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Feature Article

THE GOLDEN AGE OF CINEMA IN EDMONTON

Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog
2006-02-23

The golden age of cinema in Edmonton

I have a lasting image from my childhood of the lady who used to run the Roxy Theatre and who, at Saturday matinees, was a force to be feared. We kids never dared misbehave in Marie Wrights 124th Street theatre because, like her mentor Sam Binder, she didnt suffer fools gladly.

When you worked in theatre in those days, you owned the town, she said, when I interviewed her in 1995. There was a real element of top notch service in the business then. You didnt just take tickets and scoop popcorn; you served people like they were royalty.

Marie was just 13 when, in 1938, she started as an usherette at the Capitol Theatre, on Jasper Avenue just east of 101st Street. Her wage was 12 cents an hour. We wore royal blue mess jackets, bell bottom pants, white shoes with white collars and cuffs and I can remember the doorman, Fred Varlow, checking that we were all up to standards.

In those days, the Capitol had 1,200 seats, making it Edmontons biggest film house. More than 100 of the seats were equipped with amplification devices for the hearing impaired. The giant marquee that adorned the front was ablaze with hundreds of tracer lights which generated so much heat that, in the winter, the sidewalk below was often kept clear of snow and ice.

Going to the movies in those days was an event, she recalled. When Gone With the Wind opened in 1939, lineups stretched around the block and police were called out for crowd control. Ladies were coming in dressed like Scarlet and men like Rhett and it was all very theatrical and sophisticated.

In the early 1940s, Mrs. Wright worked occasionally as a cashier at another Entwistle property, the Empress Theatre a 1912 second-run film house on the south side of Jasper Avenue on the other side of 101st Street. I can close my eyes and still see the red carpet of that lobby. It was the first place to get a popcorn machine, and I burned my arm on the darned thing several times the first day we got it up and running.

When war came, Marie (Goddaughter of flying ace Wop May) joined the Royal Air Force and, beginning in 1943, flew supply missions into Europe. She piloted various planes, including Mosquitos and Spitfires. After the war, she returned to Edmonton and her first love, the theatres.

She returned part time to the Empress until Sam Binder, Edmontons Mr. Theatre, hired her to run his Roxy Theatre, on 124th Street at 107th Avenue. Binder was the epitome of the days breed of irascible and energetic film house operators and he made film history with the longest continuous run: the Sound of Music played at his Varscona for more than three years.

Sam was a cantankerous old guy sometimes; when he got worked up about something, you could hear him a mile away, Mrs. Wright remembered. But the man ran the best film houses in town he was so particular and he had a heart of gold.

Long time Edmontonian Ian Scott has vivid memories of the Empress, too. He worked as an usher and doorman at the Empress starting in 1953 when he was just 15. All my friends were envious; they wanted me to get them in for free, but I never did, because I valued my job too much, he said when I interviewed him in 1994.

Television had just come to Edmonton CFRNs Broadcast House beamed its signal from the western outskirts of the city and the theatre business was answering the challenge. The Empress was a B-run movie house and we always had double bills, Ian remembered. The big new stuff went to the Capitol. We then got it and it ran cheaper, so the place was usually packed at night.

Patrons paid 35 cents in the morning, 50 cents in the afternoon and 75 cents in the evening for double features. Every Thursday night, Ian would change the content on the marquee. One movie board faced east and one faced west on Jasper Avenue.

There were light bulbs around the marquee and I can remember climbing up inside the darned thing to change them, he said, the memory pulling a smile across his face. It was no job for the claustrophobic or fickle.

Adjacent to the Selkirk Hotel at 10125 Jasper Avenue, the Empress occupied a prime chunk of downtown real estate. Built in 1912 as one of the first theatres in Edmonton, the old gal had shown moving pictures virtually every day since the beginning, including a famous run of the return of Edmonton soldiers from World War I.

There was a certain class then that I think weve lost somehow, Ian said. The staff wore uniforms; because we were a Famous Players house, it was light blue. We really looked smart; Mr. Wiber (manager Bert) demanded it.

Until the 1960s, no soft drinks were allowed in the auditoriums. Patrons who came late or during a feature were seated discreetly by ushers and could stay until the movie came round again to the same place.

Some people stayed and watched two or three times, but we seldom said anything, Ian shrugged. It was rare we had any problem, so what was the point"

When fire swept through the Selkirk Hotel in December, 1961, the theatre suffered extensive smoke damage and her long run came crashing to an end. Demolition of the Selkirk and the Empress began later that winter and, by the summer of 1962, she was a memory like the countless other moving pictures that had played on her screen.

The nearly 1,200 seats were sent to the Metropolitan Theatre in Winnipeg. Its not known what happened to the marquee or vertical E-M-P-R-E-S-S sign a landmark on Jasper Avenue for six decades.

In the next 15 years, the end came for many other downtown movie houses: the Capitol closed in 1972; the Strand (Pantages) and Dreamland in 1979; the Rialto in 1987. The demise of most of Edmontons grand movie houses makes survivors like the Princess and the Garneau all the more precious.

When Sam Binder took over the Plaza Theatre in 1974, Marie Wright went with him. I was there until they turned the place into a bloody bingo hall, she recalled, shaking her head. A bingo hall! Then I went to Principal Plaza one of those multi screen places with screening rooms smaller than my living room. It was an awful location and Cineplex closed it, of course, so I transferred to the West Mall Six and retired there. I picked the right time to get out.

Over more than 50 years in the business, she saw literally thousands of films. She counts as her favourite John Fords The Informer, a 1935 character study which netted Victor McLaglen the best actor Oscar.

Ian retrieved two bricks when his theatre was going down. When the Empress vanished, a little part of me went with it, he recalled. Well never get her back, but we shouldnt forget her, either.


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