Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

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 decoration of the Capitol and other movie palaces had no constructional significance, and may have been wasteful and excessive in the view of modern theatre architects, but according to Theodore Jung, architect, colleague and relative of Thomas Lamb, these decorations were not without acoustic significance. Although the design of movie palaces, with their long, raking balconies and ever-present domes, would seem to have presented a host of acoustical problems, such were lacking in the majority of Lamb's theatres.1

Acoustically, said Mr. Jung, a movie palace required an uneven surface. The grilles and various ornaments broke up and absorbed sound waves, thus preventing unpleasant echoes. Draperies and textile panels in the auditorium performed the same function. Sometimes under these textile panels there was additional sound-absorbing material like Ozite.2

Movie palace sound did not emanate from a series of speakers in all areas of the auditorium, but from the orchestra pit, the front portion of the stage, and from the organ grilles. Mostly musical sound waves were deflected from the sounding board to all parts of the auditorium. The sounding board was the curved ceiling area between the proscenium arch and the farthest reaches above the sidewall arches. Its surface was relatively unbroken, and usually displayed a large mural in keeping with the rest of the house decorations (Fig. 113).

113 Another view of the Capitol's sounding board, to show the relative positions of the organ grilles in the sid-wall arches (to the left and right of the sounding board) and the auditorium dome.

An additional "sounding board" was found to be necessary after the Capitol's orchestra pit fell into disuse and was covered over, forcing visiting orchestras to play on the stage. The Ottawa Civic Symphony had a plywood backdrop built to prevent their music from escaping into the fly tower. The Tremblay Concert Series also built a "sound barrier" that rested on this drop.

In 1920, however. the orchestra played from the pit to accompany vaudeville acts and silent movies. The sizes of these orchestras ranged from 15 to 20 musicians in the smaller palaces like the Capitol to 40 or 50 in the biggest (Fig. 114).3 The orchestras alone were often considered to be worth the admission price, and in pre-radio days introduced millions to classical music.4 Many of these movie palace orchestras had very good reputations, and sometimes formed the nuclei of municipal symphony orchestras when their movie palace days were over.5

114 The orchestra of the Palace theatre, Calgary, in an eastern mood. The muscians have temporarily abandoned their positions in the orchestra pit visible at the bottom of the picture. (Glenbow Alberta Institute).

The musicians had to be competent in order to provide the appropriate mood for swiftly changing scenes on the screen. The orchestra leader constantly kept an eye on the screen to coordinate the musical accompaniment. In the big palaces, he could mechanically adjust the speed of the movie with dials on his conductor's desk.6

Many movies were furnished with cue sheets or specially prepared scores, but the largest palaces usually employed a musical director who imaginatively scored the movies that were to run in the theatre with the aid of a large music library. Otherwise, conductors in smaller houses relied on Erno Rapee's helpfully cross-indexed Moods and Motives for Motion Pictures or some other text when no score was provided.7

In a "Musical Suggestion Synopsis" published in Moving Picture World in 1918. the following was proposed for the Metro production "Her Boy:"

Theme for the Mother—Andantino. Suggest "Consolation," Liszt; "Remembrance," Debussy, or "Melodie," Tschaikowsky. An emotional drama taking place in the South. It is patriotic in the extreme, and will require a medley of patriotic songs if possible. Many pathetic selections are required with a Southern atmosphere to them. Use "Ol' Kentucky Home," "Swannee River," etc., as fill in music for neutral scenes. In the fourth reel soldiers are singing "We'll Hang the Kaiser to a Sour Apple Tree." Use the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as the melody necessary. This should be followed by church music. Cue sheet can be obtained from Metro Exchange.8

In nickelodeon days, a lone piano, or a little later on, a piano, a violin and a set of drums had accompanied the short reels, not only for entertainment purposes, but also to drown out the noise of the projector in the auditorium.9 And only rarely did the accompaniment have much rapport with the scene being projected. In reviewing the performance of a pianist in an unpretentious movie theatre in 1911 Louis Reeves Harrison wrote with some surprise, "she had evidently done some thinking ahead, possibly she had read a summary of the plays in advance: anyway she was on time at every change of scene with something suited to the sentiment."10

In some nickelodeons, fitting sound effects were provided by someone hidden behind the screen or elsewhere in the auditorium who was equipped with whistles, hollow blocks, pistols with blank shells, pieces of broken glass, and other miscellaneous objects. Some mysterious sound effects were explained by an article in the Moving Picture World in 1907:

The sound of horses' hooves upon a pavement is made very realistic by the use of a pair of cocoanut shells which are applied to a marble slab in a corresponding manner... Sand paper blocks...have a number of uses; the escape of steam from a locomotive, splash of water and a number of other effects are produced by this common article.11

In movie palace days, a barrage of sound effects was combined in the theatre organ, an instrument capable of imitating any orchestral sound and then some (Fig. 115). The large four-manual instruments could produce about 20 ready-made sound effects. Interestingly, these effects were produced mechanically with some of the same instruments used in the nickelodeon. To quote from a cinema organ guide, "horses hoofs are simply half cocoanut shells clapped together by mechanical means."12

115 The Mighty Wurlitzer. The Rudolph Wuriltzer Company's illustration of their premise, "The Wuriltzer combines the world's finest pipe organ with all the different voices of the Symphony Orchestra under the control of one musician." (Wurlitzer Catalogue.)

