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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

The Capitol: Equipment and Decoration

In design, the Capitol basically conformed with all movie palace requirements: the provision of luxury, comfort and lavish entertainment for a large number of patrons. Thus, before renovations, there were 2,580 air-cushioned, upholstered seats in the orchestra, balcony and boxes.1 Further accommodations for the theatre's patrons included a large lobby in which queues could form, an impressive grand foyer, and spacious waiting areas and rest rooms in keeping with the rest of the decor. Numerous vomitories ("an opening, door, or passage in a theatre, playhouse or the like, affording ingress or egress to the spectators" — OED) contributed to the patrons' convenience and safety (Figs. 79-80). Aside from staff offices and storage areas, the rest of the theatre proper was devoted to producing a temperate climate in the building and to the entertainment presented.

79, 80 Architect's plans — layout of rooms and exits on the orchestra and mezzanine levels. (Famous Players Limited.)

In 1920, the basements at the front and rear of the building contained steam boilers, circulating pumps, intake fans and their motors, and other heating and ventilating equipment. In the roof were exhaust fans and motors. Under the floors, behind the walls and in the attic was a maze of ventilating ducts terminating in intake and extract grilles. A Citizen writer explained how the ventilating system worked in 1920.

With a gigantic blower system at the right and left floor lines to assure fresh air intake at all times, and a frequent distribution of exhaust fans at the ceiling line to suck out the used and impure air, Loew's should be unusually well ventilated. Warm air is fed to the auditorium by means of ducts under each seat and in the summer these will be used to feed cool air into the theatre.2

In the summer, the air was cooled by passing through a fine water curtain in front of the intake fans.3

Newspaper articles on newly constructed movie palaces frequently stressed the excellence of their ventilating and heating systems. This could not yet be taken for granted, as patrons could remember that old-fashioned movie theatres were usually stifling. Although a system such as the one described was a great improvement, it was far from perfect. Exhaust fumes from automobiles and street dust were also sucked in at ground level. Some of the impurities were screened out by the "air washer," but this device was expensive to operate and required frequent maintenance. Moreover the air that had passed through the water curtain cooled off the theatre's patrons basically by making them damp. Another drawback of the system was that, during the winter, the warm air pumped in at ground level quickly rose, leaving behind most of the dense, impure air at the audience's level, often creating drafts.4

The Monsoon system of theatre ventilation, which apparently became popular in about 1920-21, took care of some of these problems. Air was instead forced down into the theatre from ceiling level by mechanical means, and was exhausted at ground level. Thus, "a blanket of fresh air" was spread over the audience, heated air was not wasted, and the foul air in the auditorium was removed near its source and remained in the theatre for the least possible length of time.5

Most of the remaining complex machinery in the theatre was in the projection booth. This included two projectors (after 1929 equipped with sound heads, speakers, amplifiers and so on), a motor generator, an emergency power inductor, a film splicer and motor-driven film rewind, two spotlights and a Brenkert Brenograph effects machine (Figs. 81, 82).

81 From a 1924 Famous Players scrapbook — "One of the Modern Projection Rooms Installed in the Capitol Theatres." (Famous Player Limited.)

82 Brenkert Brenograph effects machines, an important part of movie palace magic: the Master Brenograph projected "everything but the motion pictures." (Motion Picture News)

The equipment in the projection room that distinguished the Capitol as a movie palace was the arc spotlights and the Brenograph. The spotlights were used for stage shows and organ solos, Their colours could be changed by placing vari-coloured gelatine slides on racks in front of their lenses, The Brenograph was

a super magic lantern that not only projected song slides for organ interludes, but an endless variety of scenic effects by means of multiple lenses and moving slides and intricate fades and dissolves.6

The lighting from the projection booth was supplemented by a quantity of stage lighting: additional spotlights, a row of footlights in reflectors with gelatine filters, and sets of "plain" and "concert" borders — lights along the top of the stage paralleling the footlights. These and the house lights in the auditorium were controlled from a slate-backed switchboard and a set of dimmers backstage, which regulated intensities and combinations of shades (Fig. 83).

