Logo weiterlesen.de
Reel Time

Reel Time

1896 TO 1986

Robert M. Seiler and Tamara P. Seiler


List of Illustrations




1   Pioneers

2   Introducing Cinema to Prairie Canada:
Movie Exhibition, 1896 to 1904

3   Movie Exhibition During the Nickelodeon Era, 1905 to 1913

4   Reforms and Regulations:
Movie Censorship in the Prairie West

5   Grand Entertainment:
Movie Exhibition During the Picture Palace Era, 1914 to 1932

6   Famous Players Canadian Corporation Limited

7   The Struggle for Control:
Odeon Theatres (Canada) Limited

8   Consolidation

Conclusion: From Peephole Parlour to Multiplex and Beyond





1 A Phonograph and Kinetoscope parlour, San Francisco, 1894–95

2 Advertisement for an 1896 exhibition of Thomas Edison’s Vitascope at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall

3 Interior of Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, New York City

4 New releases from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

5 Advertisement for the Pathé motion picture projector

6 Ottawa-based entrepreneurs Andrew M. Holland and George C. Holland, 1888

7 Advertisement for an exhibition of Edison’s Vitascope on 21 July 1896 in Ottawa’s West End Park

8 The stage at the Ottawa Electric Railway Park

9 Film exhibitor John Schuberg, ca. 1940

10 Advertisements for theatres, some of them operated by John Schuberg

11 A typical nickelodeon: Calgary’s Bijou Theatre, ca. 1913

12 Interior of Edmonton’s Bijou Theatre, 1912

13 Publicity for Calgary affiliates of Allen Theatre Enterprises

14 Advertisement for the Laemmle Film Service, an independent film exchange that operated in Winnipeg, Montréal, and other cities

15 C. P. Walker, manager of Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre

16 View of the Auditorium Building, Chicago, from Michigan Avenue, 1890

17 Construction of the Walker Theatre, Winnipeg, 1907

18 Interior of the Walker Theatre, Winnipeg, 1907

19 Advertisement for a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) at the Walker Theatre

20 Advertisement for a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) at the Walker Theatre

21 Senator James Alexander Lougheed, builder of Calgary’s Sherman Grand Theatre, ca. 1911

22 Flamboyant Calgary theatre impresario Bill Sherman and his wife, ca. 1915

23 The Lougheed Building, looking southeast, featuring the slender sign for the Sherman Grand Theatre, 1912

24 The lobby of the Sherman Grand Theatre, September 1912

25 Advertisement for a screening of Edison’s “Talking Motion Pictures” at the Sherman Grand Theatre, Calgary

26 The Starland Theatre, Calgary, 1909

27 The Wright Block, featuring, on the right, the Empress Theatre, Calgary, ca. 1916

28 Interior of the Empress Theatre, Calgary, ca. 1920

29 The Elma Block, with the Monarch Theatre on the right, Calgary, 1915

30 Interior of the Monarch Theatre, Edmonton, 1917

31 The Allen Theatre, Calgary, ca. 1913

32 The auditorium of the Allen Theatre (later the Strand), as seen from the balcony, Calgary, ca. 1930

33 Advertisement for the General Film Company, a distribution firm formed in 1910 by the Motion Picture Patents Company

34 Advertisement for a screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) at Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre

35 The Allen Theatre, a major feature of the Moose Jaw Cultural Centre

36 Interior of the Allen Theatre, Moose Jaw

37 The Allen Theatre (later the Capitol), Brandon, ca. 1964

38 The interior of the Allen Theatre, Brandon, ca. 1920

39 The Allen Theatre (later the Tivoli), Toronto, 1919

40 Interior of the Allen Theatre, Toronto, 1917

41 Adolph Zukor, president of the Famous Players–Lasky Corporation

42 Advertisement for Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company, which had just released The Prisoner of Zenda (1913)

43 The Allen Theatre, Edmonton, 1918

44 Interior of the Allen Theatre, Edmonton, 1919

45 The Allen Theatre, Regina, 1918

46 Architect’s sketch of Winnipeg’s Allen Theatre

47 Interior of the Allen Theatre, Winnipeg, 1922

48 Advertisement for Allen’s Calgary Theatre’s stock offering of $260,000

49 The Allen’s Palace Theatre under construction, Calgary, 26 May 1921

50 Interior of the Allen’s Palace Theatre, Calgary, ca. 1925

51 Nat Nathanson, managing director of Famous Players, Toronto, 1921

52 Advertisement for the formal opening of the Regent Theatre, Toronto

53 The Portage Avenue entrance of the Capitol Theatre, Winnipeg, ca. 1935

54 Architect’s sketch of the Capitol Theatre, Regina, after 1921

55 Interior of the Capitol Theatre, Regina, 1929

56 Advertisement announcing that Calgary’s Capitol Theatre will present films produced by Paramount Pictures

57 The Capitol Theatre, Calgary, 1921

58 Interior of the Capitol Theatre, Calgary, 1921

59 Advertisement for Allen Theatre Enterprises, an all-Canadian achievement now operating motion picture theatres in the United States and Great Britain