Theatre organs were standard equipment in movie palaces and any other movie house of any pretensions.13 Theatre organs and their lofts had no precedent in any other building, and were a movie palace phenomenon. Organ solos could be attractions rating the marquee's attention. As well, theatre organs provided ideal accompaniment for silent movies. Combined with the ornamental grandeur of the house, the theatre organ and orchestra gave the movie palaces their atmosphere, transported their patrons from mundane concerns, and did away with memories of tinkling pianos in stuffy nickelodeons.

The theatre organ was cheaper and more versatile in the long run than a full orchestra. But no matter how wonderful its theatre organ was, no movie palace could dispense with its orchestra, as it accompanied live acts and was an added note of class. Neither could movie palace owners afford to pay an orchestra to play for every show, and this was also a physical impossibility for the musicians. Thus, many movie shows were accompanied only by a theatre organ.14

Organ chambers (or lofts), usually located behind the sidewall arches, accommodated the theatre organ's pipes and percussion with their accompanying wind chests and swell shutters. These were controlled, together with the blower generator and relay panel, by the console, and were connected by hundreds of fine wires enclosed in flexible electric cable and a metal wind trunk.15

This arrangement of pipes far away from the console was possible because Robert Hope-Jones, the father of the theatre organ (or unit orchestra), had devised "a system for opening and closing the valves in the pipes with electromagnets, which were, in turn, controlled by sterling silver electrical contacts under each key on the console."16 Hope-Jones also invented the system of stopkeys (usually arranged in a semicircle above the keyboard of the console) which controlled the ranks of pipes at different pitches. The theatre organist could thus change his stops easily and frequently to keep up to orchestral and even dance-band tempos, unlike the church organist who relied on clumsy draw stops. The theatre organist was assisted by the pistons (white buttons) placed underneath the manuals (or keyboards) which allowed him to change his combinations of stops instantaneously.17

A standard 32-note pedalboard together with toe pistons worked various ranks of pipes and sound effects. The balanced swell pedals at the organist's feet controlled the volume of sound produced in the chamber.18

Though it received a big build-up in the Ottawa Citizen at the opening, the Capitol's organ (which was subsequently installed) was a modest affair, with two manuals (the upper, solo and the lower, accompaniment) and nine or ten ranks of pipes.19 It was capable of no sound effects and could not even rise from the pit, dramatically lighted. It was built by Warren and Son, Ltd., of Woodstock, Ontario, primarily church organ builders. It contained such stops as Fugara and Zart flute, abnormal to theatre organs. It did not have a horseshoe console like more expensive organs. Its variously coloured stopkeys were arranged in a straight line. It had eight pistons for the keyboard which were only adjustable from the loft, and one toe piston that brought in the full organ. It had a standard pedal-board, and a crescendo and a solo pedal. The black paint on only the left hand pedals was considerably worn down. Only a section of the console was made of mahogany. The remainder was soft wood — possibly pine — with a mahogany stain. The console was placed slightly under the stage apron on the left of the orchestra pit.

Although two organ chambers were designed for the theatre, one behind each sidewall arch, there is much evidence that only one of them had been used.20 One chamber was bare of any hardware, save brackets to support a windtrunk, and there was no take-off from the main windtrunk that would have allowed an extension into the other chamber.

There was a single phase, 400-volt, five-horsepower blower with wooden casing and a metal fanwheel, together with a direct current generator in a small, blocked-off section of the chamber. This was a somewhat unusual arrangement, as ordinarily the organ blower was installed in the theatre's basement. The remainder of the organ chamber accommodated two windchests, one tremulant box, swell shutters, the relay panel, and nine or ten ranks of wooden and metal pipes, as well as the xylophone, harp and percussion instruments. All this hardware was installed through an access door halfway up the exterior of the building. The stairs leading to the door were removed after installation (Fig. 116).21

116 One of the access doors to the organ loft — accessible only by ladder from the outside. (Famous Players Limited.)

It is not certain exactly what duplication of stops occurred or how many ranks the Capitol organ had as its relay board was too dirty to be readable. The access door (leading outside) had been left slightly open for years. Much of the chamber's equipment was smashed or removed to make way for air-conditioning ducts in 1953.

The console was listed in an inventory as early as 1937 as being in bad condition (Figs. 117-118). It was probably last played in about 1930 or 1931.

