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people jammed the Edmonton auditorium, and the Olympic Arts Festival held in conjunction with the XV Olympic Winter Games in Calgary in 1988.

When they were built, the auditoria stood alone as cultural centres and performance venues. In the intervening years, both Calgary and Edmonton

have grown four-fold in population,

and other facilities have been built: Calgary’s Convention Centre (1975), Saddledome (1983), and performing arts centre (1985), and Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium (1974)] conference centre (1983) and Winspear Centre for Music (1997). With both cities’ orchestras now in newer quarters, the auditoria can better accommodate long runs of touring productions such as Cats and Les Misérables.

The auditoria were extensively renovated between 1979 and 1985, rendering them sisters rather than twins. Among the changes were new 250-seat community theatre spaces in the basements—the Dr. Betty Mitchell Theatre in Calgary (named for a beloved high school drama teacher who founded the precursor to Theatre Calgary) and the Walter Kaasa

Theatre in Edmonton (named for the actor, director, narrator, and assistant deputy minister of cultural development).

Nearly half a century since the Golden Jubilee and the “state of the art” standards of the 1950s, the Alberta Centennial Committee queried Albertans in the 1990s for centennial project ideas. Updating the auditoria emerged as a clear priority. From the wish list presented by citizens and stakeholders, the committee identified upgrades that could be achieved within a single performance season to keep disruption minimal.

Both facilities closed on July 1, 2004, for a 14-month project timed to conclude on Alberta’s 100th birthday. The changes are both technical and cosmetic, designed to improve sight lines and acoustics in the main hall, and to “refresh” the interior overall. (Albertans told the committee they didn’t want the exterior altered.)

The gently sloped performance hall has been re-raked, making it steeper. Seats have been staggered between rows, with more legroom. The solid, scallop-back ceiling has been replaced by a slatted, acoustically transparent one. Terracing has joined the main level and first balcony, and wheelchair

access has been improved overall. The French walnut panelling, originally mounted vertically, has been re-mounted horizontally to improve acoustics. In the lobby and public spaces, the same change has been made for the sake of consistency. An altered colour scheme completes the “refreshed” appearance.

The loss of a season has had an impact. “With this closure,” Whalley observes, “ Alberta’s cultural community came to realize that the grand dames still play a critical role.” They are still the largest performance spaces in the province. But displaced users have tried to turn their temporary exile into an opportunity. For example, Edmonton Opera has worked hard to generate new interest and expand its audience at alternative venues such as the Paramount Theatre, a renovated cinema; Love According to John, an Easter passion play in Edmonton, has returned to its roots at the Victoria School of Performing and Visual Arts theatre.

For some, the exile is permanent. Mechanical upgrades replaced the Walter Kaasa and Dr. Betty Mitchell theatres, leaving Calgary’s Theatre Junction without a stage. Theatre Junction bought the vacant Grand

Theatre, once owned by Senator James Lougheed (the premier’s grand-father), and transformed it back into a live playhouse.

While no festival is planned for either auditorium to mark the grand re-opening, concerts will extend September 1 centennial celebrations into the long weekend. According to Whalley, the centennial project was designed to rejuvenate the auditoria, “so that the gift given to Albertans would last at least another 50 years,” fulfilling the second element of the biblical concept —restoration— and the literal fulfillment of the jubilee.
 

Harry Sanders is an historian and writer in Calgary

The changes are both technical and cosmetic, designed to improve sight lines and acoustics in the main hall, and to "refresh" the interior overall.

Construction in the Jubilee
Construction in the Jubilee
LEGACY   Fall 2005

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