60 Advertisement for Allen’s Calgary Theatre’s stock offering of $2.5 million

61 Jule Allen, honorary campaign chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, Toronto, 1949

62 Theatre operator Ken Leach, a Famous Players affiliate

63 Advertisement for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Famous Players Canadian Corporation

64 The Capitol Theatre, Saskatoon, June 1950

65 Interior of the Capitol Theatre, Saskatoon, June 1950

66 Publicity for Saskatoon’s Capitol Theatre, emphasizing the role of Emmanuel Briffa, the celebrated theatre decorator

67 Advertisement for Odeon Theatres Ltd., which operated movie theatres in the suburbs as well as in downtown locations

68 Movie impresario Nat Taylor

69 The Varscona Theatre, Edmonton, 1941

70 The Plaza Theatre, Calgary, 2009

71 Advertisement for the opening of the Plaza Theatre, which later became an Odeon affiliate

72 The Tivoli Theatre, Calgary, 1978

73 Jack Barron, Calgary-based lawyer and theatre impresario

74 The Lougheed Building, in Calgary, featuring the marquee and the sign of the Grand Theatre, 1959

75 The stage of the Grand Theatre, Calgary, 1944

76 The Odeon Theatre, Winnipeg, 1970, featuring the J. Arthur Rank trademark

77 Advertisement for Blood on the Sun (1945), playing at Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre, November 1945

78 The Barron Building, in Calgary, with the entrance to the Uptown Theatre, 1956

79 Announcement of the tenth anniversary of Cineplex Odeon, 1989

80 The Paramount Chinook Theatre, Calgary, 2003


Many people helped us prepare this volume. First, we acknowledge our huge debt to Charles R. Acland, Deborah Carmichael, Howard Lichtman, Janet MacKinnon, George Melnyk, Paul S. Moore, Donald B. Smith, Charles Tepperman, Donald G. Wetherell, and Maurice Yacowar for sharing their expertise with us and nurturing our work. The illuminating conversations we had with these scholars helped us focus our investigation and sharpen our arguments.

We are also indebted to those individuals who provided us with information about various aspects of movie exhibition. We thank Mrs. Ethel Allen, Helen Atnikov, Cheryl Baron, Cleo Barron and the late Bob Barron, Dick Barron and Jean Barron, the late Joe Brager, Charles Brawn, Bruce S. Elliott, Barry Elmer, Iona Fraser, Lloyd Hamilton, Irene Theodore Heinstein, Alan Hustak, Karen Marks, Ruth Millar, Arthur Osborne, Marty Rothstein, Pat Ryan, Harry Sanders, Reg Skene, Syd Sniderman, Greg Stoicoiu, Jack Stothard, Linda Wakefield, and Stan Winfield.