117 The neglected Capitol organ. (In contrast, see Figure 116, p. 111.) (Geoffrey Paterson photo, 1969.)

118 The very fine Wurlitzer in the Portland Paramount. The original's bench in the Capitol was similar to the one seen here. (Theatre Historical Society.)

The era of the theatre organ and orchestra came to an end more or less with the introduction of sound movies. They caused a revolution in all phases of the movie industry, in its production, personnel, equipment and theatres. Contrary to popular belief, sound movies were not first produced in 1926-27.22 Experiments had been made ever since the inception of moving pictures, though an adequate amplifier was first developed about 1914. Sound engineers were refused financial support from the movie industry for a number of good reasons. Producers had large stocks of expensive silent films suitable for a world market, as well as actors and actresses under contract whose dramatic technique was pantomine. (As well, some of them were illiterate or could speak little English, thus could not read scripts.) Production and theatre equipment would have to be bought or altered at enormous cost to accommodate sound movies. Not the least consideration was that silent films had attained good quality, were popular and made money, and all experimental showings of talking movies had been obvious failures.23

In 1927 Warner Brothers was facing bankruptcy, and joined with Western Electric to produce "Vitaphone" sound movies, hoping such a gimmick would save the studio. To the surprise of most observers. talking pictures were an overwhelming success from then on. It soon became apparent that "any sound film, no matter how bad, could fill any theatre, however ratty, while across the street the most super silent movie played to empty seats in the most sumptuous movie cathedrals."24

It cost between ten and thirty thousand dollars to equip a theatre for sound. By 1930, 234 different types of sound equipment were being produced for theatres.

B. F. Keith's (later Ottawa's Capitol) first presented sound movies on 27 April 1929. It was not enough to have the biggest and most ornate theatre in Ottawa. Business had been affected adversely since the Regent's sound installation, Ottawa's first, in December 1928.25 Other Ottawa theatres had been wired for sound while Keith's was showing silent movies. A number of movie theatre managers, including J. M. Franklin of B. F. Keith's, had announced in September 1928 that sound installations for their houses were imminent. According to a Citizen report, the musicians "sort of climbed up on the various managers' collective necks and retractions were in order."26 As the Keith orchestra had signed a two-year contract, the musicians sat in the pit until September 1931. For the last six months they did not play a note.

The RCA Photophone engineer who supervised the installation at Keith's announced that "about thirty miles of wire, two truck loads of other accessories, and from 8 to 20 dynamic loud speakers" were required to convert a big theatre. Through the "beam" system of sound distribution and the proper placement of loudspeakers, the theatre was "literally sprayed with sound", which was distributed to all parts of the house with equal intensity.27

RCA Photophone was the manufacturing subsidiary of RCA organized in 1928. It produced both sound-on-disk and sound-on-film, the two commercial methods of recording and producing sound movies, though it was chiefly concerned with the former.28 RCA Photophone projectors were equipped for both methods, like most other projectors at the time, RCA Photophone equipment was designed and built by General Electric and Westinghouse.

Sound movies eventually caused vaudeville to be discontinued in the palaces. It became obvious to exhibitors that talking movies drew crowds without this expensive additional feature. B. F. Keith's (Ottawa) dropped vaudeville in June 1929. It was revived with great success in September 1929, but was finally discontinued in May 1930. It was presented intermittently in the 1930s, and even once in a while in the 1940s.

It is not certain precisely how acoustical considerations derived from talking pictures affected theatre design. Dennis Sharp asserts,

The talkies created an immediate demand for a new type of auditorium an acoustic box muffled to keep the sound in and protected to stop noise penetrating from outside. It proved to be the most fundamental change in cinema design since the industry began.29

Surely theatres had not in pre-talkie days welcomed penetrating street noises and escaping musical sounds. Movie palaces eventually adapted quite well to sound movies, though of course they had not been designed to be dotted with loud speakers. Initially, certain acoustical problems like "sidewall echoes" and "standing waves" were reported but these were solved by 1930 with the development of multi-cellular, high-frequency horn loudspeakers.30

It is sometimes maintained that the "realism" of sound movies had a profound effect on theatre design. "Music, talk, and natural noises were not entirely in accord with the lavish unreality of the theatres or the pastiche nature of their lush stage setting."31 This may be true to the extent that sound movies limited the imagination of the patron and made the theatre less of "a place to dream in." It seems that the fundamental impact of sound movies was that they more or less deprived the palaces of their stage shows, their lighting extravaganzas, their orchestra, and their organs. Thus sound movies influenced theatre architecture in that the theatres built after the decline of vaudeville palpably needed no stages with huge proscenium arches,32 no sounding boards, no orchestra pits and no box seats. Furthermore, the success of sound movies indicated to movie palace magnates that very modest houses could pack them in: the quality of the movie, not the quality of the theatre, was the determining factor. Theatres built thereafter were generally far less grandiose and less imaginative.

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-10-24 To the top
To the top