The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
In the fall of 1999, I put together a short history of the beginnings of Sam Fardella’s Grand Theatre in Fergus.
Subsequently, several readers asked me questions about some of Wellington’s other movie palaces. It turned out to be a bigger subject than I had expected.
The motion picture theatre – a hall dedicated primarily to the screening of movies – dates to 1905, when the first one opened in Ohio. Five years later, more than 8,000 of them had opened, scattered across North America, but mostly in the larger centres.
Locally, Guelph led the way, and the rich history of cinemas in the Royal City is a subject all on its own.
Most of the smaller centres in Wellington enjoyed their first screenings around the time of the beginning of the Great War. At that time, an exhibitor would rent a film, engage a musician or even a full band, and take the film on a circuit he had set up, with single-night showings in each town. He would try to book the most suitable hall for these showings, using a makeshift screen, with the projector at the rear of the hall providing additional accompaniment as it clattered away.
In short order, some of these film exhibitors decided that a more permanent and stable arrangement was desirable. Provincial legislation in 1912 set standards for halls where motion pictures could be shown, and municipalities quickly adopted local provisions to comply.
In 1915, Elora council passed a bylaw setting local standards and establishing a licence fee of $50 per year, after receiving enquiries about showing films in Elora from Morfee and Sinclair, of Brussels.
During the next three years, films were shown intermittently at Elora’s Oddfellows Hall (the stone building at the southeast corner of Mill St. and Metcalfe, which now houses the Styll Gallery).
The situation in the other towns and villages of Wellington was similar.
Those who preferred a real theatre rather than one of these makeshift halls went to Guelph if they were close enough and were wealthy enough to operate a motor car. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first movie theatre outside Guelph opened at the opposite end of the county.
Mount Forest’s Maple Leaf Theatre opened its doors on April 17, 1916 with a screening of a Famous Players 1915 hit, The Dawn of a Tomorrow, starring Mary Pickford. Most people immediately think of The Roxy as the Mount Forest theatre. This earlier venue has left little evidence in the historical record. Though it opened in April, the Maple Leaf did not even begin newspaper advertising until December of 1916, and then did so only intermittently until the mid 1920s. Presumably, the manager used posters and tacked-up notices to publicize coming attractions. At the beginning, the Maple Leaf scheduled showings only on Fridays and Saturdays, when farmers were most likely to be in town.
The Maple Leaf’s presence meant the end to travelling live theatrical productions. The last of these in Mount Forest, other than plays presented by Chautauqua groups, was a presentation of the old clunker Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Feb. 5, 1916.
By 1920, the Maple Leaf usually operated six days per week, and frequently with a Saturday matinee. From time to time, first-run attractions appeared with elevated admission prices. Mostly though, the programs featured films a year or two old, with admission pegged at 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.
The Maple Leaf changed hands in 1925, when Val H. Sachs took over management in May. He promised to screen only high-toned films. Hollywood, and films in general, were still reeling from a series of scandals involving drugs, adultery, suicide and homicide in the early 1920s. Sachs also added a piano player as a regular accompaniment to all films.
Meanwhile, there had been developments elsewhere.
In Elora, the municipality purchased, for $800, the Chalmers Church building on Henderson Street after the congregation disbanded. The structure needed little work to make it an excellent public hall.
One of the first events there was a screening of D.W. Griffith’s The Great Love on Sept. 25, 1919, complete with an orchestra. Reserved seats cost 80 cents, the highest ever for entertainment in Elora.
In September 1920, a film distributor began to rent the old church, renamed Memorial Hall and then the Elora Opera House, for weekly showings of films. The shows stopped in May 1921, and resumed in November of that year, continuing through the 1920s.
In Fergus, the Great War Veterans Association, a group that eventually evolved into the Legion, organized several ambitious programs, among which was a series of film screenings. The GWVA planned to begin these in June 1920, but postponed the first until July 9 to avoid competition with the Chautauqua events late in June.
In the north, the Maple Leaf Theatre in Mount Forest enjoyed a brisk business in the early 1920s, showing films six nights a week.
Harriston enjoyed the occasional showing from itinerant exhibitors. Among these was a one-night screening of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the town hall in March 1922. Seats sold for the unheard-of price of 75 cents. Though forgotten today, this film made a star of Rudolph Valentino, and introduced the tango to North America. When it played in Elora eight weeks later, the exhibitor charged $1.
Harriston enjoyed a taste of regular screenings when the Classic Theatre opened in November 1922. No details of this operation seem to have survived. The Classic closed after a few months.
Major developments occurred in 1928.
First was the opening of Sam Fardella’s Grand Theatre in Fergus, with the showing of Ernst Lubisch’s The Student Prince in August. Sam put up a display of congratulatory telegrams from the film’s stars, Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro, and from Louis Mayer, head of MGM, all extending best wishes to the Grand Theatre.
With 475 seats (double the capacity of the Maple Leaf in Mount Forest) and modern amenities, the Grand was a pocket version of the big city theatre. Possessing a flair for promotion, Fardella began advertising widely, eating into the audience that formerly had favoured the Maple Leaf.
There was more bad news for the Maple Leaf in October 1928, when the Town of Harriston leased out space in the town hall to a movie exhibitor. The Town Hall Theatre got a jump on its out-of-town competitors by introducing sound films, which, by the fall of 1928, were clearly the coming thing.
The first sound films shown there used the sound-on-disc Vitaphone process favoured by Warner Bros., but the Town Hall Theatre acquired sound-on-film projection equipment as well.
During 1929, Harriston audiences enjoyed a mixture of sound, partial sound and silent films, shown six nights per week.
Hollywood released the last of its silent films that year. To survive, the other venues in Wellington would need to convert to sound.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 19, 2002.