83 The switchboard backstage at the Capitol. The ropes on the left were part of the theatre's rigging, used for hauling up and lowering drops, curtains and screen.

The rest of the lighting in the lobby, grand foyer, auditorium and on the fašade of a movie palace was not only functional but was decorative and entertaining. Light bulbs were either unobtrusive, hidden behind the proscenium arch, on top of cornices, in niches, and behind stained glass, highlighting the theatre's elaborate decorations, or they blazed forth in magnificent chandeliers and marquees and were an essential feature of movie palace razzle-dazzle. The industry's generosity was further conveyed by expensive-looking portable light fixtures in the grand foyer and waiting areas.

Besides spotlights and stage lighting, variety acts in presentation houses required elaborate stage settings.7 A movie palace's set of flats, drops, wings, legs and props could be used in various combinations with any number of acts, which might range from performing dogs to an excerpt from a grand opera. The theatre's settings could be supplemented or replaced by the scenery that accompanied the big travelling companies (Fig. 84).

84 A modest stage setting (and a hard-working organist) at the Palace Theatre, Calgary in the middle twenties. (Glenbow-Alberta Institute.)

Some of the palaces, as well as movie theatres without full stage facilities, made use of stage settings and lighting effects as scenic backgrounds for the "prologue" to the headline attraction — the movie. It was ushered in by an orchestral performance, often together with renditions by soloists and small ensembles on the stage or platform. (In less "classy" houses. the organ may have provided the only accompaniment.) Up until the mid-twenties, the scenes and music offered in the prologue in many theatres were intended to convey the atmosphere of the upcoming movie.8

Also popular in the days of the small screen were "permanent" sets which decorated the area between the screen and the proscenium arch. These settings were permanent in that they were fixed; they were replaced periodically in self-respecting theatres. In about 1910, Japanese and Italian garden settings bordered upon many "picture sheets."

Mock Grecian styles...were [also] in vogue...Arches, columns, peristyles and cornices were knocked up out of timber to provide the appropriate effect. Amid the potted plants and the occasional fountain, scenes were depicted on angled flats which were meant to emphasize the three-dimensional make-believe of the picture on the screen.9

Similarly, exhibitors were advised in a 1921 Moving Picture World article that they should embellish their stage space with "furniture, old vases, lamps and flowers" in order to create the illusion of a "habitable room."10

Even with no accompanying music or variety act, some stage settings could be immensely entertaining and could even upstage the house decorations. When the screen at the Montreal Imperial was raised from its "woodland" setting at intermission in 1915, a "genuine waterfall [was] bared to view, with volumes of water hurled over the brink and onto the rocks below."11 The stage setting in 1920 at the Saint John Imperial did not share this sylvan inspiration. A famous Venetian "vista view" by the "Scottish artist Knox" was "reproduced on a scale of 15 feet square with remarkable fidelity." "The back waters of St. Mark's Cathedral," the Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs were all depicted. These did not suffice. A contemporary description stated,

In the foreground is a magnificent Venetian villa with piazza and lawn embellished with flowers. Upon the rise of the curtain, amber lights develop the dawn into day by a clever use of dimmers....From full moon the lights are mixed with blue and deeper blue until the scene becomes a vault of indigo. Behind the cupola of St. Mark's the moon rises, a practical moon which casts shadows with wonderfully natural realism.12

Together with an 18- by 24-foot perforated picture screen with black plush masking and legs, most of the Capitol's stage scenery was hoisted into the fly gallery when not required by the appropriate sets of lines (Figs. 85-86). The theatre had 54 sets comprising ropes, sheaves, blocks, sand bags, pinrails and so on. They were arranged on the same side of the stage as the switchboard.

85 Part of the Capitol's 54 sets of lines.

86 Backstage — the old drop (hung upside down) was recycled, and its reverse side used as the screen. Plain borders are barely visible under suspended curtains. The hanging sandbags were part of the rigging.