We are also grateful to all those individuals who helped us track down and access materials that were crucial to our research. We extend our sincere thanks to the librarians at the Cinémathèque Québécoise library and at Concordia University Library, in Montréal; to Justin Gauthier, Ginette Godward, Sophie Tellier, and Anne-Catherine Toulmonde, reference archivists in the Client Services Division, Library and Archives Canada; to the librarians in the Ottawa Room of the Ottawa Public Library; to Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, assistant archivist at the Ontario Jewish Archives; to Julie Holland, archives assistant, and Michael Moir, archivist and head, at Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Scott Library, York University; to Heather Wilson, research specialist at the Toronto Reference Library; to the librarians at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto, and at Ryerson University Library, also in Toronto; to Denise Kirk, local history librarian at the Brantford Public Library; to Giles Bugailiskis, D. M. Lyon, and R. R. Rostecki, of the Planning, Property, and Development Department, City of Winnipeg; to Alta Carter, librarian at the Winnipeg Public Library; to Anne Morton, of the Research and Reference division of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives; to archivists Irma Penn and Sharon Segal, at the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, in Winnipeg; to Christy M. Henry and S. J. McKee, archivists at the Archives and John E. Robbins Library, Brandon University; to Jonathan Hill, administrative assistant, Heritage Resources Department, City of Brandon; to archivists Cheryl Brown, Dorothea Funk, and Elaine Kozakavich, in the Local History Room of Saskatoon Public Library; to the Architectural Heritage Society of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon; to Kenneth G. Aitken, prairie history librarian at the Regina Public Library; to Carey Isaak, librarian at the City of Regina Archives; to archivists Tim Novak, Paula Rein, and Bill Wagner, in Reference and Outreach at the Saskatchewan Archives Board; to the librarians at the Urban Planning Division, City of Regina; to Pat Ryan, researcher with Past Relations, in Regina; to archivist Pam Albert, of the Archives Department, Moose Jaw Public Library; to Graham G. Hall, artistic and executive director, and Judy Casey, business manager, at the Moose Jaw Cultural Centre; to Paula Aurini-Onderwater, Sherry Bell, Bruce Ibsen, and Kathryn Ivany, of the City of Edmonton Archives; to Shannon Vecchio, business manager, Archives Store and Client Services, Provincial Archives of Alberta; to Matthew Wangler, director of the Historic Places Designation Program, Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch, Edmonton; to the archivists at the Calgary Land Titles Office, in the City of Calgary Assessment Department; to Jennifer Bobrovitz, local historian, at the Calgary Public Library; to Darryl Cariou, of the Heritage Advisory Board, City of Calgary; to Doug Cass, archivist at the Glenbow Archives, Calgary; to Linda Fraser, archivist and chief curator of the Canadian Architectural Archives at the University of Calgary; to JoAnne Houston and Evelyn Ward, librarians at the W. R. Castell Central Library, in Calgary; to Laurie Leier, director of marketing and development at the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts; to Sharon Neary, data librarian at the MacKimmie Library, University of Calgary; to the late Jack Switzer, formerly of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta, in Calgary; to the librarians at Simon Fraser University Library, in Burnaby, British Columbia, and at the Vancouver Public Library; and to the librarians at Cleveland Public Library, in Cleveland, Ohio; at Northwestern University Library, in Evanston, Illinois; and at the University of Nevada Library, in Reno, Nevada.

The value of this work rests in large part upon the materials supplied by these various institutions.

We are indebted to the University of Calgary for granting us Sabbatical Research Fellowships, a Killam Research Fellowship, and administrative leave, which enabled us to undertake extensive research and prepare the manuscript.

Finally, we thank all our friends and colleagues for their stimulating conversation and moral support, in particular Linda Anton, Frances Batycki, Lee Carruthers, Sarah Carter, Janice Dickin, Marianne Fedori, R. Douglas Francis, the late Albert W. Halsall, Rick Horsley, Irene Karshenbaum, the late Henry C. Klassen, Irene Kmet, Clyde McConnell, Sue McConnell, Roderick McGillis, Brian Pleet, Anthony and Beverly Rasporich, R. Bruce Shepard, and Bob Shiell.

We presented parts of this book in the form of conference papers at a meeting of the Canadian Association for the Study of Rhetoric, in Halifax, on 29 May 2003; at meetings of the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on 15 February 2002, 13 February 2003, 12 February 2005, and 10 February 2006, and in San Antonio, Texas, on 9 April 2004: and at a meeting of the Film Studies Association of Canada in Winnipeg on 2 June 2004. Parts of chapter 1 were previously published as “Movie Exhibition in Manitoba: The Case of J. A. (John) Schuberg,” Manitoba History 58 (June 2008): 11–18. Parts of chapters 2 and 4 appeared as “Movie Exhibition on the Prairies: The Case of the Allens, 1910–15,” Prairie Forum 31, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 71–84. Sections of chapter 5 appeared as “Nathanson, Zukor, and Famous Players: Movie Exhibition in Canada, 1920–1941,” American Review of Canadian Studies 36, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 59–80.

We extend a special thanks to Walter Hildebrandt and his colleagues at Athabasca University Press, including Pamela MacFarland Holway, Megan Hall, Peter Enman, and Connor Houlihan, who shepherded the manuscript through the editing and production stages with enthusiasm and perspicacity. They provided the assistance every author hopes for. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions. Of course, we take responsibility for any errors or omissions.

We are grateful to our children and their spouses, Tanya Palmer and James Maciukenas and Mark Palmer and Melanie Palmer, whose patience and understanding sustained us throughout the project.


