Hooked on Movies

It’s been over a hundred years since movies first came to the towns and cities of Alberta. Early short black and white silent motion pictures carried subtitles or inter-titles, frames of script interspersed with the action. The 10 to 15 minute reels shown on hand-cranked projectors started up jerkily and ended with a flapping sound as they flew off the reel at the finale. While the managers of “legitimate” theatres, as the newspapers dubbed them, believed the movies would never compete with live shows, their comparatively low price soon made them popular.

Despite the reputation of movies as “low-brow” entertainment, specialized movie houses sprang up in urban areas. The movie business was a competitive one from the outset: by 1913 there were twelve theatres in Edmonton that showed movies. Soon dubbed nickelodeons, after the 5 cent admission price and the Greek word for theatre, they proved to be financially successful. Edmonton’s Bijou that opened downtown around 1908 in converted retail premises filled its tightly-packed rows of wooden seats. Offering a two reel show using a hand cranked projector, each screening featured an educational reel with a short comedy followed by a full reel length feature. The manager Bill Hamilton explained the action on the screen and a small orchestra or pianist played during intermissions as the projectionist rewound the reels. In 1910 the Bijou rushed in a reel of King Edward’s funeral from London and played it for six days, accompanied by Chopin’s Funeral March on the piano.

Palace Theatre, Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives, NA-446-132).

Palace Theatre, Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives NA-446-132).

Albertans were hooked on movie going from the start. The experience ranged from hard kitchen chairs in the plain Innisfail Opera house to plush seating in lavishly decorated theatres. In Calgary, the Canadian chain of Allen Theatres built Alberta’s first “real picture palace” in 1913. The Allen Theatre, later known as the Palace Theatre, had 840 luxurious seats, a large balcony and an organ for musical interludes. By 1915 movie goers in Edmonton could enjoy a similar experience in plush seats under lavishly decorated plaster friezes and painted tableaus in the marble-fronted Princess Theatre.

Competition from the movies pushed the Pantages, Edmonton’s highbrow vaudeville palace, into near bankruptcy in 1920. It was reborn in 1921 as the Metropolitan, advertised as “a high-class motion picture theatre,” with continuous performances from 11 am to 11 pm. Admission prices ranged from 10 cents for a children’s matinee to 45 cents for adult evening ticket in lounge or box seating.

Rural Albertans also developed a taste for the movies. Itinerant projectionists travelled between villages and towns to show movies in schools and community halls. By the 1920s busy towns boasted their own cinema, such as the Crowsnest’s Grand Theatre in Frank and the Orpheum in Blairmore. These cinemas played the same movies as in urban centres, but offered fewer screenings.

During the silent movie decade of the 1920s movie goers showed a preference for American movies. Despite the Allen chain’s promise of “Canadian Pictures for Canadian People,” American films dominated Canadian screens. Nevertheless, Calgary movie-goers relished the low budget, locally produced movie His Destiny. It stared Barbara Kent of Gadsby, Alberta, alongside Neal Hart, screen star of silent westerns, and was shown at the Palace in 1928, thanks to the introduction of a preferential quota for films made in the British Empire, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Elsewhere in Alberta His Destiny was not a hit. From the outset movie-goers decided what they wanted to see and theatres provided it.

The Empress Theatre on Main Street, Fort Macleod, 1924 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5462).

The Empress Theatre on Main Street, Fort Macleod, 1924
(Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5462).

And then came the excitement of the “talkies,” the first motion pictures with sound. First introduced in New York in 1926 by Warner Brothers, they took urban audiences in Alberta by storm two years later. The world was never the same as movies came into their own. The expectations and experiences of movie goers were transformed, much as we have been by the internet. Theatres invested in expensive sound equipment, which needed constant attention and adjustment for optimum results. In Edmonton the Princess theatre showed the first talkie; crowds lined up in August 1929 to see The Canary Murder Case. By November 1929 when Edmonton’s Dreamland installed sound, the Journal provided detailed explanation of how it worked, noting the city’s theatres were “100 per cent Talkie Now.”  By 1930 no one in Alberta wanted silent movies and theatres ceased showing any live performance along with motion pictures in the same program. The golden age of movies had begun.

Through the 1930s movie-going offered Albertans, many of whom were out of work, something to do for a few cents, and it was a way to forget harsh economic reality and miserable weather. The movie houses lowered their prices and used a number of tactics to encourage patrons to part with their limited funds. Raffles, gimmicks and prizes lured movie goers. Posters and advertising for films carried melodramatic flare, whether they offered romances, comedies, tragedies, westerns or mysteries. Elaborate front-of-house themed installations on sidewalks stopped passers-by and at night flickering tracer lights beckoned.

The Garneau Theatre, Edmonton, 1943 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6885).

The Garneau Theatre, Edmonton, 1943 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6885).

By the 1940s the wartime economy fueled the love of cinema to greater heights. Surviving older multipurpose theatres such as the Empress Theatre in Fort McLeod experienced a new lease on life as a movie theatre. Bashaw’s Majestic Theatre, built in 1915, which had operated as a silent picture house through the 1920s but subsequently fell on hard times, reopened in 1945 as the Dixy. At the same time cinemas began to move out of the downtown core. In Edmonton two rival theatres appeared on the south side in 1940, the Varscona and the Garneau Threatre, both designed specially as cinemas in the modernist Art Deco style that was emerging in the city and across the province. At the Garneau fashionably uniformed ushers escorted patrons to their seats, which included a new twist—“two’s company” love seats for young couples.

Movie theatres continued to evolve in architectural style (or lack thereof ) and taste in films changed, too, over the next decades. Technology has brought us ever more exciting experiences. But the buzz is still the same—on a Saturday night it’s clear that Albertans are still hooked on movies.

Written by: Judy Larmour.

2 comments

  1. Excellent article. I remember going to see movies in the Sexsmith hall which had movie seats – probably the 1960s. Not a proper movie theatre though.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bruce. I’ve been to Sexsmith a few times but am not familiar with the Sexsmith hall–is it still around? Why don’t you consider it a proper movie theatre if it had movie theatre seating?

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