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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

Appendix: Ottawa Openings up to 1920

In 1920, the year Loew's Ottawa theatre opened, thirteen Ottawa theatres were advertising motion picture entertainment. These were: the Dominion, the Russell, the Regent the Imperial, the Family, the Centre, the Strand, the Français, the Nationale, the Casino, the Princess, the Fern and the Rex. At the time, three of these, the Dominion, the Russell and the Family, featured combined movies and vaudeville.

The Dominion, which opened as Bennett's vaudeville theatre in 1906, has already been described (see Fig. 12). It was the only theatre of the three that presented vaudeville for most of its life. It came to a fiery end in 1921, and was not replaced.

The 1,733-seat Russell theatre had opened in October 1897, adjoining the Russell Hotel at the corner of Queen and Elgin (Fig. 127). When it opened, Ottawa already possessed a "legitimate" theatre, the Grand Opera House, erected in 1874 at 134 Albert Street at a cost of $40,000. The Russell replaced the Grand as the hub of Ottawa's cultural life, and soon the latter was offering its red plush seats and royal box to patrons of popular price melodramas.1 By 1909, the Grand had turned to vaudeville and movies. It burned down, together with a "nickel" theatre beside it in 1913.

127 View of proscenium, asbestos curtain, boxes and orchestra pit of the Russell theatre, Ottawa. (Public Archives of Canada.)

Then the Russell became the only large legitimate theatre in Ottawa. Though it had burned in 1901, it was immediately rebuilt. This theatre hosted classic stage presentations, road shows, concerts and soloists (including a portion of the Tremblay Concert Series), vaudeville, and, almost reluctantly, motion pictures. It closed in 1927 and was demolished in 1928 to make way for Confederation Square.2

The 1,142-seat Family theatre was built as a vaudeville house in 1910 on Queen east of Bank Street (Fig. 128). It was a fine theatre by contemporary standards: it offered a seven-piece orchestra, and its interior was decorated in "marble and tile with old rose, old ivory and Moorish tints." Its balcony was cantilevered: thus there were no obstructing pillars in the auditorium. In about 1912 vaudeville lost its pre-eminent place in the Family and, apparently, it was one of the first Ottawa theatres in which long movies were screened. But the Family had a checkered career, and at various stages of its existence offered plays and burlesque and, in addition, revived vaudeville as its premier attraction. It also acquired more names than any other Ottawa theatre, subsequently being named the Franklin, the Capital, the Galvin, and the Embassy before closing in 1932.3

128 Façade of the Finlay theatre, Queen Street, Ottawa. (Public Archives of Canada.)

The 1,352-seat Français theatre, opened in June 1913 on Dalhousie Street, was also built as a deluxe "combination" house, though it was soon converted to an all-picture programme accompanied by a nine-piece orchestra. It was built of reinforced concrete and was supposedly fireproof. Its interior decorations were similar to those of the Family. Both theatres were managed in 1914 by Kenneth Finlay and belonged to United Motion Pictures Theatres Limited, a consolidation of the eastern Canadian theatre interests of Mark-Brock Theatrical Enterprises, the builders of New York's Mark Strand.4

The Casino, Ottawa's only burlesque theatre at the time, had opened on Little Sussex Street (behind Union Station) in 1909. It mixed vaudeville and pictures with its girlie shows, and was remembered by Bill Gladish as an Ottawa "hot spot." The owner tried to change its name to the Majestic in 1925, but its patrons refused to recognize this innovation, and it reverted to the Casino. It was successfully renamed the Capital in 1928 when it changed its policy to an all-picture show, but (like many small theatres that did not earn large profits) it was not converted for sound movies and closed in about 1929.5

The Nationale (previously the Monument Nationale) was another early theatre that seems to have presented movies and stage shows. Near the Français on the corner of George and Dalhousie, this theatre seated over 700, catered to French-Canadian audiences, and was operated under the auspices of La Société du Monument Nationale. It occupied the second and third floors of a building and was surmounted by a fourth-floor billiard hall. The building was reported to have been in existence as early as 1904, but may not have contained a theatre at the time. According to Eric Minton, the Monument Nationale opened in October 1906 with a "Capitaloscope" (a fancy word for a projector) offering moving pictures and illustrated songs.6

It seems that about 16 store theatres were opened in Ottawa between 1906 and 1912. Because many of these were short-lived enterprises, or changed their names and ownership frequently, and often did not advertise in the newspaper, it is difficult to discover exactly how many of them were opened or their opening dates.