The asbestos curtain was flown directly behind the proscenium arch on its own rigging. It covered the stage opening and was customarily hand-painted with a scene that complemented the decoration of the auditorium (Fig. 87)13 The audience was additionally protected from fire by a water curtain and automatic sprinklers.

87 The asbestos curtain and other splendid draperies in the Los Angeles Theatre, Los Angeles. (Terry Helgesen photo.)

There were numerous sets of functional and usually impressive curtains. The grand drapery of rose velour sporting gold fringes and tassels was festooned over the proscenium arch and concealed the gap between the arch and the top of the screen or scenery. The house curtains, the "working drapery," hung behind the asbestos curtain. These were rose damask with a teaser of floral design. Two "tormentors" curtained the sides of the stage from the audience's view. Farther behind were sets of "travellers" in velours of different colours, which were divided in the centre and opened and closed the standard way (Figs. 88-89).14

88 Stage curtains of various types in the Ottawa Capitol, including the grand drapery, house curtains, tomentors and travellers.

89 The stage curtain at Pantages Theatre, Toronto, about 1924. Designed by a "young Russian artist," John Wenger of New York, this curtain was meant to represent "Fairyland," and was suggested by Maeterlinck's "Blue Bird." It was supposedly a duplicate of the curtain in the New York Capitol. (Famous Players Limited.)

The Capitol's stage area of 44 feet by 35 feet was bigger than the average vaudeville stage. Movie palaces sometimes housed road shows and operatic performances, though usually not as efficiently as legitimate theatres with larger and more flexible stages.15 The Capitol's conversion to legitimate performances was complicated by inadequate dressing-room facilities. (Mme. Tremblay remembered that members of Sadler's Wells Ballet Company had to dress behind trunks for a Capitol performance.) Adjoining the stage area it had only nine small dressing rooms which were built for touring vaudeville companies. There was no special housing for the animals that often appeared with vaudeville acts.

Musical accompaniment of vaudeville and silent movies necessitated an orchestra pit and organ console. In the Capitol these were fixed and not mounted on elevator platforms as they were in many of the more extravagant palaces. Two organ lofts were accommodated behind the grilles of the sidewall arches. These chambers were a standard movie palace requirement; some of the biggest palaces boasted seven or eight of them in various areas of their ceilings.

The rest of the building (not the theatre proper) was devoted to other commercial enterprises. Only a fairly narrow lobby was required to lead the patrons past the box office. The extra space extending from the street to the grand foyer was rented, and a procession of shops flanked the marquee and entrance. It was the customary way of employing this valuable commercial space on movie palace lots.

A large ballroom, a feature not found in most other palaces, occupied the mezzanine floor fronting Bank Street. It was originally accessible from the theatre though when it later served as a badminton hall, an Elk's Club room, government offices and a pool hall, its door leading to the mezzanine was locked (Fig. 90).

90 Architect's plan of the ballroom opposite the grand staircase on the mezzanine floor. (Famous Players Limited.)

The decoration of the fašade did not approach that of the building's interior, and its Queen Street side received no decorative treatment beyond the store fronts. Though passers-by on Queen were perhaps unnecessarily neglected, the Capitol's glittering marquee, one of the most important features of the fašade, was designed to attract the attention of their counterparts on Bank Street from blocks away. A potent marquee could easily overcome the competition of large buildings and the signs of other commercial ventures.16

The highlights of the fašade's decoration above the sidewalk level were two Palladian windows within relieving arches, a virtual insignia of Robert Adam's exterior style (Figs. 91-92).17 This motif was echoed in the design of the wall mirrors in the lobby and again faintly recalled in the arrangement of columns in the sidewall arches of the auditorium.

91, 92 Two phases of a fašade. 91, Architect's plan. The ballroom was located behind the three Palladian windows. Notice that Lamb designed a marquee as well a display frames. 92, The earliest photo found of the completed theatre. There is a vertical marquee mostly hidden by the telephone pole. (Famous Players Limited.)

