The Garneau, circa 1940, is the last remaining example of early modernism style in the province. Photo by James Tennant
It’s been nearly 66 years since the Garneau Theatre opened and launched a grand life that resonates with style, elegance and tenacity. All these years later, the 109th Street landmark endures as Edmonton’s best remaining example of early modernism, the movement that gave the world Moderne or art deco architecture.
The Garneau is the only surviving theatre of its early modernism style and period anywhere in the province. But barely ten years ago, it very nearly met the fate of so many other grand film houses from the first half of the 20th century.
The Garneau Theatre, like the district it calls home, was named for Laurent Garneau (1840-1921), a Metis trader and politician, who homesteaded in Strathcona in 1874. Garneau’s house at 11103 Saskatchewan Drive stood on the site of the Humanities Building at the University of Alberta.
Information from the city’s planning and development department indicates that in 1913 the land around the theatre was subdivided by Arthur E. Glover, and six years later the site was purchased by Imperial Oil Limited. The oil company built a service station in 1929, which was demolished to make way for the Garneau Theatre.
When Suburban Theatres announced the proposed construction of the Garneau for the site at 87th Avenue and 109th Street in early 1940, its former president I. F. Shacker moved quickly to build the Varscona Theatre five blocks south at Whyte Avenue. Shacker opened his theatre in July 1940 – three months before the larger and more expensive Garneau.
The Garneau’s grand neon marquee flickered to life for the first time in the fall of 1940 and the theatre officially opened the evening of October 24, with legendary film manager Bill Wilson at the helm. The first presentation was the “Great White Waltz,” starring Louise Rainer and Fernand Gravet and admission was five cents.
Citizens were suitably impressed and the Edmonton Bulletin called the 780-seat film house, “spacious, attractively designed and modern in every detail. Doors and pillars in the foyer are of gumwood, and add much to the decoration, as does the wall of bricks facing south and bringing rich sunlight into the foyer. After hanging your coat in the complimentary coat check, a young usher or usherette dressed in a scarlet Eton jacket, blue trousers and black pill box hat will escort you to your seat.”
The Garneau was designed by William George Blakey, a prolific local architect who also designed Christ Church (1921), the Edmonton Journal building (1920-1921; demolished in 1988), the Masonic Temple (1930) and Roxy Theatre (1938). Information from the city’s planning and development department reveals Blakey was born in England in 1885 and received his architectural training and experience in Sunderland, County Durham. He emigrated to Canada in 1907, made his way to Edmonton and was employed by A. M. Jeffers, the Provincial Architect, for one year.
Blakey then went to work for architect Roland W. Lines until 1915, when he and Lines both left to serve in World War I. Lines was killed in duty shortly thereafter but Blakey returned safely in 1919 and commenced his own practice. Six years later he went into partnership with his older brother, Richard Palin Blakey.
William Blakey’s design for the Garneau answered the demands of function, budget and elegance. To save money, Blakey designed the balcony or terrace behind, rather than over, the main auditorium. This arrangement was popular among American film and vaudeville theatres from the 1920s to 1940s.
A report from the Edmonton Planning and Development Department notes that Blakey used colour to dazzling effect, with sea-green and ultramarine strips on the walls of the auditorium and ceiling tones of gold through fawn and dark brown. The proscenium was highlighted in gold and the seats – except “Two’s Company” love seats – were covered in blue leather and mohair backs.
Those “Two’s Company” seats were coloured red and were positioned in alternating rows in the middle section along the aisles. The seats allowed couples to sit together but they also caused some embarrassment when strangers were forced to share them. It was the first time the seats had been installed in an Alberta theatre and they lasted until 1960, when the original seats were replaced and larger red seats installed, which reduced the capacity to 630.
The lobby had a carpet that featured an assertive curvilinear pattern, the doors and columns were gumwood, and the ceiling had attractive semi-circular light fixtures. Glass blocks originally illuminated the alcove; they have been hidden behind a curtain, and can only be seen from the exterior.
In the basement, there was a manager’s suite and the boiler, which functions to this day. A tunnel runs under the auditorium floor to the stage and an enormous fan sucks air through the place, using the building’s natural ability to vent hor air and suck in cool air during the night – even on the warmest summer days.
The construction of the theatre included commercial space on either side of the theatre entrance. The space at the corner of 87 Avenue was designed to be a restaurant and is still used as one, while the stores north of the theatre entrance have housed a series of retail and service businesses. The first restaurant was Joan’s Coffee Bar, followed by the Garneau Theatre Coffee Shop and, more recently, Pharos Pizza and Spaghetti House.
The new movie house also featured some of the most intricate custom-designed light fixtures and upholstery in Edmonton. The original furniture in the lobby was supplied by Eaton’s to the Hotel Macdonald in June 1939 for the reception for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on their Royal Visit. The ensemble comprised two throne chairs, two blue settees, six gold chairs and two side chairs. The furniture later ended up in a home of one of Suburban Holdings’ shareholders.
In 1942 architects Rule, Wynn and Rule designed a penthouse for the building, which houses a fan room and a lounge area. The story goes that manager Wilson used the penthouse as his private retreat.
The theatre was originally an independent house, but in September 1941 it joined the Famous Players chain, ensuring access to good first-run movies. Wilson retired as manager in 1971, 31 years after the doors opened.
For a time in the late 1980s, the theatre was closed and up for sale. But then Magic Lantern Theatres and Independent Theatre Supply rode to the rescue. With their able stewardship, the Garneau has been saved and returned to its former glory.
In December 1996, false ceilings in the lobby with their “moon rock” plaster were ripped out and the space returned to its original glory. Vintage lighting was installed in the lobby and auditorium, including some precious pieces from the old Varscona, the Royal Theatre in Innisfail, the Grand Theatre in Melfort, Saskatchewan and the Wilma Theatre in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Blakey passed away in 1975 at the ripe old age of 90. His grandest theatre design endures, made all the more precious by the sad demolition of the Varscona in 1987 and extensive changes to the Roxy, Edmonton’s other Moderne-style theatre.