Similarly, it is difficult to pin down the first store theatre in Ottawa. Moving Picture World in 1914 and 1915 gave Ken Finlay the distinction of being Ottawa's pioneering exhibitor with his People's Theatre on Rideau Street. The Canadian Moving Picture Digest believed in 1919 that George C. Talbot had opened the city's first store show in 1905, but neglected to give its name or address. Eric Minton culled from the Ottawa Journal of September 1915 the following description of what was believed to be Ottawa's first nickel theatre.

The Unique Theatre was on Rideau Street, in a store, with little or no ventilation. It was furnished inside with wood. Its roof was all wood. The seats and everything in fact was wooden. In front were a lot of slot machines where pictures could be seen for a penny. In back the pictures on the screen were the "wild-west" kind. The better class of people would not go to a show.7

Among notable Ottawa store theatres were the Orpheum at Somerset and Preston, formerly a skating rink which legend had it, could not be operated in the spring because of interruptions from flood waters: the Albert Street Nickel, whose owner (Ken Finlay) delivered sensational "Daylight Pictures" by leaving some lights on during the show: and the Star at Arthur and Somerset and St. George's on Bank between Somerset and MacLaren, both second-floor establishments distinctly dangerous in the event of panic or fire.8

Between 1913 and 1915, several theatres primarily dedicated to movies were constructed in Ottawa. These were for the most part considerably larger and more elaborate than their converted predecessors, and included the Flower and Centre theatres on Sparks Street, the Princess on Rideau, the Clarey and Imperial on Bank, and the Rex on Lorne Avenue. They were supplemented in January 1916 by the Regent on the corner of Bank and Sparks.

The Flower (later named the Strand) (Fig. 129) tried to maintain a "garden atmosphere," and was

a narrow elongated picture house running between Sparks and Queen [whose] walls and ceilings [were] constructed entirely of cement with a moveable roof operated on a sliding scale to expose sections of the auditorium to the sky during warm summer months.9

129 Entrance and lobby display of the Flower theatre, Sparks Street, Ottawa, in April 1916. (Public Archives of Canada.)

In June 1920, the theatre's summer atmosphere was reinforced by "breezy chintzes" which decorated its interior, and the "Strand Cascades," two "scenic waterfalls" in close proximity to the screen.10

The Flower was "next door" to the Centre theatre, latterly in business as the Mall and demolished in 1974 to make way for a squash club. The Centre accommodated a theatre organ and was built with carpet-covered rampways leading to the balcony which were held to be safer than steps.

The Princess and the Clarey were among the smallest houses of those listed. Both are still operating: the former was enlarged and substantially altered to become the Rideau theatre in 1931. The latter's name was changed in 1919 to the Fern, and in 1931 to the Rialto.

The Imperial was built of steel and reinforced concrete and had a cantilevered balcony. It tendered a women's lounge, mezzanine and balcony boxes, the latter furnished with "artistic candelabra," and a carpeted floor at the rear of the auditorium. A black-and-gold general colour scheme harmonized with "polished gumwood" woodwork. Artistic bas-relief panels decorated the side walls, and the stage area was adorned with eight "Greek" columns and a royal purple curtain. The plaster-decorated proscenium arch was topped by a Canadian coat-of-arms surmounted by the royal crown.11

The Imperial, which was also controlled by United Motion Picture Theatres Limited, subscribed for most of its life to a "straight pictures" policy, and was customarily advertised in its youth as "the house with the organ." (This was reportedly a "$20,000" instrument made in Ottawa.) The theatre still stands, though substantially altered and renovated (with the help of some of the old Capitol's equipment) and is now a strip joint.