The Capitol had a wider fašade than did most of Lamb's Canadian theatres. The fašades of such theatres as the Imperial and Loew's in Toronto, and the Capitol and Loew's in Montreal had less scope for decorative treatment, as they were considerably narrower than the width of their respective auditoriums. These fašades were built in the middle of the block, and from them long lobbies extended perhaps a quarter of a city block to their grand foyers, and were placed at right angles to the auditoriums (Fig. 94)18 As the Capitol's floor plan was rectangular rather than ell-shaped, the theatre had a relatively short lobby and a large, impressive grand foyer.

93 Another Lamb fašade; Loew's Theatre in Montreal. (Famous Players Limited, 1930.)

As in most other palaces, the Capitol's lobby was embellished with wall mirrors, scagliola columns and a polychrome panelled ceiling. Lamb's competence in arranging Adam ornament was demonstrated in the design of its ceiling and arabesque-decorated plaster wall panels and cornices (Figs. 94-95).

94 The lobby of the Ottawa Capitol in happier days. The photograph was taken about 1931, after an expensive redecorating job. When the theatre closed in 1970, the capitals of the columns, the arabesque panels and frieze and the box office were white, and the latter had been deprived of its shirred silk curtains. (Famous Players Limited.)

95 Detail of the polychrome panelled ceiling in the lobby.

Though the lobby provided a glamourous introduction, the vista of the grand foyer, with its marble staircase, sweeping balustrade and huge dome was designed to be breathtaking (Fig. 96). (The theatre's secretary heard such exclamations from patrons in this area as, "It's a castle! It's a palace!"). No grand foyer in Lamb's other Canadian theatres seemed to have had the Capitol's area or height. In the Toronto Imperial and Loew's and the Capitol in Montreal, the patron entered the grand foyer on the mezzanine floors and descended staircases to the auditoriums (Fig. 97).

96 The view from the bottom of the stairs, grand foyer.

97 The grand foyer in Loew's Montreal, which was not as grand as that of the Ottawa Capitol. (Famous Players Limited, 1930.)

Lamb theorized that the patron should not be brought "directly into the full richness and intensity of the decorative scheme."

The outer vestibules only give a faint indication of the richness of the interior, and as we pass through lobbies and foyers, the full tone of colour and gold is gradually attained, the lighter colours in the vestibules and foyers, the darker and richer and fuller in the theatre proper. This is in inverse proportion to the light, which is brighter at the entrance and tapers off toward the auditorium.19

The Capitol's grand foyer seems to have been the climax of the design. Its decoration was testimony to Lamb's sense of balance, and to his ability to apply rich decoration while retaining the essential Adam lightness, as well as to his faculty for combining apparently incompatible motifs into a unified design. The unity of design was partially achieved by the use of three predominant colours, gold, mulberry and old rose.20

The arrangement of the niches, Ionic columns and panels of the grand foyer was reminiscent of Adam's design for the great drawing room, Derby House, Grosvenor Square, London. Many decorative features are common to both. Though Adam designed a groin-vaulted ceiling with barrel-vaulted lateral panels, Lamb's illuminated coves over the doorways gave an impression of similar vaulting (Fig. 98; see Figure 110).

98 Inside view of the third drawing room at the Earl of Derby's house in Grosvenor Square, Robert Adam, architect, 1773. (B. T. Batsford, The Decorative Work of Robert and James Adam, 1901.)

The decoration of the auditorium was probably not adapted from any one Adam design (though it provides a good example of Adam revival), and was not as distinctive in the movie palace context as the grand foyer. Though few of Lamb's Canadian auditoriums were duplicates of each other, most in his "Adam period" shared such common decorative features as great fluted Corinthian columns in the sidewall arches, fabric wall panels and elaborate circular and oval leaded glass illuminated panels on the soffits of the boxes and balcony (Figs. 99-100).

