The glory days of the Grand Theatre in downtown Fergus

Way back in 2002 this column featured a series on the various movie theatres that have operated in Wellington County.

This week’s column revisits that subject, with a closer look at the early days of the Grand Theatre in Fergus.

Sam Fardella was a green grocer in Fergus who, in addition to his store selling fruit and vegetables, conducted a wholesale business, supplying stores to the west and north of Fergus. His decision to construct and operate a cinema came as something of a surprise to the Fergus population.

Nevertheless, Fardella was determined to push ahead with the new venture, and he insisted on doing things in a first-class way.

Unlike many other operators, who operated make-shift cinemas in buildings originally constructed for other purposes, Fardella decided to construct a new building from the ground up.

He purchased an old livery stable on St. Andrew Street in Fergus, at the western end of the retail core of the town. The structure was, at that time, in a poor state of repair. It had fallen into disuse when travelers abandoned horses, except for occasional use by automobile clubs who used it to shelter and repair their vehicles when on tours.

Fardella demolished the building, and engaged Guelph architect William A. Mahoney (1871-1952). He was the leading architect in Guelph in the first half of the 20th century. Mahoney designed a building that reflected the stone heritage of Fergus, but that used modern materials and design concepts for movie theatres. His building would have been a proud asset in cities many times the size of Fergus.

Responsible for the stone work was the most prominent contractor in Fergus, Charles Mattaini. His bill for his work totalled $5,427. That amount was very high for the time, and it probably included extra work necessitated to support the steel beams in the roof. The bill for the steel amounted to $981.

Special attention went to the building of the projection booth. It was made fireproof as a precaution against a conflagration should the nitrate-based film stock of the time burst into flames.

Like many cinemas constructed in that era, Fardella specified that his new venue would include a stage for live shows. That would help make it superior to the other major venue in Fergus, the old Drill Shed.

Work on the new building proceeded quickly through the spring and summer of 1928. By August a crew from the Globe Furniture Company in Kitchener was busy installing the seats – 475 of them – on a gently sloped floor. They finished that job on Aug. 24, making way for a rush paint job for the interior of the building. The painters worked quickly. Fardella had scheduled the opening for Aug. 28.

Meanwhile, work wound up on the exterior. A new sidewalk at the front extended from the doors to the curb. The sign, installed by the Fred Brooks Company of Hamilton, was also a spectacular one for Fergus. It contained more than 100 bulbs, and washed the sidewalk and the doors in brilliant light.

Fardella opened on Aug. 28 as promised, with a well-publicized showing of The Student Prince, written by Sigmund Romberg and starring Ramon Navarro, who was one of MGM’s top stars of the day. Today the sound version, starring Mario Lanza and produced in 1954, is far better known.

There was so much interest shown in the theatre that Fardella scheduled two showings that night. The first was a sell-out.

Fardella was very proud of his new building: with the new high school and the swimming pool it was one of the trio of major new structures that were completed in a span of a couple of months.

He asked Reeve Moffat to open the building. The reeve obliged, and praised Fardella for his civic-mindedness and W.A. Mahoney for his striking design.

The Grand Theatre was the best cinematic venue in the county by far, and fully the equal of any in the Royal City. Also offering a few remarks were Dr. Abraham Groves and Col. J.J. Craig. The high school orchestra offered a few popular selections, and accompanied Otto Lovell and Dr. Tom Russell in several vocals.

Russell then stepped to the front of the theatre to read a handful of telegrams. The senders included actress Norma Shearer, wife of MGM production head Irving Thalberg, MGM star Ramon Navarro (who played the lead in the opening film) and H.V. O’Connor, head of Regal Films of Toronto, the Canadian distributor of MGM films.

Last of the telegrams came from the old lion himself, MGM head Louis B. Mayer.

The fact that the messages all came from people associated with MGM, and that the early films at the Grand were MGM titles, suggests that the giant studio may have had a special deal for the screening of its pictures in Fergus, and perhaps may have had some kind of financial deal with Fardella in building the theatre.

An association with MGM may have been a factor in equipping the cinema with only a silent projector. Sound films, using a system employing phonograph recordings, had been in use for over a year, but that system was controlled by Warner Brothers.

MGM was late in realizing that the future lay with sound films, but when that studio made the switch it used the sound-on-film process still in use today.

The cost and timing of the switch to sound were time consuming and very costly to Sam Fardella. He closed the theatre late in 1929 to re-equip the venue after only 15 months.

The Grand reopened on Jan. 9, 1931 with a screening of The Singing Fool starring Al Jolson. It was a Warner Brothers film, but by then Warner had converted to sound-on-film, like the other Hollywood studios.

In the meantime, the cinema in Elora, housed in the old Chalmers Church, had installed a sound projector early in 1929. That offered an alternative to moviegoers in Centre Wellington, as did an operator who rented the old Fergus town hall to show films. Both those venues were doomed by the re-opening of the Grand Theatre.

The Grand also attracted patrons from the north of Wellington, mostly in the warmer seasons when there was no danger of snow-blocked roads.

By 1931 there were theatres showing sound films in Harriston and Mount Forest, but neither were built specifically for films. Buoyed by the relative prosperity of Fergus, Fardella did very well in the mid and late 1930s, with screenings six days per week, often two shows per night, and matinees on Saturdays and sometimes through the week.

Fardella took advantage of special opportunities. For example, in June of 1931 the last big Chautauqua to appear in Fergus offered a week of lectures and performances. He offered late night screenings, beginning at 11:15pm, after the Chautauqua had ended. As well, he co-operated with the Chautauqua organizers and the Arrow Bus Line in offering a shuttle bus service between Elora and Fergus.

The Grand Theatre maintained good attendance for a quarter century, and bucked the trend in favour of television during the early 1950s. Reception of the stations at Buffalo and Toronto could be dicey, and many households did not own a television set in those years.

Attendance figures began to drop after 1955, when new stations opened in Kitchener and Wingham. From then there was a downward spiral.

The Grand shifted to showings three nights per week in 1959. Still, Fardella vowed to remain in business as a combination of a public service and a hobby.

He enjoyed parking his late model Cadillac in front of the theatre and chatting with patrons as they entered.

The theatre continued to show films until 1972.

By then it was operated by the Fergus cable television system. But that is a story to be dealt with at another time.


Stephen Thorning