The Rex on Lorne Avenue seems to have lacked any distinction until 1927 when it was transformed into the "New Rex." The remodelled theatre was meant to resemble a "Spanish bungalow," with "Spanish interior decorations in the colour scheme and investiture." Its stage was enlarged to accommodate vaudeville or plays, and its seating capacity was increased to about 1,000.12

The 1,036-seat Regent was built by local businessmen, though it was early acquired by the Allen chain. It was later sold to Famous Players Canadian, and survived until 1972. The theatre had an organ, a large orchestra, and a small stage, as it was primarily intended as a movie house. Like the Imperial it boasted boxes, balcony (but one of the steepest in Ottawa), fancy plaster decorations and a proscenium arch (Figs. 130-131). Publicity before its opening judged that it was "obvious" that "in drafting the plans...the style of the Strand theatre in New York [had] been brought into many advantages."13

130, 131 Foyer and auditorium of the Regent theatre, February 1918. (Public Archives of Canada.) At this time, the theatre was involved in the war effort, showing patriotic dramas and displaying Allied flags. (Strangely, there does not seem to be a Union Jack among them.)

All these theatres were eclipsed when Loew's Ottawa opened on 8 November 1920. unrivalled in its seating capacity, lavish decor, chandeliered domes and its vistas of sweeping balcony, mezzanine and marble staircase. The first week of its life was one of the most exciting in the theatre's history. Plenty of advance publicity led to a sensational splatter on opening day (Fig. 132). Thirteen pages of the Ottawa Citizen were devoted to descriptions of the theatre and the upcoming opening ceremonies, advertisements from contractors, sub-contractors and hangers-on, together with articles relating to the movies scheduled to run in the theatre and to Marcus Loew and his works. Thomas Lamb (who was in Ottawa for the opening) notified the public in a large advertisement that he had been afforded greater pleasure in designing Loew's Theatre in Ottawa than many which had come under his supervision in larger cities because of "the tremendous scope for designing and engineering ability."

132 One of eighteen Citizen pages devoted to the opening. (Citizen, Ottawa, 8 November 1920.)

To open "Canada's $1,000,000 theatre," Marcus Loew came by train from New York with a "galaxy of movie stars." The list of stars changed with virtually every advertisement and newspaper report, both before and after their arrival, but seems to have comprised Will Morrissey, and Grace Valentine, Betty Bond, Muriel Ostriche, Lillian Walker, Gladys Leslie, "Texas" Guinan, Neysa McMein, Helen "Smiles" Davis, Maude and Marguerite Marsh, Ruth Hargrave, Margaret Beecher and Winnifred Westover. In heralding this group as "the greatest gathering of motion picture stars ever assembled at one time on the North American continent," Loew's publicity man, Terry Turner, admitted "we got away with murder."14 Three of these stars were noteworthy chiefly because they were related to someone more famous: Marguerite and Maude Marsh were sisters of Mae Marsh (one of D. W. Griffith's leading ladies), and Margaret Beecher was the granddaughter of Henry Ward Beecher and the grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The celebrities were met at Central Station by two Metro cameramen who filmed the event, by delegations from the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, and by crowds so enthusiastic that police were needed to hold them in check. Led by the Governor General's Foot Guards' Band and mounted police, Marcus Loew and his movie stars rode in state to City Hall where, evening newspapers of 8 November reported, they were welcomed by three members of Board of Control, and the crush of spectators "exceeded anything since the reception of the Prince of Wales." The procession then travelled to the House of Commons and was greeted by Sir James Lougheed, acting Prime Minister and owner of Calgary's Grand Theatre.15 Eight years later, a Citizen reporter remembered that "Texas" Guinan took the opportunity to "write a new chapter in the history of Parliament Hill" by tossing pennies to assembled youngsters,16 The Rotary Club hosted a luncheon for the party at the Chateau Laurier, at which Marcus Loew was introduced as representing an industry "with vast potentialities for good." The cigarettes provided for the luncheon were instead donated to 80 convalescing soldiers in hospital in Ottawa.