Robert M. Seiler and Tamara P. Seiler
15 November 2011



Reel Time charts the growth of movie exhibition as a business venture and, by extension, documents the conditions of moviegoing as a social practice in the Canadian prairies, primarily during the heyday of the indoor, single-screen facility. We focus on selected entrepreneurs and on some of the more important facilities they operated in the region’s major cities. We place movie exhibition and moviegoing in the context of spectator-oriented leisure-time pursuits, framing them with reference to the factors that determine the nature of the leisure-time activities that people in particular localities engage in.1 Operators of amusement venues played a key role in defining as well as controlling the leisure-time activities of working-class and middle-class people across North America, contributing significantly to the emergence of mass culture in the first half of the twentieth century. We tell the story of those entertainment entrepreneurs who established movie exhibition as a legitimate business in prairie Canada, responded to campaigns to reform the industry, designed safe and comfortable facilities, and founded the national movie theatre chains, namely, Allen Theatre Enterprises, Famous Players, and Odeon Theatres. Reel Time thus examines such topics as theatre design, programming strategies, seating arrangements, pricing policies, marketing schemes, and expansion, with a view to illuminating the centralizing and standardizing processes at work in the commercialization of public leisure-time activities in general and in moviegoing in particular.2


We argue that the dynamics that shaped the development of the prairie West and propelled it quite rapidly into the modern era also shaped movie exhibition. In doing so, we invoke a modified version of the “metropolitan-hinterland thesis,” one that de-emphasizes the environmental determinism running through historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s analysis, in 1893, of the development of American institutions.3 At the same time, we acknowledge the interpretive power in Canadian cultural history of the north-south forces of geography and culture, particularly of north-south metropolitan influences. The backdrop of our study, the broad expanse of prairie and steppe extending from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains and from the low Arctic to the 49th parallel, is a continuation of the Great Plains, which covers much of the central United States and Mexico. As such, the region has much in common with its American counterpart, the histories of both having been similarly shaped by their roles as hinterlands to different but interrelated eastern metropolitan centres and thus by a complex relationship between similar as well as different north-south and east-west influences. As a far greater magnet for diverse European settlers than was Canada from the earliest days of European settlement, the United States developed earlier than Canada, the western regions of the latter attracting few settlers until the “closing” of the American frontier in the 1890s. Until then, western Canada was inhabited by only a relatively small number of settlers, primarily of British heritage and often from central Canada. In the late 1890s, however, immigrants from other nations, primarily European ones, began to move into the region. Following World War II, significant changes to Canada’s immigration policy gradually opened the doors to settlers from non-European countries. These changes, along with expanding economic opportunities, meant that the West increasingly became home to people from around the world, as well as all across Canada.4 Different areas of the prairies have generated different cultural and political formations, depending upon patterns of settlement and major economic activities. Unique political formations, albeit ones that have much in common with populist movements south of the border, have emerged in the prairie West. “Protest movements,” such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and the rise of the United Farmers of Alberta, have been linked to the region’s hinterland positioning and to consequent feelings of alienation from federal decision-making processes.

The idea that the frontiers of settlement have played a crucial role in shaping North America — the “Turner thesis”— has influenced the writing of Canadian history. Celebrated historians such as A. S. Morton and A. R. M. Lower emphasized the power of the environment in the settlement of the prairie West. However, what has come to be loosely called the “metropolitan thesis,” as developed especially in the work of J. M. S. Careless, has arguably been more influential in Canada.5 In the United States, the influence of Turner has also waned, with proponents of the “new Western history” arguing that too much has been made of the power of the frontier to “transform.” 6 Growing out of the work of Careless and that of his predecessors, Harold A. Innes, author of A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1923) and The Fur Trade (1930), and Donald Creighton, author of The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence (1937) and Dominion of the North (1944), the metropolitan thesis, though nuanced differently by its various proponents, explains Canadian development in terms of geography and commerce.7 Lower explained that, far from being independent and self-sufficient, the frontier is dependent, constantly requiring metropolitan aid and control, and he paid attention to the power wielded by such metropolitan centres as Montréal and Toronto economically and Ottawa politically. This perspective emphasizes that the investments, markets, transportation routes, and cultural patterns of the hinterland are affected by the interests of the metropolitan centre. Proponents of the metropolitan approach say that Canada pioneered not “frontier” democracy but a combination of public and private mechanisms to overcome the problems created by a harsh environment. The institutions and the practices developed sought to organize communications systems and to extend commerce.8 Manifestations of metropolitan influences include the building of transcontinental railways and the designing of the policies of economic nationalism.9

