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Imperial Theatre photo by Galen Fry

Imperial Theatre, photo: Galen Fry

Imperial Theatre

The Imperial Theatre was built in uptown Saint John during the years 1911-13 and was officially opened on 19 September 1913. It was designed by Philadelphia architect Albert Westover and built by the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain along with their Canadian subsidiary, the Saint John Amusements Company Ltd. (Downs and McCartney). Since its establishment in 1913, it served as a movie house from 1929-1957 under the name of “The Capitol Theatre” and as a place of worship for the Full Gospel Assembly Pentecostal Church from 1957-1982 (Gohr). After its refurbishment in 1994 it has retained its original name “The Imperial Theatre” (Imperial Theatre 2009).

In December 1911, Walter Golding announced plans for the Saint John Amusements Company Ltd. to build a theatre in uptown Saint John. Golding was well known in Saint John as the first person in North America to use live orchestration for silent films while working at the Nickel Theater in May 1907 (Tourism Saint John). Inspired by both his work in the Nickel Theater and by his friendship with film producer Louis B. Mayer, Golding persuaded New York vaudeville chain Keith-Albee to assist in the construction of the Imperial Theatre. For a location, they chose the former site of Lanergan’s Dramatic Lyceum (Banham), which was destroyed in the Great Fire of Saint John in 1877 (Imperial Theatre 2009).

Philadelphia architect Albert E. Westover was chosen to design the theatre. Westover was already known for designing the Theatre Republic in New York in 1900 at the request of Oscar Hammerstein (The Broadway League). For his design, he attempted a modern adaptation of Italian Renaissance architecture. Verbal permission had to be sought to build the exterior pillars that went onto the sidewalk; however, this permission was later revoked (Downs and McCartney). The auditorium has no pillars or columns but instead has a single balcony suspended by a steel truss to avoid hindering the vision of the audience.

The Imperial Theatre was officially opened on 19 September 1913 with a charity benefit to aid Protestant and Catholic orphanages (LaRocque). Walter Golding was its first manager. Initially, the theatre was billed as the “Finest Theatre in Eastern Canada” and thrived in the city, attracting internationally renowned acts such as Ethel Barrymore and Harry Houdini (Tourism Saint John). During the First World War the Imperial also became a centre for fundraising and recruiting for the military after its American owners wired a message that stated: “Your country is at war—ours will follow shortly. Use house as your own and forget profits” (Downs and McCartney). In the 1920s, however, business began to slow down due to the rising popularity of film. In order to capitalize on the new craze, Famous Players Canadian Corporation bought the Imperial from Keith-Albee in 1929. It was closed for only a few weeks before it was reopened as The Capitol Theatre (Imperial Theatre).

Although focus had shifted from theatre to film, The Capitol Theatre still hosted live shows and also did fundraising until the Second World War. Walter Golding died in 1945 and Newcastle-born F. Harrison Howe became the new manager (F. Harrison Howe). Live shows continued at the Capitol until the 1952 Dominion Drama Festival (Downs and McCartney). The venue also screened one of the earliest made-in-New Brunswick features, Blue Water (Goss). In the 1950s, history repeated itself and a new medium put pressure on attendance at the Capitol: television. With television eroding attendance at theatres across the world, Famous Players sold the Capitol to two sisters from Georgia, Miss Carro and Miss Susie Davis, for $166,000 (Imperial Theatre). The Davis sisters subsequently donated the building to the Full Gospel Assembly Pentecostal Church and became co-pastors. The building remained a place of worship and the Davis sisters headed the church until Carro’s death in 1962 and Susie’s death in 1976 (Gohr).

After the deaths of the Davis sisters the building fell into a state of disrepair. The damage eventually became so great that the City of Saint John scheduled the building for demolition in 1982 (Goss). It was at that time that former taxi driver Jack MacDougall decided that the building needed to be saved. He offered a one-dollar down payment with the assumption that he would raise a million dollars for the purchase within a year (Goss). Although this goal seemed unachievable, MacDougall formed the Bi-Capitol Project along with Susan Bate and Thomas J. Condon, and after some initial difficulties they raised the money to commence refurbishment in 1985 (Lee). The architect of the refurbishment was also a Philadelphian living in Saint John named Douglas Kochel (Imperial Theatre Souvenir Project).

The theatre was officially reopened 24 May 1994 as the Imperial Theatre and it has remained a cultural centre in Saint John. It is home to various artistic organizations such as the Saint John Theatre Company. From its distinct guises as the Original Imperial, The Capitol, and the Full Gospel Assembly Pentecostal Church to its state of disrepair and ruin and its eventual rebirth as the Imperial Theatre in 1994, the Imperial Theatre remains an oasis of New Brunswick culture.

Jacob Martin, Winter 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of secondary sources

“Actor Lanergan Dead.” The New York Times 2 March 1886: Obit.

Banham, Martin. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Broadway League, The. “New Victory Theatre.” Internet Broadway Database. <http://www.ibdb.com/venue.php?id=1336>

Downs, Greg, and Brad McCartney. “Culture: Theatres and Cinemas” Multiplex: Heritage Resources Saint John. <http://www.saintjohn.nbcc.nb.ca/heritage/theatre/index.htm> Heritage Resources and New Brunswick Community College, 29 January 2008.

“F. Harrison Howe.” Telegraph-Journal 20 Sept. 2004: Obit.

Gohr, Glenn W. Rev. of The Davis Sisters: Their Influences and Their Impact, by Patricia P. Pickard. <http://ifphcseeninprint.wordpress.com/2010/01/12/the-davis-sisters> 12 January 2010.

Goss, David. Saint John: 1877-1980. Charlston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Imperial Theatre. “History Lesson”. imperialtheatre.nb.ca
<http://www.imperialtheatre.nb.ca/history_lesson.php> 2009.

Imperial Theatre. “Imperial Theatre Souvenir Project.” <http://www.iconoplast.com/pdf/press/Imp_theatre.pdf> 1994.

LaRocque, Peter J. “Charity Benefit Concert, Grand Opening, Imperial Theatre, Saint John, New Brunswick.” Saint John: An Industrial City in Transition. Saint John: NB Museum, 2007.

Lee, Philip. “Jack MacDougall’s ‘Off-Broadway’ Campaign.” Telegraph-Journal 7 Sept. 2010: A7.

Tourism Saint John. “Imperial Theatre.”
<http://tourismsaintjohn.com/contentfiles/file/Imperial.pdf> 2009.