet which later transferred to New York.

Sugar's donation concludes an arduous three-year fundraising campaign headed by actor and comedian Griff Rhys-Jones. The Empire has also secured pledges for £3 million of government urban regeneration money as well as £5 million Arts Council funding. The money will be used to refurbish the theatre, restoring the Frank Matcham-designed auditorium and adding modern technical facilities and a full-sized orchestra pit. Work is scheduled to begin this spring, with completion slated for August 2002.

Self-made millionaire Sugar grew up in the Hackney borough. Commenting on the donation, he said: "I am delighted to be able to put something back into the community where I grew up and look forward to enjoying some great nights out at the Hackney Empire."

- by Terri Paddock