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


Movie palace building continued unabated in the United States until about 1931. Seating capacities tended to increase: embellishments became more fantastic, bizarre and complex. The pinnacle was reached in 1927 with the opening of the vast, gilded Roxy theatre in New York, "The Cathedral of the Motion Pictures," with the largest and most luxurious everything in the world.

Following his Adam period, Lamb launched into heavily ornamented Italian and Louis XVI baroque designs. He explained that shortly after he had completed the Capitol in New York, he

noted a lessening of the response of the average patron to the charm of architectural backgrounds patterned after the works of the Adam brothers. There was an underlying demand for something more gay, more flashy — a development for which there is much precedent in the history of architecture.1

Some examples of Lamb theatres with this inspiration were the Midland, Kansas City, Warner's Hollywood, New York and the San Francisco Fox. There are no Canadian examples of Lamb's later style.

The flamboyance of baroque styles led Lamb further afield in the late twenties to design even more fantastic Persian, Moorish and Romanesque structures. These theatres, larded with colour and plaster ornament, Lamb considered his greatest successes (Fig. 120).2 He felt that his oriental styles were

brightly colorful, emotional and almost seductive in...wealth of color and detail.... These exotic ornaments are particularly effective in creating an atmosphere in which the mind is free to frolic and becomes receptive to entertainment.3

120 One of Lamb's oriental efforts, the State theatre, in Syracuse, N.Y. (Motion Picture News.)

In Lamb's opinion these theatres had the added bonus of imparting a knowledge to Americans of "what other nations and races have done."4

Lamb's oriental experiments were at least partially inspired by the exotic designs of John Eberson, a movie palace architect as prolific and influential as Lamb. Eberson devised the "atmospheric" theatre in 1922 — the ultimate in escapism. An Eberson "atmospheric" was "a magnificent amphitheatre under a glorious moonlit sky... an Italian garden, a Persian court, a Spanish patio, or a mystic Egyptian temple yard...where friendly stars twinkled and wisps of clouds drifted."5 Its patrons had the impression of sitting under a clear, deep blue, tropical sky. Across the plaster firmament floated twinkling stars and fluffy clouds, courtesy of the Brenkert Brenograph Junior. The walls of an atmospheric theatre swarmed with arches, peacocks, pergolas, colonnades, arbutus, illuminated lattice garden houses, statues, vines and exotic foliage (Figs. 121-122). The plaster decorations were fairly standard, being supplied by Eberson's Michaelangelo Studios.6

121 An Eberson atmospheric — the State theatre, Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Theatre Historical Society.)

122 Vintage Eberson — the auditorium of the Paradise Theatre, Chicago. (Chicago Architectural Photographing Company Collection, Theatre Historical Society.)

Lamb was persuaded to design a number of atmospherics, but it was his opinion that "this type of work" would not endure. He objected to valuable space being used in the auditorium for effects instead of seats, and to the propensity of the three-dimensional ornamental details for gathering dust.7 He maintained that there was very little saving in the atmospheric type of construction. Ben Hall insisted that "with all their Persian carpeted flights of fancy, they cost about one-fourth as much to build and maintain as the standard crystal and damask models."8

A few deluxe-sized atmospheric theatres were built in Canada (Fig. 123). A Citizen reviewer wrote on the 1928 opening of the Avalon, an Ottawa atmospheric on Bank and Second Avenue:

One gains the impression of being far from the noise and bustle of the capitol of Canada, tucked away in some quaint old Spanish town, listening to dreamy music while make-believe stars gleam fitfully through a sky of deepest blue, and while clouds roll lazily over the quartered moon, and doves flutter softly through the summer night.9

123 The Capitol in Saskatoon, an atmospheric theatre built in 1929. About half a dozen atmospheric theatres were built in Canada, mostly between 1926 and 1929. (Theatre Historical Society.)

The Capitol, a fascinating exotic movie theatre whose decoration also broke the Adam-Empire mould, was opened in Halifax in 1929. In a "medieval" atmosphere of turrets, drawbridges, beamed "Tudor" ceilings and heraldic insignia and banners appeared murals of Champlain's Order of Good Cheer and Wolfe and his loyal forces besieging Louisbourg. The grand foyer of this theatre was rendered "atmospheric," while the auditorium was unmistakably "hard-topped" (Figs. 124-125).10

124, 125 Grand foyer and auditorium of the Capitol theatre, Halifax, Murray Brown, architect. (Famous Players Limited.)

The depression roughly coincided with the end of movie palace building. Their short, spectacular reign was not so much affected adversely by dwindling box office returns,11 as by the disruption in normal ways of raising money and a depressed construction industry.12 And it has been stressed that the construction of movie palaces was affected by the demise of "combination vaudeville." Vaudeville's coup de grâce was administered by the popularity of the double feature in the late twenties.

By about 1933 the film industry was staggering under the depression and nearly every major studio was in financial trouble. In midsummer of 1933 the Film Daily estimated that approximately 5,000 of 16,000 regularly operated theatres in the United States were closed, "'Deluxe' houses which charged high prices and [had] heavy overhead were particularly hard hit."13 The decline in movie patronage had a number of causes: the depression had deepened, and the industry was overcapitalized, overexpanded in distribution and overcompetitive in exhibition. Another cause was the poor quality of many early sound movies, which were largely exploited for their waning novelty value.14

Canadian exhibition was similarly affected. Like American theatres, their Canadian counterparts eventually lowered their prices. During the depression years, the Ottawa Capitol's lowest scale of admission was proffered in 1935 when matinee seats and "1,000 seats anytime" were 25 cents, the rest of the orchestra seats were 35 cents and children were admitted for 10 cents. The depression did not close the house in 1931 (as a Journal article reported in May 1970). It was closed for six weeks of extensive and expensive renovations. The Capitol rarely resorted to give-away dishes, bingo and such gimmicks as adopted by other theatres to attract patronage.