99 View of the Ottawa Capitol's auditorium from the stage.

100 Sidewall arch in the Capitol's auditorium.

Lamb employed nearly all of the typical Adam motifs in the plaster decoration of the lobby, grand foyer and auditorium. And, for the most part, the arabesque panels, cameos, urns swags, rinšeaux, medallions, bellflowers and so on were well executed, with a delicate linear quality (Fig. 101). Lamb was also faithful to Adam in his use of space-embracing ovoids, circles and ellipses. A semi-circular plan for the grand foyer promenade was combined felicitously with an elliptical plan for its mezzanine floor. Both domes were built up from ornate concentric circles.

101 An Adam-derived arabesque panel which decorated the grand foyer ceiling of the Capitol. Its decorative components are swags, rinšeaux, an urn and a palmette.

Other motifs Lamb employed were related more to the purpose of the building than to specific Adam designs. The plaster friezes of the sidewall arches in the auditorium depicted music-making and dancing putti with an appreciative audience of one seated female figure. A section of this scene was reproduced in the wall panels over the niches of the grand foyer's mezzanine, and the two dancing figures again appeared in its ceiling decoration (Figs. 102-103). Similar but not identical panels of dancing and music-making putti decorated the convex sweep of the balcony front as well as the fronts of the balcony boxes. A damsel holding dramatic symbols appeared in the decoration of the grand foyer's dome. Plaques of dancing ladies graced the proscenium arch, which was topped with pedestals decorated with conventionalized bas-relief lyres. The mural of the sounding board sported an unrecognizable entertainment scene of epic proportions (Figs. 104-105).21

102 Panel with dancing and music making putti repeated in the plaster frieze of the sidewall arches in the auditorium. The flanking panels are decorated with grotesques, a term applied to ornaments depicting monsters, creatures half-human and half animal, or half-man (or -angel) and half-vegetation.

103 The motif of dancing and music-making putti repeated in panels over the niches of the grand foyer and in its ceiling.

104 More representations of drama, dance and music in the Capitol. The theatrical lady of the grand foyer dome.

105 The music-making scene of the sounding board.

Much of the decoration of the waiting rooms, rest rooms, vomitories and stairways owed less to Robert Adam. Apparently, Adam's delicate ornament was thought to be out of place in the men's smoking room, and the more "robust" style of Tudor revival was chosen.22 The decoration of the ladies' cosmetic room was more in keeping with the rest of the theatre s decor, though the torchieŔres and the mantel of the fake fireplace were the only Adam-derived features (Figs. 106, 107). Still, many of the theatre's patrons had never seen lounges as luxurious as these. In movie palace terms, accuracy of style was a secondary consideration as long as the patron's impression that he was in a special, splendid edifice was not disturbed.23 To this purpose, standard equipment in the Capitol and other movie palaces included draperies, carpeting and furniture that complemented the theatre's luxurious decor (Figs. 108-109). Framed paintings in the foyer supposedly elevated the patron's taste. Writing tables, and chairs and overstuffed sofas upholstered in such fabrics as "velour tapestry," cut velvet and damask were provided.24 The Citizen wrote in 1920 that "the feet of the visitor literally sink into the maze of old rose carpet." A "magnificent Persian rug" graced the foyer in B. F. Keith days.25

106 View of the "delicate" ladies' cosmetic room in the Capitol. (See Fig. 107.)

107 view of the "robust" men's smoking room in the Capitol.

108, 109 Some examples of movie palace furnishings. 108, The Palace theatre, Calgary, C. Howard Crane, architect. Writing desks were provided so that patrons could while away their time writing letters before the show started. Here, apparently, talented patrons could also entertain with a piano recital others waiting for intermission. Hopefully, the auditorium was soundproof. 109, C. Howard Crane's Tivoli theatre (Originally the Walkerville) in Walkerville, equipped with light wicker furniture and roses. (Famous Players Limited, 1930.)

According to articles on their respective openings, the Ottawa Capitol's mezzanine was "gorgeously furnished in rose and gold Chippendale furniture" (Figs. 110-111), while Toronto's Imperial boasted "the suite made and used for the visit of HRH the Prince of Wales at Government House," and the Sheraton tea table of the ladies' lounge in the Capitol, Montreal, was equipped with "Indian tree-pattern china."26

110, 111 Some grand foyer furnishings in the Ottawa Capitol before television. In Figure 110, the open well can be seen discreetly blocked off by an extremely protuberant "buddha" and a side table. (Famous Players Limited, ca. 1931.)

