|Pantages Theatre, March 10, 1923. Photo courtesy of City of Edmonton Archives, EA-160-24|
Like a sonic boom, the age of cinema roared into Edmonton in the late 1920s with the coming of sound. Citizens flocked by the thousands to watch – and hear! – the “talkies.”
When the Great Depression came crashing down in October 1929, the city had no fewer than a dozen film houses, all doing a rollicking business. Several were former vaudeville houses, like the Strand Theatre, which opened in 1913 as the Pantages Vaudeville Theatre, and was billed as “the most northerly high class playhouse in North America.”
The building, on the southwest corner of Jasper Avenue and 103rd Street, was designed by 22-year-old Scottish born wonder architect Benjamin Marcus Priteca. He drew the plans for all of Pericles (Alexander) Pantages' 27 North American properties – from the first in San Francisco in 1911 to the last in Hollywood in 1930. Like many others in the chain, the Edmonton design was classically inspired, with Italian Renaissance details, and Italian and Greek marble throughout, trimmed with bronze and beveled glass.
Edmonton architect Edward Collis Hopkins designed a two-story classical business building in front of the theatre with foundations strong enough to support an additional 13 floors which were never built. During its opening years, the Pantages hosted the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and Stan Laurel before he became part of Laurel and Hardy.
In 1921, the Pantages became the Metropolitan and began showing silent films. Talkies came in 1928 and then, in 1929, when the economy collapsed, the theatre fell silent.
Two years later, city theatre magnate Alex Entwistle added the building to his theatre chain and reopened it as the Strand. Alberta Premier William Aberhart broadcast his Sunday sermons from its stage in the 1930s.
After the Second World War, business boomed, and the theatre was closed for three weeks in November and December 1953 for major renovations. New seats were installed, the orchestra pit was filled in, a new concrete floor replaced the original wooden one and box seats were removed to enable better viewing and provide more seating area. The building continued to show films until the late 1970s, and was demolished in 1979.
Built by Jules Allen, part of the family that operated Canada’s first chain of motion picture theatres, the Allen Theatre opened in 1918 as the first dedicated silent movie house in Edmonton. The two-storey red brick building, at 10065 Jasper Avenue, was designed by H.L. Gage of Toronto and measured 75 feet wide by 150 feet deep.
It featured an auditorium that curved towards the proscenium, offering a direct and unobstructed view from every one of the 1,000 seats. The theatre was purchased in 1923 by Famous Players Corporation and re-named the Capitol.
The coming of sound to film revolutionized the industry, and the Capitol was closed for three months in early 1929 for the installation of sound equipment at the-then enormous cost of $40,000. The roof was raised to make room for a 500-seat cement balcony.
Acclaimed Montréal theatre decorator Emmanuel Briffa completed a refurbishment of the interior of the theatre, transforming it into an elegant example of the Adam Style, or Early Neoclassical. Rich draperies and large mirrors were hung, and Old Rose silk panels were installed over acoustic plastered walls, and crowned by moldings of genuine gold leaf.
Deep carpet was installed down the theatre aisles to muffle footsteps as patrons made their way to soft plush seats. The pipe organ used to accompany the silent flicks was removed and sold to a local church.
At 1 pm on Wednesday, March 27, 1929, the film reels began to roll and the theatre screened its first ever sound picture, Mother Knows Best. The technology used record players that had to be synchronized with the film.
Business was good, and in 1938, when the country was still trying to climb out of the depression, Famous Players launched an ambitious freshening. The theatre was closed and an enormous 75-foot high marquee was installed. With 2,700 lights, it was touted as the largest in the British Empire.
The 60-watt bulbs generated so much heat that, in the winter, the sidewalk below was usually kept clear of snow and ice. Its Moderne styled vertical CAPITOL made it an instant landmark on the city's main street. Edmontonians headed to the Capitol to escape their economic depression and war era woes and lose themselves in screwball comedies, romantic thrillers, gangster escapes, and chorus line musicals.
From 1952 until the Jubilee Auditorium opened in 1957, the Capitol was home to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. By the 1970s, the theatre's fortunes were fading, and the lights on the marquee dimmed too, gradually replaced with 10-watt bulbs to save money.
The coming of television, the explosion of suburban multiplex theatres and the arrival of yet another real estate boom sounded the death knell for the Capitol. Famous Players decided to build the 22-storey Capitol Square office complex and the theatre was demolished starting in late 1972, along with several adjacent buildings.
When the Varscona Theatre opened on July 6, 1940, it set a new standard for modernism in Edmonton. Designed by the fledgling architectural firm of John Rule, Gordon Wynn and Peter Rule, the theatre, on the southwest corner of Whyte Avenue and 109th Street, was distinguished by its use of white stucco and streamlined style.
The “moderne” style took its influence from industrial design, with rounded corners and horizontal accents. Among its achievements was a 114-week consecutive run of the Sound of Music starting March 31, 1965 – one of the longest in North America.
The 499-seat theatre was demolished in 1987 and replaced by a credit union operating in a building reminiscent of the inimitable style of the Varscona. The replacement was also demolished in September 2009.
Adjacent to the Selkirk Hotel at 10125 Jasper Avenue, the Empress Theatre occupied a prime chunk of downtown real estate. Built in 1912, the enormous 1,200-seat house had shown moving pictures virtually every day since the beginning – including a famous run of Edmonton soldiers returning from World War I.
It was a classy place where the staff wore light blue uniforms, the colour of the Famous Players' chain. The vertical marquee at the entrance, with its E-M-P-R-E-S-S lettering, was a downtown landmark for more than 40 years.
In the 1950s, the Empress was known as a B-house, where second run movies were shown for a lower price, and often as part of a double bill. Patrons paid 35 cents in the morning, 50 cents in the afternoon and 75 cents in the evening for double features.
Edmontonians knew a bargain when they saw it, and the place was usually packed.
When fire swept through the Selkirk Hotel in December 1961, the Empress suffered extensive smoke damage. Demolition of the Selkirk and the Empress began later that winter and, by summer of 1962, the site was wiped clean.
It was the first of many downtown theatres to fall in the next 25 years. The Dreamland at 97th and Jasper was demolished in 1979, and the 1,200-seat Rialto, at 10134 101st Street, went down in 1987. So played the final reels, as downtown’s glorious days of flickering film faded to black.