Marcus Loew and his stars appeared on the theatre's stage at each performance. They gave little speeches expressing pleasure at the reception they had been given, sang songs and told stories and jokes. Will Morrissey performed "stunts," Neysa McMein brought one of her paintings to be auctioned for "a charity to be named," and "Texas" Guinan led the stars in singing an adaptation of "Avalon," substituting "Ottawa" where appropriate. Between each appearance by the celebrities, the patrons were entertained by D. W. Griffith's movie "The Love Flower," short subjects and a comedy picture, and five vaudeville acts: Fox Benson, the McNaughtons, the Texas Comedy Four, Jimmy Rosen, and Norton and Noble and a "Bevy of Girls." Even on this gala occasion, a balcony seat for a matinee cost 15 cents, orchestra seats 25 cents, and boxes and loges 35 cents. In the evenings boxes and loge seats cost 55 cents and all other seats were 40 cents.

In keeping with Mr. Loew's policy of "giving all a chance," no reserved seats were offered, except for those provided for invited guests. These included a party from Government House in which were Lady Rachel Cavendish, Captain Lloyd and Lord Richard Neville. (The latter had arranged for the Governor-General's Foot Guards' Band, and he was especially accommodated by the temporary removal of the seat in front of him, as he was suffering from a game leg.17)

Invitations had been also sent to the mayors of Ottawa and Hull, Sir James Lougheed, and various government and service club officials. Hundreds of people were turned away at the door as there were line-ups at the theatre all day, which sometimes stretched as far as Kent Street on Queen.

The next day, the stars made well-advertised visits to various commercial establishments in Ottawa, made a tour of the city, and were received by the mayor of Hull. Marcus Loew delivered a speech in English, but noticed that the assembly did not laugh on cue. Later he chided Terry Turner for not informing him that his audience would be largely French-speaking.18

The celebrities returned to the theatre to appear on stage at each performance, and on the tenth departed by train for Montreal. There they did not open a theatre but were met by enthusiastic crowds, were given a civic reception and the key to the city by Mayor Martin,19 attended a Kiwanis Club luncheon, and were led by Professor Goulet's Famous Military Band in triumphal procession to Loew's Theatre, where they again appeared on stage.

In Ottawa the opening of the theatre was continuing to make headlines, as it had almost immediately become a subject of controversy. On 9 November the Evening Journal wrote that Alderman McKinley had introduced a motion of censure against Mayor Fisher and Board of Control for greeting "the motion picture people" at City Hall. The alderman was strongly supported by an anonymous Ottawan whose editorial letter was featured on the Journal's front page.

Of course it was not really a civic reception, but it was meant to, and did to some convey that impression. I hope that it is not true that when these people went up to Parliament Hill they were "received" by the acting Prime Minister, Sir James Lougheed, or any member of the Dominion Government ...If it is true, is there any sufficient reason why every circus which comes to the City of Ottawa should not be given a similar reception? ...I would not be surprised if Mr. Marcus Loew and his friends return to New York in the belief that they have visited the "original boob town."

The editor's reply to this letter contradicted the previous Journal report. According to his revision, Ottawa's official reaction was far more restrained than that of Montreal.

Visiting celebrities were not welcomed officially or otherwise, by any member of the Dominion Government when the parade found its way to Parliament Hill on Monday. Autos formed up on the sidewalk, paraders waited there for some few minutes, but no one appeared to receive them. After the delay the visitors withdrew and proceeded to the Chateau Laurier for lunch. The parade, incidentally, barely hesitated in front of the City Hall for the so-called civic reception.

On November 10, the newspapers reported that, in response to Alderman McKinley's pointed inquiries, Mayor Fisher informed the council that Board of Control did not give Marcus Loew a civic reception, that he did not know who paid for the band, and that no expenses were incurred by the city. "A gentleman" who had approached the mayor on behalf of the party had been told that the occasion did not call for a civic reception. Marcus Loew had merely "called at the City Hall with some other visitors" as anyone was at liberty to do.

A letter to the Citizen published on 11 November censured Alderman McKinley for questioning so promptly and publicly the propriety of "the reception," "a mere act of courtesy extended to strangers within our city." The writer praised Marcus Loew who,

unlike some of our armchair celebrities, has earned his laurels as a potent factor in bringing happiness to millions of commonplace people, making low price entertainment practical across North America.