In annexing the North-West Territories in 1870, the government of John A. Macdonald turned the region into a hinterland or “investment frontier,” the burden of which the rest of Canada accepted. Gerald Friesen points out that, because expansion had previously led to an economic boom, the commercial and financial interests in central Canada decided to turn the territories into such a hinterland, thereby opening the North-West and benefitting themselves at the same time. The territories attained limited self-government, by way of an advisory Legislative Assembly, but the federal government retained possession of the public lands and the natural resources so that it could implement policies that facilitated the rapid settlement of the West.10 Translating this plan into action meant, for example, building a transcontinental railway that would transport agricultural machinery west and agricultural products east. As well, the government planned to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the face of American competition by sending a police force, the NorthWest Mounted Police (NWMP) to the territories. Economist V. C. Fowke explains that, in developing “an integrated economy on a national basis,” the federal government in fact centralized power in Montréal and Toronto.11 However, with its staples-based economy, its small and thinly scattered population, and its continuing need for various forms of outside investment, Canada itself has been a kind of hinterland, first to Great Britain and later to the United States. The history of film exhibition in Canada generally illustrates these relationships very clearly, while the history of film exhibition on the prairies arguably provides a case study of double metropolitan dominance — from the east as well as from the more powerful south, although the story is not without examples of locally shaped practices, influences, and resistance.

The First Phase of Urbanization

As urban historian Gilbert Stelter puts it, metropolis-hinterland dynamics shaped the first phase of urbanization in western Canada, which extended from the 1870s to the recession of 1913.12 Attracting as well as retaining immigrants was a challenge. Approximately 2.5 million people emigrated from Europe between 1853 and 1870: 61 percent settled in the United States, 18 percent in Australia, and the remainder in countries like Brazil and Argentina; only a small percentage settled in Canada. Moreover, a number of eastern Canadians moved to New England to find work.13 Shortly after Confederation, in 1870, John A. Macdonald launched a massive advertising campaign to attract hardworking farmers living in Great Britain and Europe. The results were less than impressive. Historians have blamed the poor results on such factors as the attractiveness of the United States as a place to settle, the haphazardness of the campaign, the inaccurate information circulated by foreign newspapers, and the economic depression that struck North America and Europe in 1873. In an effort to bolster settlement, the federal government encouraged ethnic and/or religious settlers to move to the region.

Frustrated by the slow progress of settlement, the federal government opened the western region of the North-West Territories (what is now Alberta) to cattle ranching, enacting, in 1881, legislation enabling entrepreneurs to lease up to 100,000 acres for up to twenty-one years at a yearly rental of one cent per acre.14 However, mass immigration to the western interior of Canada did not begin until the late 1890s, when the westward expansion in the United States neared completion. The Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, elected in June 1896, decided to become proactive in the agricultural settlement of the prairie West, convinced that the region played a vital role in Canada’s economic development.15 Clifford Sifton, the new minister of the interior, proclaimed that settling the West was a national enterprise, akin to building an all-Canadian transportation system. He reorganized the Department of Immigration, with a view to making it easier for people to acquire free land grants, and pursued a policy of selective immigration, encouraging the settlement of experienced farmers from Great Britain, the United States, and Europe, and by the same token discouraging the settlement of others who were widely regarded as “undesirable,” such as blacks, Italians, Jews, “Orientals,” and urban Englishmen, who in the end (he believed) would settle in the cities. Nevertheless, he is credited with championing the settlement of agriculturalists from eastern Europe, such as Poles and Ukrainians from what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire, the “men in sheepskin coats with stout wives” who, he believed, could be counted on to stay on the land. He also believed that these new immigrants would eventually assimilate to a British-Canadian norm. The department employed a variety of methods to attract settlers, such as paying agents a commission for securing immigrants, flooding the agricultural communities in selected countries with promotional literature, in the form of pamphlets and brochures extolling the virtues of “The Last Best West,” and taking selected journalists on tours of the region, so that they could write favourable accounts on their return. The department also devoted much time and effort to recruiting in the United States; in 1896 six agents and in 1899 three hundred agents recruited Americans, who had the capital needed, owned the equipment, and had experience farming on the prairie. Significantly, the number of Americans who settled in the West increased from 2,400 in 1897 to 50,000 in 1902.16

The influx of immigrants from eastern Canada, Great Britain, the United States, and eastern and central Europe transformed the whole region: between 1901 and 1911, Manitoba’s population grew from 255,000 to 456,000, Saskatchewan’s from 91,000 to 294,000, and Alberta’s from 73,000 to 375,000. Despite the emphasis on agriculture, increasingly these people settled in urban centres. For example, in 1901, urban dwellers made up 25 percent of the population of western Canada; by 1911, they made up 35 percent. By 1951, almost half the population (49 percent) lived in urban centres.17 Four factors explain this massive flow of people to western Canada: the Canadian government had in fact established an effective recruiting campaign; circumstances in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe had changed, favouring recruiters; the situation of the prairie agricultural frontier had changed, thanks to more advanced farm machinery and the development of hardier crops; and the agricultural boom had stimulated booms in other industries, such as coal and lumber, thereby creating a variety of jobs.18