Some exotic touches were introduced into two of Lamb's theatres opened in 1921. The Montreal Capitol was provided with a fountain at the rear of the auditorium and a "friendly parrot" in the ladies' rest room. Caged canaries decorated the Winnipeg Capitol's foyer. (The Winnipeg Capitol's chief rival, the Allen theatre which had opened the previous year, had introduced California orange trees to its mezzanine promenade.)27

In its halcyon days, the ladies' cosmetic room was described as "delicately lovely as a rare jewel", with its "Georgian mahogany" furniture, green and old-rose silk panelled walls, and hand-painted floral border. The gentlemens' retiring room had gloried in "heavy green and gold damask curtains," "brown leather" lounge seats and a "deep rich red velvet" rug.28

Fabric wall panels decorated stair cases and vomitories in the Ottawa Capitol and most of Lamb's Canadian palaces. Apparently, these and similar panels in the auditorium were once covered with "rich rose velvet."29 The last time the theatre was decorated, many of these panels were merely painted; those of the staircase and vomitory areas were covered in red and gold brocade.

In the declining years of the movie palace, such expensive and destructible fripperies as velvet wall panels were not replaced. The Capitol was extravagantly redecorated in 1931, but tended to become plainer with age, as decorating costs mounted and audiences dwindled. After 1931, the lobby lost shirred silk curtains, heavily fringed rose and gold lambrequins, a "magnificent panoramic view of Ottawa painted as a mural" and a series of small five-tier crystal chandeliers.30 It gained red and beige wallpaper and heavy plaster sconces produced by the decorating firm, Belgian Art Studios. Some of the celebrated furniture of the grand foyer was removed, and some replaced with more ordinary pieces. The doorways on the mezzanine were deprived of their festooned "silk tapestry" drapes and lambrequins. Before a painted partition and a Formica candy bar blocked off the embrasure,31 patrons could look over its balustrade into a portion of the rear orchestra seats. It had become known as "spit ball gallery," as the theatres' younger patrons did not confine themselves to looking. It finally accommodated air-conditioning ducts that ran between the mens' and ladies' rooms.

The auditorium's decoration was not substantially altered. Its fabric wall panels and its orchestra pit were eliminated, and it acquired ventilating fans in the rim of its dome. Its original colours were described as "ivories and warm greys, with blue and black Wedgwood panels."32 When the theatre closed, its predominant colours were consistent with those of the rest of the house and with Adam decor. They were rose, gold, off-white and blue, with pale green and red in more limited areas. Most of the plaster decorations were highlighted with gilt instead of being completely painted as they were in the foyer.

The Capitol fared better than other palaces in terms of redecoration. Many have suffered from attempts to convert them into more economical, modern movie houses, as decorators have almost invariably rendered monochrome their domes, friezes and panels. Other palaces (like Loew's Yonge Street, Toronto) have lost their boxes, throwing off the balance of the auditorium, or like the Palace in Montreal gained "moderne" murals and other unsuitable decorations. Certain movie palaces (among them Toronto's Uptown and Imperial) have had their death sentences commuted by being converted into 5 or 6 small cinemas (Fig. 112).

112 One of the Imperial Six (Toronto), seating 650. (Famous Players Limited.)

Even those who scoff at the ostentation of the palaces might concede that the redecorated and converted houses are not an improvement on the "real thing." The movie palaces' detractors might even admit that skilled architects like Thomas Lamb created balanced and unified designs, well laid out as a whole and in individual details, with pleasing spatial relationships between the various features (the grouping of the boxes, the sweep of the balcony and the ceiling and the proportions of the decorative features). And, for the most part, Lamb applied Adam motifs with academic correctness and imagination, but without wholesale borrowing from the master.

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