The theatres built for depression and post-depression audiences reflected a new appreciation of popular taste by the exhibitors and the architects they hired. The audiences of the period, it was felt, were serious and sophisticated: their earlier exuberance and child-like awe at the cascading grandeur of the movie palaces had been tempered by the depression. In this "hard-bitten new maturity," they supposedly found the old movie palaces vulgar, absurd, ostentatious and hopelessly passé.15 Numerous arbiters of good taste had always found the palaces ridiculous. They were not impressed with buildings devoted to pleasing public taste and making money. They disliked the purely derivative nature of movie palace architecture and were disturbed by the melangé of architectural styles combined in one building. It seemed that the palaces were built with reckless disregard for contemporary artistic and architectural trends, and superimposed architectural styles foreign to the western tradition.16

The new cinemas evinced a complete reaction to the escapist and flamboyant movie palace era. Possibly, movie palace architects had run the gamut of every conceivable monumental style and had no further to go. Cinemas became resolutely "modern."

The few movie houses that were built in the mid-thirties bore a tedious resemblance to the Hall of Transport and Travel at the Chicago World's Fair. Suddenly everything was blue mirrors and chromium stair rails; light fixtures were shards of jagged frosted glass, and cubism was espoused by the carpetmakers.17

In the late 1930s and 1940s the new school of cinema architects embraced functionalism, economy, and efficiency as the greatest virtues in cinema design. Nothing should distract the patrons' interest from the screen illusion: thus the auditorium should be a completely neutral enclosure. Flat dust-proof surfaces took the place of three-dimensional and painted ornament. Dramatic lighting was reduced to being functional and non-distracting. These architects maintained that a movie theatre should have no pretensions to look like anything else.18 The austerity demanded almost constituted a reversion to nickelodeon days.19

In the 1940s and 1950s, movie houses became plainer and, in general, steadily smaller, and drive-in theatres, perhaps the ultimate in plainness, proliferated, though they profited from capacities that were inconceivable to movie palace architects. New theatres marked the exodus of theatre patrons to the suburbs, the entertainment offered by small suburban theatres became similar to that of a large downtown house, and movie theatres were faced with strong competition from television.

The death knell of the movie palaces was sounded. Ottawa's Capitol survived until 1970 because, according to spokesmen for Famous Players Canadian, the corporation had made a moral commitment to maintain it until an adequate theatre for stage performances was built in the city. Then the Capitol was deprived of the rentals which had constituted a regular part of its revenue and it was demolished (Fig. 126). Like most other palaces, it was "too big, too costly to maintain and... [had] just outlived its purpose."20

126 July, 1970. The Ottawa Capitol in ruins. (United Press International.)

Some movie palaces have been converted by their owners into a number of small auditoriums in order to make a profit on the site. For example, the 2,150-seat Loew's Uptown in Toronto was converted into five cinemas with a combined seating of 2,230. In 1964 it was announced that Famous Players was "actively considering" the division of the Capitol into two theatres, but this was not carried out.21

Famous Players estimated that it would cost at least $300,000 or $400,000 to "modernize" the building. (These figures approach the original stated construction cost.) To make "better use of the land," the company raised a 14-storey $10 million office building embracing three new theatres.22

Ernest Callenbach wrote on the devastation of the San Francisco Fox:

Confronted by an austere modern theatre, patrons hurry in and flit away afterwards; there is none of the leisurely atmosphere that we once thought of as part of the theatrical experience. By contrast the old "Fox" crawled with life: in its gargoyles, in its shifting spaces, its dramatic curtains, its impressive "mighty Wirlitzer," its intricate lighting. "When you entered the rotunda of the old 'Roxy'" said its founder and manager, Roxy, "you knew you were somewhere."

Today's theatres are like too many of today's airports and banks and schools: they might be anywhere, hence give a curious impression of being nowhere....Hard as it maybe to swallow, I submit that the "Fox" had more taste than any of the new theatres...It had power and it had coherent purpose, and hence it was worth looking at.23

So were all the palaces. They may have been overdone, fraudulent, repetitious, barbarous, vulgar and structurally dishonest, and every derogatory adjective applied to them, but they were fun, they were an event to visit, and unlike modern cinemas, they elicited a strong emotional response from their patrons. It is unlikely that the waves of nostalgia that surround the demolition of a movie palace will be even a ripple when a post-palace house is torn down.

The Ottawa Capitol closed amid much public sorrowing. Many people collected souvenirs, mostly because they "loved" the theatre: pieces of plaster and marble and brass railings, light fixtures, theatre seats and even the box office. A gentleman wanted to buy one of its domes. At its last performance the Capitol's patrons held hands and sang Auld Lang Syne.

"Last performances" have become a characteristic movie palace event. Some palaces manage to go out in a blaze of glory as their stages are brought to life for the first time in years, as enough people are attracted to rid the theatres of their mausoleum atmosphere, and as patrons cast lingering glances at their decor and furnishings. In another ten years, the Canadian movie palace may be extinct. Only a few photographs, books and articles may be left to acquaint coming generations with one of this century's most spectacular, immoderate and preposterous architectural phenomena.

previous Next

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