In short, during the first period of urbanization, commercial elites established the network that defined the region, including five cities, each with a population of more than 12,000, that became major urban centres.19 During this phase, the development of the cities was tied to the development of agriculture: every rural community needed a town or a city that served as a collection and distribution point for disseminating agricultural machinery and collecting agricultural products for shipping east. Such factors as advantageous location, the external demand for staples, especially wheat and beef, the development of agricultural and transportation technology, deliberate federal policy with regard to the West, and general economic conditions determined the pace and the contours of western urban development.20

Ultimately, individuals and groups, via their capability and initiative, turned opportunity into reality, negotiating the possibilities and the problems as they arose. Business and civic leaders in the region’s emerging towns and cities practised a policy of “boosterism,” signifying something more than “supersalesmanship” and less than “a precise ideology.” Most boosters were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, such as Senator James Lougheed, discussed in chapter 3, who believed that growth was desirable and that material success was important. Accordingly, they took up the challenge of turning the undeveloped prairies into “a prosperous, populous, dynamic region as quickly as possible.”21 This meant achieving legal city status early, securing railway connections and attracting industry, and expanding civic boundaries, thus increasing the municipality’s borrowing power and widening the tax base so that the community could undertake huge public works projects, such as urban transportation, power development, and water and sewer works, with a view to attracting more immigrants and more investment. In this way, civic boosters, dominating the decision-making process, sought economic advantage and prestige for their communities — and the possibility of winning status as the provincial capital and/or the home of the provincial university.22 Interestingly enough, these boosters often pointed to the establishment of the movie theatre as a sign of progress toward the all-important goal of being recognized as a major metropolitan centre, able to boast of amenities as good as those in the cities of eastern Canada and in the United States. By the outbreak of the great recession of 1913, civic elites had, as mentioned above, presided over the creation of five cities that served as dominant centres: Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, and Edmonton, because they had negotiated external and internal circumstances effectively. (We discuss these communities in more detail when we talk about specific movie theatres.)

Friesen writes that the communities of the Canadian prairies were becoming similar to other urban communities in the capitalist world. One feature of the homogenization process at work was “the creation of a comparable urban social structure: it comprised a large working-class, a professional service-class, and the business leaders. The many elements ignored by this simplistic design, such as the thousands of small merchants, salesmen, and clerks, found their place by choosing the social identity to which they were most closely allied.”23 Nor was this process of homogenization limited to the urban centres. Small towns also followed predictable patterns, depending upon their economic base. Friesen points to the remarkable sameness of coal mining towns; whether situated in the landscapes of southern Saskatchewan, the Badlands of central Alberta, or the majestic valleys of the Rocky Mountains, all were dominated by the fortune and the routine of the mine. The hours of the shift work, the prices of the goods at the store, the conditions of the bunkhouse, and the quality of the school: all were determined by “the company.”24

The Second Phase of Urbanization

During the second phase of urbanization, which started with World War I, communities experienced several decades of slow or declining growth. Many confronted continual economic crisis, especially during the 1930s. According to political scientist and urban historian Alan Artibise, new approaches were needed to meet the new challenges, especially the complex problems that were generated by World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.25

Corporate capitalism replaced boosterism. Socialist and labour organizations challenged the conventional, booster-oriented style of leadership. The development of corporate capitalism after the turn of the century was accompanied by the creation of bureaucratic forms of organization, the growth of a managerial elite, and the emergence of trained experts. Small family-run businesses or partnerships of the 1870s gave way to joint-stock companies, owned by anonymous stockholders and impersonal directorates and managed by career executives. Whereas the proprietors of family firms located their operations in small towns and cities, the corporate industrialists moved to the biggest cities, such as Montréal and Toronto. Regional elites had quite distinct origins and tastes; thanks to their business interests, they were, by the twentieth century, coming together in boardrooms and exclusive social clubs in what can be described as an integrated national system. Increasingly, during the first half of the twentieth century, the provinces curtailed the autonomy of the municipalities, many of which were moving closer and closer to bankruptcy, by expanding their statutory control over municipal government, instituting a range of administrative and regulatory conditions over municipal government, decreasing municipal powers of taxation, and introducing a system of conditional grants, which standardized the services that were delivered.26

Responding to these developments, in the years after 1910, the more successful family business operations, for example, the Allens (discussed in chapters 3 and 5), began establishing branch offices in other cities, and entrepreneurs hitherto concerned about the future of their own community adopted a broader perspective on economic conditions. In some cases, western firms became national firms. Evidence of this shift of power can be seen in the fact that national and international firms financed and controlled the rapid growth of the oil and gas industries in Alberta during the 1940s and the 1950s. Gradually, entrepreneurs realized that corporations have no loyalty to place.27 Western cities, Calgary and Edmonton in particular, entered a third phase of urbanization in the 1960s, when new industries related to energy and mineral resources began to have a significant impact on the region.

