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Capitol is unique atmospheric theatre, scholar says

Cecilia Nasmith

By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today

CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland Today
McGill University student Camille Bédard, seen May 2, was in Port Hope last week to make the Capitol Theatre part of her master's-degree project, a study of exotic and atmospheric theatres.

CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland Today McGill University student Camille Bédard, seen May 2, was in Port Hope last week to make the Capitol Theatre part of her master's-degree project, a study of exotic and atmospheric theatres.


There was a time, back when talkies were new, that a trip to the movies was a real outing.

The movie houses of the era strove to be a worthy destination, and the surviving grandiose structures have come to be called atmospheric theatres. Not many survive, and Port Hope's Capitol Theatre is one.

Last week, McGill University student Camille Bédard came to Port Hope to spend several days at the Capitol as part of a master's-degree project on exotic and atmospheric theatres.

Built in 1930, the Capitol was one of the first cinemas in Canada built expressly for talking pictures. It is the last fully restored atmospheric theatre still in operation in Canada.

Declining audiences led to its closure in 1987, and it mostly sat empty (except, for a time, when it served as the Port Hope branch of Northumberland Fare Share food banks).

A visionary group of local individuals formed the Capitol Theatre Heritage Foundation in 1994, and raised $1.6 million for the theatre's restoration. A further $3 million was raised in 2002 for an expansion.

This is not surprising, Bédard said, given the passion people feel for this theatre. Capitol assistant manager Inga Belge pointed out that their volunteer corps numbers an estimated 150.

Bédard spent some time last week hearing the reminiscences and viewing the photos of volunteers Glen and Yvonne Workman. The Port Hope couple had their second date at the Capitol Dec. 14, 1957 (to see Pickup Alley with Victor Mature and Anita Ekberg). More recently, they celebrated their 50th anniversary at the Capitol with a party in the AK & Bob Sculthorpe Studio Theatre upstairs.

"It mimics a Normal or Medieval castle," Bédard said of the stone-block walls decorated with banners and ornately decorated sconces.

"Lots of atmospheric theatres were more into the Orientalist theme, like Spanish baroque or Moorish courtyard, the Chinese or Grauman's Egyptian Theatre. But Spanish courtyard was the most popular theme."

The castle walls are all around, the neighbouring landscape painted above them. Bunches of ivy hang over the top of the wall, and flanking the stage are two upstairs windows with curtains mysteriously closed. Yvonne Workman remembers always wondering who could be behind those windows, and recalls the time (at an Elvis-tribute concert) when a cut-out of Elvis was posted in one of those windows.

To complement the clouds painted on the sky-blue ceiling, "stars" were installed when it was restored in the 1990s. They warm up for an effect of stars coming out, rather than just switching on, and Glen Workman pointed out the Little Dipper formation.

"My undergraduate degree is in art history from Concordia University. I started researching movie theatres during that time," Bédard said.

In the west part of Montreal where she lived, Bédard was familiar with the Empress Theatre that was built in a fantastic style in 1927, just a little earlier than the Capitol. It closed in 1992.

"I was fortunate enough to go there at young age, but I barely remember the experience," she said.

"I did an undergraduate project on the Empress, and I became interested to know more about historical movie theatres, which are predominantly in the US but also in Canada and Europe."

The work on her master's-degree project recently took her to the Orpheum in Vancouver, original built as an opera house with a capacity of 3,000 in the Spanish-baroque revival style.

"Very different from the Capitol," she commented.

"My interest in the Capitol is that it is one of the rare atmospheric theatres that remains to this date — not exotic, but fantastic decor with the crenellated castle towers and the ceiling of stars, but in small scale.

"I want a broad range of movie theatres."

Bédard contrasts the movie palaces she is touring with movie theatres constructed today.

"We are now used to generic buildings that are identical and almost interchangeable, with no decoration, comfortable seats and very little focus on the actual design of the space.

"This was not the case in the atmospheric theatres of the 1920s and early 1930s. The focus was very much on the theatre. The movie was, to an extent, secondary to the experience. It was more about the event of going to a movie theatre than the movie per se.

"Actually, movie mogul Marcus Loew of Loew's Theatres said, 'We sell tickets to theatres, not movies.' There was very much focus on the experience of movie-going, not on the content. It was more of an over-all approach."

Bédard's visit to Port Hope included a brief stop at the Midway Drive-In because, though she doesn't have time to pursue it just now, she also has recently developed a keen interest in that particular post-war movie venue that is almost exclusive to North America.

"It's a totally different culture, very popular, simultaneously private within the car, but also public space and all those interactions," she said.

It's an odd interest for an architectural historian to have, Bédard allowed, but she can understand how people in the post-war climate of the 1950s yearned for a safe environment while retaining their interest in community events and gatherings.

From what she has researched so far, "I came across a lot of interesting facts, like the activities that were almost more important than the show. (Drive-ins) would have children's playgrounds and, in some drive-ins, laundry services and bottle warmers for babies. They would organize potato-sack races and fun games to draw the families for the whole evening.

"The concession stands were very popular, and quite developed — not just popcorn and soda but, depending on the region, Southern states might have more Mexican-inspired foods," she said.

"It's a different culture. But I know very little, just the tip of the iceberg, and I am very curious to know more. Like atmospheric theatres, they are both in decline but very much a part of the culture."

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