In Search of Historic Colours: The Empress Theatre Marquee

The historic downtown of Fort Macleod, one of two Provincial Historic Areas in the province, is well known for its impressive commercial buildings of brick and sandstone masonry. Collectively, these Classical Revival buildings exemplify an Edwardian commercial streetscape just prior to the First World War.

One of the main street’s crown jewels is the Empress Theatre, an elegant brick building with decorative sandstone details built in 1912. Historically a hub of the town’s social life, the theatre hosted plays, vaudeville acts and performers from Alberta, across North America and even overseas, as graffiti preserved in the original basement dressing rooms attests to this day. The original façade was theatrical in its own right and featured a grand arched entrance and recessed box office. As tastes changed and motion pictures grew in popularity, the original entry was enclosed to provide a lobby and concession, the auditorium was renovated with plush upholstered seats in the Art Deco style and neon tulips mounted on the ceiling, and a bold new neon sign and marquee replaced the original blade sign on the front facade. These 1930s and 1950s renovations added layers of architectural history and significance to the building and contributed to its designation as a Provincial Historic Resource in 1982.

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The Empress Theatre in April 2016 (top). Bottom from left: View west along 24 Street in 1953, Glenbow Archives photograph NA-5600-6653 (cropped slightly from original); detail of 1953 streetscape showing the Empress marquee in essentially its present form; historic colours exposed on a blade sign letter; a plywood mock-up to evaluate proposed blade sign colours.

The Town of Fort Macleod owns the theatre and has embarked on an extensive rehabilitation project that includes rehabilitation of the historic neon marquee. The marquee was refurbished in the late 1980s by Fort Macleod’s Main Street Project but a generation of exposure to the elements has taken its toll on the galvanized sheet metal, paint, and fragile neon tubing. Removal of the signs for other façade repairs was an ideal opportunity to re-examine and document the marquee’s colour history. Read more