Memories of the Strand Theatre
Originally published January 19, 2006
The story of the Strand Theatre began about the time of the 1898 Yukon Gold Rush, where Seattle theatre magnate Pericles (Alexander) Pantages met and fell in love with Klondike Kate Rockwell. The story goes that Pantages apparently got some of the money from her for his first couple vaudeville houses.
Pantages, a Greek immigrant, began building an empire while, all these miles away, George Brown was watching with keen interest. Brown, an Edmonton businessman and fellow Greek expatriate, convinced Pantages that vaudeville would work in Edmonton and, as partners, the two agreed to build a theatre.
Brown secured the lot at the southwest corner of Jasper and Second Street in 1912, signing a 99-year lease for $1,000 a month. According to a 1974 report by the provincial Heritage Sites Service, Brown convinced Edmonton city council to lend him $50,000 for the 10-storey Brown Building on the north and west frontages of the lot.
An architect's rendering at the City of Edmonton Archives shows Brown's lofty vision for the site, with foundations strong enough to support a 10-story office building. But hard times intervened and the frontage, designed by Edward Collis Hopkins, was built to just two stories.
While the office block never lived up to its dreams, the theatre most certainly did. When it opened May 12, 1913, the Strand was called “Pantages Vaudeville Theatre” and billed as "the most northerly high class playhouse in North America." Newspaper accounts of opening night paint a vivid portrait of the excitement the new theatre generated.
The Edmonton Bulletin reported that while crowds gathered outside, crews worked feverishly inside to put on the finishing touches. After a delay of nearly an hour, the doors were opened and a crowd estimated at nearly 1,600, many without tickets, rushed inside.
They were anxious to see a theatre where, as the Edmonton Bulletin said, "no expense has been spared." The final cost rang in at $250,000.
The building was designed by 22-year-old Scottish born wonder architect Benjamin Marcus Priteca, who drew the plans for all of Pantages' 27 North American properties – from the first in San Francisco in 1911 to the last in Hollywood in 1930. Like many others in the chain, the Edmonton design was classically inspired, with Italian Renaissance details.
From its facade clad with Bedford stone through an entrance finished with bevelled glass and the finest Italian and Grecian marble panels, patrons stepped into a theatrical and architectural wonderland. The interior boasted a proscenium arch, Corinthian fluted columns, delicately moulded carvings, ivory, gold and rose auditorium walls and a dome light in the vaulted ceiling. The auditorium walls were finished with panelled red damask figured silk, imported from China and the boxes, balconies and draperies featured deep gold fabric trimmed with handwoven embroideries.
Charlie Wilson was the doorman the night the theatre opened and he served in that capacity for more than 45 years, retiring in the late 1950s. That opening year, the Pantages hosted the Marx Brothers and many other stars and stars to be were to follow, including Buster Keaton in 1916, Will Rogers and Stan Laurel before he became part of Laurel and Hardy. Legend says the stage was even reinforced underneath with steel to withstand the weight of four elephants, brought in through a rear door.
In 1921, the Pantages became the Metropolitan and began showing silent films. An ad in the September 2, 1921 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin boasted adult matinee admission of 25 cents with evening screenings 35 cents. Talkies came in 1928 and then, in 1929, when the economy collapsed, the theatre fell silent.
Two years later, city theatre magnate Alex Entwistle added the building to his theatre chain and reopened it as the Strand. Edmonton’s Little Theatre and the local opera company occasionally presented live productions but the bulk of the business was movies.
Nearly as legendary as the theatre itself was American Dairy Lunch, on the main floor just east of the theatre entrance. The cafeteria, Edmonton’s first, was opened by George Spillios and Harry Lingas in 1913 and operated until 1955, when it became Ciro’s.
The Strand was closed for three weeks in November and December 1953 for major renovations, including new seats which cut the capacity to about half of the original 1,600. The orchestra pit was filled in, a new concrete floor replaced the original wooden one and box seats were removed to enable better viewing and more seating area.
It was purchased by Famous Players in 1954 and then by First Northern Building Corporation in 1959. The marquee sign was removed in 1964 and donated to the Archives and Landmarks Committee, forerunner of the Edmonton Historical Board. For many years it was attached to the southwest corner of the old City Archives Building.
My earliest memory of the Strand came when I was barely in school and my grandmother took me to see Bambi during one of those periodic re-releases by Disney of its classic films. I had never seen a ceiling so richly detailed, a set of curtains so enormous, an expanse that seemed at once to embrace and yet dazzle with its enormity. Even as a seven-year-old, I understood there was nothing like going to the Strand.
But the end for this grand old piece of Edmonton history was near. Even a move to declare the building a registered heritage site by Alberta Culture minister Horst Schmid in 1975 wasn’t enough to save it. Demolition work began in January 1979 and was complete that summer. Fragments of its ornate architectural detailing deemed significant were removed and crated away in boxes.
During the same period we also lost the Capitol (1972), the Dreamland (1979), the Rialto and the Varscona (both 1987). For three generations, these vintage houses of live theatre and film were the embodiment of magic in the lives of Edmontonians.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.