The population of the prairies became increasingly diverse and mobile and, particularly after World War II, increasingly urban. Prairie people kept moving — from farm to city, from construction camp to coal mine, from homestead on the southern prairie to homestead on the northern parkland. Many thousands left the region altogether, abandoning their farms during the drought after 1917, migrating to the Pacific coast, to the United States, or back to Europe.28 Of the 2 million immigrants who originally settled in western Canada, about 40 percent remained by 1931. By 1940, five residents in ten would trace their paternal origins to non-British countries; two would trace their origins to eastern Europe; another two would trace their origins to western Europe; and one might trace his or her origins to Great Britain. A rough calculation, based on the federal 1941 census, suggested that 60 percent of Scandinavians, 70 percent of French and Germans, and 80 percent of Slavs (including 94 percent of Ukrainians) in north-central Saskatchewan still spoke their mother tongue at home.29 Establishing and maintaining social cohesion in this highly diverse and mobile population was a challenge indeed. Local, regional, and national institutions, including schools, clubs, and political parties, worked directly and indirectly to this end, but so too did emerging mass cultural institutions, many of them based in the United States, and, during the period we focus on, none more than the movie industry.

Understandably, the ways people in the prairie West spent their leisure time changed radically during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, thanks to the introduction of new technologies, such as electricity, telephony, the motion picture, the automobile, radio, and television. Initially, the street railway system and the automobile encouraged people to spend more time away from home, where traditionally they had amused themselves by reading, making music, drawing and painting, and mounting amateur theatricals. They visited amusement parks, dance halls, legitimate theatres, movie theatres, opera houses, skating rinks, and vaudeville houses. Like American cultural historian Gregory A. Waller, we are fascinated by this rich moment in the history of popular culture, and Reel Time examines how it was experienced in prairie Canada by exploring such interrelated questions as how selected entrepreneurs packaged, promoted, and exhibited commercial entertainment and how selected audiences consumed this entertainment during this period of massive change.30 Central to this study are questions about how people embraced or resisted the mass culture that was emerging, and how (if at all) the public discourse of the day reflected a concern for the decline of provincialism and the increase in standardization.31


Scholarly interest in commercial entertainment in general and motion pictures in particular developed slowly. Sensitivity to movie exhibition as a subject worth studying dates from the early 1960s, when people across North America noticed that developers were knocking down many of the picture palaces built during the 1920s in order to make way for urban renewal. A handful of enthusiasts, starting with the American theatre historian Ben Hall, launched a movement not only to preserve these historic sites but also to study the architectural design and the social function of these unique buildings, as illustrated in the work of Tino Balio, Charlotte Herzog, and Maggie Valentine.32 Still, scholars have expressed regret that movie exhibition has not attracted the critical attention it rightly deserves, particularly in Canada, pointing out that we actually know very little about exhibition at the national level, and even less at the local level. In formulating our project, we take our cue from the pioneers in this relatively new field of research into how commercial entertainment in various locales or regions has been packaged, promoted, and consumed, particularly Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, who challenge researchers to undertake empirical studies of such topics as moviegoing in their own communities. Gomery examined the development of movie exhibition in the United States from the nickelodeon period to the multiplex era, while Waller documented the emergence and the reception of commercial entertainment in general, and motion pictures in particular, in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1896 to 1930.33 We proceed from a cultural studies perspective, regarding cultural artifacts, such as movie theatres, as oblique representations of their temporal and spatial circumstances. Like Fred-ric Jameson, we believe that the analyst’s responsibility is not simply to illuminate an artifact’s aesthetic qualities but also to lay bare its roots in social, economic, and political conditions and to explain how these roots have been obscured.34 We thus situate our work in this emerging tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship and build on existing research on the movie industry in Canada, including that of Manjunath Pendakur, Charles Acland, Paul S. Moore, and the late Peter Morris.35 As well, our project is deeply embedded in the interdisciplinary tradition of western Canadian studies scholarship that has emerged over the past decades. We have drawn on a number of works across a range of disciplines that explore the social, economic, and cultural forces that shaped life in Canada’s prairie provinces, and we hope that our work will contribute to the collective effort to illuminate the history of this region.