Apart from philanthropy, this man should always command commendation for his commercial enterprises which not only instructs and educates but affords employment to many thousands, by the erection and maintaining of numerous theatres, when same abounds to the general welfare of the masses.

Another writer whose letter was published the same day was enraged by the misuse of the Governor-General's Foot Guards' Band, in that "the uniform that Drake, Nelson and Wellington swore by, and the flag they fought for [had been] used as a vaudeville advertisement!"

The theatre was the subject of two Journal editorials within a week of its opening. The first on 9 November was restrained in its approval of the theatre's existence.

Can anyone say that the city and its population are the worse for it? This much is certain, that men who now go with their families to the "show" several times a week are tremendously happier and better able to attend to their work and meet the worries of every day life than they and their families would be if they spent as much time and money in the drinking bars as was spent in the old days.

And after all [the low-priced theatre] is an excellent substitute. The surroundings are clean and artistic, the music is good and in some cases ceates a taste for high class compositions and talent, much of the entertainment is educative in one way or another, and there is comparatively little of the objectionable because producers have found that that sort of thing does not pay. People who deplore the frivolous and urge that the time of men, women and children could be better occupied than in attending theatres are apt to lose sight of the fact that the theatres merely provide an opportunity for frivolity that would exist anyway and, but for them without many of the meritorious and orderly features which mark their entertainments. It is too early yet to say whether the low priced theatre is a blessing or a curse: and apparently it does not matter whether we pronounce the one [or] the other for Ottawa people have evidently made up their minds to patronize the theater whether it is a curse or a blessing.20

Possibly influenced by the near scandal surrounding the theatre's opening, the second Journal editorial on 15 November questioned the value of the theatre as well as the "public sense of values." The people of Ottawa were willing eventually to pay up to $700,000 for a "place of cheap amusement" they would never own, an extravagance that Ottawa could get along without for a while," yet they were protesting against investing $3 million in general hospital buildings that would end up being owned outright by the city and would fill a need "far more important to the well being of the community than a daily bill of vaudeville and photoplay."

The editorial was more or less a variation on a letter the Journal had published on 12 November,

What happened to the project for a Memorial Hall? Who is to blame if Ottawa is without an auditorium where the best in music and drama could and would be interpreted by real artists? Who, indeed, is to blame, if we mistake straws for sunbeams? Could not the Ottawa money invested in the new theatre have been invested in an auditorium with more lasting results.

The opening ceremonies were again featured in both Ottawa newspapers on 16 November, following "a lively exchange over movie actresses" during a council meeting. To charges that "the motion picture places" were responsible for much juvenile crime and the Board "fell for the painted ladies and made Ottawa the laughing stock of North America," an alderman countered that the theatre was "an admirable thing for Ottawa" and provided entertainment for the poor. Mayor Fisher remarked, "If I had seen the ladies and had known in advance what I have since heard I might not have agreed to what I did." However, he still did not concede that he had agreed to anything: he had merely informed Marcus Loew's publicity agent that "anyone was privileged to come to the City Hall."21

The debate seems to have withered away. But on 1 December the Journal published Marcus Loew's letter thanking the "wonderful gentlemen" of the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs for making the visit of the party one they would never forget. This letter could hardly have served to pour oil on troubled waters, but it did not reignite the controversy. However, the service clubs remained sufficiently embarrassed to stage their annual Christmas benefits for underprivileged children at the Russell and Dominion theatres, though, no doubt, they had planned to use the big new theatre.

According to the Canadian Moving Picture Digest reporter, all the public comments and criticisms were too much for the newly appointed manager, William H. Stanley, and he suffered a nervous breakdown.22 He was replaced in December by J. D. Elms.

Nevertheless, perhaps all the fuss was worthwhile. On 9 November 1920, a Journal reporter commented, "the ceremonies in connection with the dedication of the house were of a character that will long be remembered by those who gained admission." Mrs. George Payne, 71 years old, told a Citizen reporter in May 1970, "We thought it was beautiful—glittering sequins and everything. And Hollywood actors and actresses were there for the opening."23

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