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Doors Open Alberta

Revealing the Secrets of the Old Bailey

By Judy Larmour

"The music you take home in your feet" and other hidden treasures of Camrose\'s 92-year-old vaudeville theatre.

Theatre is never quite as it seems. The old Bailey Theatre in Camrose revealed its secrets as volunteers with the Bailey Theatre Society stripped modern wall coverings, layer by layer, from walls, ceilings, and attic in an exciting restoration program.

Camille David, a local rancher-turned-businessman, opened the theatre in 1909. David also sold wines, spirits, and cigars in the fledgling town. His theatre was designed for vaudeville, an entertainment craze sweeping the province and delighting audiences from Calgary to Edmonton and all the small towns in between. Touring companies offered everything from song and dance to comedy and gymnastics, all in amazing costumes. Operatic companies, minstrel shows, orchestras, and the new, silent movies also played at the theatre.

David sold the theatre in 1914 to Stan Bailey, another Camrose businessman. In 1920, Bailey renamed it the Bailey Theatre, as it was known to decades of moviegoers thereafter. The Bailey closed in the mid-1990s. There, the story might have ended but for the Bailey Theatre Society, which was formed in the face of demolition fears. However, the owners at the time, Landmark Cinemas Canada, donated the building to the society in late 1999. Armed with an initial $70,000 Communities Facility Enhancement Program grant, the society embarked on an ambitious, ongoing, rehabilitation program.

Research revealed that the theatre was constructed as a rectangular brick structure set back from the sidewalk, with a front door leading straight into the auditorium. In the 1920s, Bailey extended the building. A narrow lobby complete with ticket booth opened onto the sidewalk. Commercial premises flanked each side, with separate entrances from the street.

On a recent visit, the current president of the society, Robert Earley, ushered me into the lobby where a stunning, painted canvas, drop stage curtain hangs, with a central motif of an oasis, pyramids, and camels. The curtain had been tacked inside out to the attic wall above the stage, fortuitously preserving the coloured advertisements from the light. As Earley explained, a little detective work on the advertisers soon came up with a date of 1916, right in the middle of the First World War. A second curtain, painted ten years later, featuring a central Rocky Mountain scene and signed by artist Frederick Cobb, was found in a closet. So far nothing is known about the idyllic lake scene with a lone canoeist hand-painted directly on the wall above the door between the lobby and the auditorium.

In the auditorium, the flick of a switch reveals an imposing classical proscenium stage, with the fly rigging still in place, pressed metal wall and ceiling panels-now being repainted-and a balcony with a graceful curve. Behind the balcony is the projection room; given the risk of fire it was a safer option than the original practice of showing movies from a booth at the back of the hall. Changes have been few; trompe l'oeil theatre boxes once jutted out from the walls and an orchestra pit was located in front of the stage. All 430 seats have been removed for the restoration work. They came in several styles, including Moderne style padded chairs that replaced the original, leather-backed, hinged models.

This beautifully preserved drop curtain will again grace the stage of the Bailey Theatre in Camrose.

Under the stage, in the basement reached by steep wooden stairs, are two small dressing rooms into which the performers squeezed to change. One memorable Saturday, theatre society members removing wallboard down there got the surprise of their lives. Underneath were hundreds of old lobby cards from the 1920s-publicity scene pictures that came with movie reels to draw audiences into theatres. The pictures were carefully removed to reveal another layer-silent movie posters from the early 1920s nailed to the wall.

"It gets better," chuckles Earley, "look at this"-pointing to historic graffiti found on a wall under the posters! The Winnipeg Kiddies, a vaudeville troupe for children, left their mark, as did the San Carlo Opera of the Georgia Minstrels. Someone left an ominous warning: "opera troup [sic] take note carry your own police to keep the crowd in line." Pianist Art Flemming brought his well-known Edmonton orchestra here in 1920. He pencilled, "The music you take home in your feet," under his name. Others, such as Danish violinist Skovard who played his "Strad" at the Bailey Theatre in November 1924, left no trace.

Old columns of the Camrose Canadianreveal that it was not just entertainers who appeared on stage. Labour organizer Aaron Sapiro from California captivated Camrose farmers as he proclaimed the merits of the co-operative movement on a whirlwind tour of Alberta in 1923 that preceded the founding of the Alberta Wheat Pool. And the athletic association held wrestling and boxing matches in 1920, assuring the ladies that "nothing objectionable will be allowed." The 1920s were the theatre's heyday for all types of live performances, dances, community events, and both silent and talkie movies.

If the Bailey Theatre Society gets its way, the theatre will be a multi-use performance space for the city of Camrose. The acoustics are great and the space is intimate-there's not a bad seat in the house. A refitted and expanded dressing room area, a green room for performers to wait to go on stage, and a rehearsal room will complete the modern facilities. On display in the lobby will be the stage curtains, the lobby cards and posters, and other finds, such as the 50-lb. jute bag for Golden Eagle popcorn. Architect David Roth has offered his services gratis, and the society is applying for provincial historic designation for the building. Once the structure is stabilized, the society plans to restore the building's facade to its 1940s Moderne appearance.

Merinda Conley, chief of the Alberta Main Street Programme, is excited about the landmark theatre as the anchor for Camrose's successful main street. "It has the potential to bring in big names in the entertainment industry," she says. No one denies, however, that the project is a lengthy and an expensive undertaking that must meet stringent building and fire codes.

Slowly the Bailey is being restored to its former glory.

Supporters have shown determination and imagination. Fund-raising has included the sale of a poster that had been found in the theatre for Hot Water, a 1924 film starring Harold Lloyd. It fetched over $9,000 at auction at Christie's in New York. As work on the Bailey Theatre proceeds, people drop by with memories of movie-going through the 1950s, the kids who got in through the back window, their favourite seat. Someday soon, this grand old theatre will again captivate audiences with performances and music to "take home in your feet." *

Judy Larmour is an historical research and interpretation consultant based in Rimbey who aspires to write a book about the Bailey Theatre.

This article has been reprinted with permission from Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine, and the author.

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