We have sifted through a wide variety of primary and secondary materials. City and business directories, which list alphabetically and provide a street-by-street inventory of residences and commercial establishments, plus the names and street addresses of the owners and the managers of movie houses (and, for some periods, those of distributors and producers), proved useful for reconstructing the layout of a business area. In addition, we examined public records (such as building permits, fire insurance maps, property tax assessments, building evaluations, and demolition fire reports), corporate records (including annual statements, reports to stockholders, official opening-day programs, investment circulars, and press releases) and architectural plans and building reports. We also consulted newspapers and motion picture trade papers, which report on the week-by-week operation of movie theatres and movie theatre chains, in terms of box-office receipts, advertisements for up-and-coming movies, marketing strategies, and major renovations to, or the closing of, existing facilities. These sources were supplemented by local and regional histories, memoirs, interviews, and photographs.36 In constructing this historical narrative, we employed qualitative as well as quantitative methods of research. These include:

(1) critical political economy, that is, examining film exhibition in the prairie West within the context of the high-risk, vertically integrated movie industry as a whole, which in practice has meant situating movie theatres (and their owners and patrons) in their social, economic, and political circumstances so as to identify the commercial imperatives at work in the industry37

(2) stylistic typology, that is, examining the variations in the architectural design and decoration (exterior and interior) of the exhibition space, as leading theatre architects adapted to specific aesthetic and functional imperatives, with a view to appreciating how the movie theatre developed into a unique type of building designed and equipped to meet the varying requirements of a new kind of entertainment38

(3) discursive analysis, that is, analyzing the various discourses — conveyed by media texts such as news reports, interviews, and letters to the editor — that structured the way people in the prairie West, in particular, and in Canada generally understood leisure-time activities, with particular reference to Michel Foucault’s insights into the operation of knowledge and power, for the purpose of evoking the lived experience of both the impresarios who owned the theatres and the patrons who visited them.39

We present our findings in a chronological narrative that focuses on the development of film exhibition in the prairie West as a commercial enterprise, throwing light on where people went to the movies and (wherever possible) what they made of this new form of entertainment. We start with an overview of the innovations that made the screening of motion pictures possible. In chapter 2, we examine the efforts of entrepreneurs to establish movie exhibition on the prairies as a legitimate business venture during the period from 1896 to 1904. In chapter 3, we focus on the efforts of selected entrepreneurs to establish permanent exhibition sites during the store theatre era, from 1905 to 1913. We highlight the efforts of the Allen family, who developed business and programming strategies to enhance the moviegoing experience, in terms of the comfort and the safety of their facilities and the quality of the motion pictures they screened, thus persuading patrons from the emerging middle class to develop the moviegoing habit. The movie exhibition business quickly evolved into a multi-million dollar industry, creating a number of serious problems along the way, and from the 1890s to the 1920s, the heyday of the Progressive Era, social reformers urged governments to monitor the new enterprise. We consider (in chapter 4) the impact of the social reformers who urged governments at all levels to establish building codes and fire-safety laws, to ban Sunday screenings, and to censor movie content, limiting the (presumed) negative impact of motion pictures on attitudes and actions, particularly for young viewers. In chapter 5, we turn to the period from 1914 to 1932, which we designate the picture palace era, during which exhibitors and the architects they hired developed buildings expressly designed for showing feature films. We concentrate on the Allen family, who established the first made-in-Canada chain of movie theatres, and Nat Nathanson, who established the Famous Players chain, which, in 1923, acquired thirty-five of the largest Allen theatres when the circuit went bankrupt. In chapter 6, we continue the story of Nathanson’s campaign to establish a made-in-Canada chain of movie theatres. Unhappy with essentially playing the role of manager of a branch plant, Nathanson left Famous Players and in 1941 established Odeon Theatres, thereby creating the “duopoly” that dominated movie exhibition in Canada for many years. In chapters 7 and 8, we offer more evidence of the centralizing and homogenizing processes at work during the 1950s and 1960s, noting that, increasingly, film exhibition in prairie Canada and film exhibition in the rest of North America became indistinguishable. We end by reflecting on moviegoing in the age of the multiplex. This means charting the rise and the fall of Cineplex Odeon, a story that offers more evidence of the increasing control that American interests have exerted on movie exhibition in Canada in general and prairie Canada in particular, and, in the postscript, musing on the digital revolution and its impact on moviegoing in the twenty-first century.

Would you like to know how the story ends?

Buy "Reel Time" in your preferred e-book store and continue reading:


Apple iBookstore




Enjoy your reading!