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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 13

All that Glitters: A Memorial to Ottawa's Capitol Theatre and its Predecessors

by Hilary Russell


On 1 May 1970, six months away from its fiftieth anniversary, the Ottawa Capitol theatre went dark after a benefit performance of Mary Pickford's "Pollyanna." In contrast to the civic mourning that surrounded its demise, it opened with great fanfare as Loew's Theatre in November, 1920. Its name and ownership were changed several times becoming B.F. Keith's Theatre in 1924, R.K.O. Keith's in 1929, the R.K.O. Capitol in 1931, and, in the mid-thirties, simply the Capitol.

The Capitol was an outstanding Canadian movie palace which had been designed by Thomas W. Lamb of New York, one of the most successful and influential movie palace architects. The Capitol had the largest seating capacity of any theatre built for motion pictures in Ottawa, and was the only one in the city to deserve the appellation of "movie palace." Like many palaces, it became a centre of the city's social and cultural life. As well as housing vaudeville and motion pictures, it was often rented for performances by touring companies and for other special events because for many years it was the only big theatre in Ottawa with a stage. In 1969, after the National Arts Centre was opened, however, the Capitol's large capacity became an instrument of its destruction.

The building of gigantic movie palaces was predicated on frequent changes of programme and capacity audiences. When they were built their drawing power far exceeded that of other movie theatres, as they offered stage shows, orchestral and theatre organ entertainment and the most recent motion pictures in exciting, expensive and up-to-date surroundings at competitive prices. Now the stage shows, orchestras and theatre organs are gone, and many theatre patrons live in the suburbs. If there is nothing on television, they can see new movies in small suburban theatres or in small cinemas in downtown shopping complexes which offer parking facilities. The movie palaces no longer attract enough regular patronage to warrant the cost of maintaining them and paying the spiralling taxes on their expensive sites.

With the exception of newspaper and motion picture trade journal articles and promotional material, not much was written about them in their heyday, although at the time movie palaces probably enjoyed more patronage than any other single type of public building. Their demolition has stimulated various books and articles, the formation of the Theatre Historical Society, their inclusion in the United States federal government's Historic American Buildings Survey, and this study of the Capitol theatre and its predecessors.

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