• Lawrence Herzog

The Capitol Theatre

Originally published on January 21, 2010

The theatre that came to be known as The Capitol was constructed starting in 1917 and opened in 1918 as the Allen Theatre, the first silent movie house in Edmonton. In its early days, the theatre at 10065 Jasper Avenue had seating for more than 1,000 patrons, and was managed by a gentleman named Max Allen. It also had a small stage for live performances and the entrance resided between a pipe shop, Smoke Shops Ltd., on the left at 10063 and jeweller H.B. Kline & Sons on the right at 10069. Both businesses operated at the location for the next 54 years.

The coming of the “talkies,” motion pictures with sound, was big news through the late 1920s, and so was the retrofit of the theatre to play them. The owners, Famous Players Corporation, closed the theatre on January 5, 1929 for renovations that included the construction of a new 500-seat balcony.

The balcony and upper lounge area was accessed by two handsome gold decorated stairways, leading up from the front of the theatre. Interior structural alterations cost an estimated $45,000, while the installation of new projection and sound equipment was said to cost about $40,000.

Capitol Theatre, September 1972. Photo by Richard Siemens.

“Soon you’ll hear what you see at the New Capitol,” began a March 21, 1929 story in the Edmonton Bulletin. “The New Capitol will have full movietone and vitaphone equipment ... The manager has booked the finest of the talking films and famous orchestras will be heard as an accompaniment to the pictures.”

The anticipation in the city was enormous. “Edmonton theatergoers have been eagerly awaiting the time, when the expensive alterations would be completed, and the doors thrown open to those who wish to see and hear the greatest invention of the present decade – the talkies,” the Bulletin reported in its March 23rd edition.

“Talking movies are undoubtedly a great invention,” the article said. “A man talks, a woman sings, a crowd cheers – and it is all as natural as if one were listening to the very thing in life.”

Acclaimed Montréal theatre decorator Emmanuel Briffa completed a refurbishment of the interior of the theatre, transforming it into an elegant example of the Adam Style, or Early Neoclassical. Rich draperies and large mirrors were hung, and Old Rose silk panels were installed over acoustic plastered walls, and crowned by moldings of real gold leaf.

Deep carpet was installed down the theatre aisles to muffle footsteps as patrons made their way to soft plush seats. The pipe organ that was used to accompany the silent flicks was removed and sold to a local church.

At 1 pm on Wednesday, March 27, 1929, the film reels began to roll and the theatre screened its first ever sound picture, Mother Knows Best. The technology used record players that had to be synchronized with the film.

Business was good, and in 1938, when the country was still trying to climb out of the depression, Famous Players launched an ambitious freshening. The theatre was closed and an enormous marquee was installed. With more than 2,000 lights, it was touted as the largest in the British Empire.

The 60-watt bulbs generated so much heat that, in the winter, the sidewalk below was usually kept clear of snow and ice. Its Moderne styled vertical CAPITOL made it an instant landmark on the city’s main street.

Capitol Theatre, 1961. City of Edmonton Archives, ET-17-111

“Its lights on Jasper are so bright, even after several months they are still the subject of amazed comment by citizens and visitors to the city,” reported a December 31, 1938 article in the Edmonton Bulletin. “The cushioned chairs and the smart modern furnishings and air-conditioning inside the theatre bring comfort and ease which was not even imagined a decade ago.”

That year, 13-year-old Marie Wright was hired as an usherette at the Capitol. It was the beginning of the Golden Age of Hollywood and, for Marie, a life-long love affair with film houses. She went on to fly fighters planes during World War II and, upon her return, managed Edmonton's Roxy Theatre for 35 years.

When I interviewed her in 1992, she recalled her starting wage at the Capitol 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.” Varlow had started working at the Capitol as an usher in 1926, and was its manager when it closed for good in 1972.

“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 Scarlett and men like Rhett and it was all very theatrical and sophisticated.”

Edmontonians headed to the Capitol to escape their economic depression and war era woes and lose themselves in screwball comedies, romantic thrillers, gangster escapes, and chorus line musicals.

From 1952 until the Jubilee Auditorium opened in 1957, the Capitol was home to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. By the 1970s, the theatre’s fortunes were fading, and the lights on the marquee dimmed too, gradually replaced with 10-watt bulbs to save money.

The coming of television, the explosion of suburban multiplex theatres and the arrival of yet another real estate boom sounded the death knell for the Capitol. Famous Players decided in 1972 to build the 22-storey Capitol Square office complex.

A story in the Edmonton Journal just days before the final screening quoted manager Varlow talking about the theatre’s glory days and his sadness at its demise. “We never showed a movie for more than a week. Three days to a week was usual. Now it’s just the opposite. There are lots of theatres and not enough of the product.”

Demolition work on the old theatre along with the adjacent Agency and Monarch Buildings began in late 1972. The sound equipment and projectors were taken to other Famous Players theatres, and the seats were shipped to Winnipeg and installed in the Metropolitan Theatre. The new Capitol Square, completed in 1975, contained a four screen multiplex cinema, which is now also a footnote in time.

© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.

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