A Work in Progress: An Illustrated Book on Peterborough’s Movie-Going History
[working title] “Packed to the Doors”:
The Electric City Goes to the Movies
“Packed to the Doors” is a work in progress – a social and cultural history, itself packed with illustrations, detailing one medium-sized city’s long, historic infatuation with motion pictures – about the times, the theatres, the experiences over the years, and the people who worked in the movie-going business in Peterborough, Ontario.
Peterborough – From the Cinematographe to the Multiplex
In 2014, for its tenth anniversary celebrations, the ReFrame Peterborough International Film Festival mounted an exhibit, “Rewind: The Electric City Goes to the Movies.”
As a member of the team that produced the exhibit, I am following up by researching and writing a book that delves into the social history of Peterborough’s movie-going experience, from the first film showing at the Bradburn Opera House in January 1897 to the present time.
I am trying to document all I can find out about where and how Peterborians saw motion pictures over the past one hundred and twenty years – everything from the first film showing in town (the Lumière cinematographe, in January 1897, at Bradburn’s Opera House) to the rise and fall of the local theatres – from Wonderland in 1907 through the Royal, Regent, Capitol, Centre, Odeon, and Paramount, among others, to today’s Galaxy complex – and including the drive-ins and repertory theatres (like the Festival Screening Room and the Kaos). Film festivals – Canadian Images, International Images, and the ReFrame Festival – and a short-lived Film Society are a part of the story too.
For years I've carried a memory of a woman with an oh-so-familiar face who sold tickets at the downtown theatres. Through my research I’ve found out that her name was Margaret Howe, and she worked in the Paramount and Odeon box offices from 1949 to 1976 (and at the Centre Theatre on George Street before that). No wonder I have always remembered her face.
I want to record the life and work of “ordinary” people like Margaret Howe and projectionist Emile Baumer – and Walter Noyes (who worked in downtown theatres from roughly 1905 to 1964) – who were, of course, not really so ordinary. And others – like the blacksmiths, cigar merchants, veterinarians, and jewellers who became involved in the business in the early years – and the musicians and other staff members who populated the downtown theatres for decade after decade.
In the years 1905 to 1908 huge crowds of city folk went by street car to Jackson Park on the outskirts of town to sit on the grass, eat peanuts, and watch motion pictures “flashed on a large white board supported by stilts.”
The name of Mike Pappas (or Mehail Pappakeriazes) was prominent in the downtown theatre business from 1905 to 1925. At one point in the 1910s a man named Herbert Clayton managed three downtown theatres; but his story, occurring in the Great War years, turned out to have a tragic twist.
The famous Toronto theatre impresario Ambrose Small – featured in Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion – also played a role in town, leaving the scene in a most mysterious fashion. A young police constable and later police chief, Samuel Newhall, enters the narrative a number of times in the early years.
In autumn 1907 a young songstress, Miss Edwards, sang “Is there any room in heaven for a little girl like me?” between changes of reels at the Crystal Theatre. In 1914 the Empire Theatre on Charlotte Street screened Tillie’s Punctured Romance starring Hollywood Academy-Award-winning actress Marie Dressler, who was born in Cobourg and first went on the stage in Lindsay.
In 1917, with the Great War on, at least one downtown theatre turned to “lady” managers and “lady” ushers. In the 1920s the pages of the Examiner featured Cathleen McCarthy, a local pioneering movie reviewer (she used the byline “Jeanette”).
As someone who came of age, more or less, in the 1950s – with its countless screenings of "Westerns" – I must first of all acknowledge that long before there was Peterborough, with its white settlers, there was Nogojiwanong (“place at the end of rapids”). The land that the invading Europeans took over was the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe or Anishnaabeg, adjacent to Haudenosaunee Territory. About a century later the colonization was formalized with the signing of the Williams Treaties in 1923.
The Indigenous peoples are of key consequence for this study, primarily in their (mis)representation in the Westerns and “Indian pictures” that proved so popular for decade after decade of film-going. The opening attraction at the city’s first storefront motion picture theatre in 1907 set the content tone: Life of a Cowboy (1906), a “stirring western drama,” featured “Cowboys and Indians.” And from then on, as American-Canadian (and half Cherokee) writer Thomas King puts it, “Hollywood has had a long-standing love affair with the Indian.” The love affair has been unequal and uneasy, a relationship based on standard and damaging stereotypes.
In 1911 it was considered to be quite newsworthy when Chief Joseph Whetung of Curve Lake “called into the Examiner” and talked to an editor about earlier days. “The Indians have come and gone,” the paper’s writer claimed – which, we can now so readily see, was so wrong, in so many ways, despite being in keeping with the sentiment and political purposes of the time.
The book will include photos and illustrations I’ve collected, some of which you can see on this website. Please take a look at the chapter excerpts to see more. The chapter excerpts all represent a work in progress; they are by no means final.
You can also follow a link to articles based on my research; for the most part they consist of material that won’t be in the final book: “A New Treat Comes to Town, and Receives a Mixed Welcome”; "The Legend of Groucho and the Marx Brothers in Peterborough.” And more . . .
You can help me, too. I am looking for stories, artifacts, and photos about Peterborough’s movie-going history. If you have any, please do let me know.
Thanks, Robert Clarke
Robert G. Clarke
Robert G. Clarke – that’s me, I guess, at least most days. I grew up in Peterborough, attending Queen Mary and PCVS and Knox United Church and going to downtown movie theatres from an early age. After leaving Peterborough in 1963 to attend Queen’s University in Kingston – sort of earning an Hons. B.A. in history and English (1967) and furthering my movie-going education – I later lived in London, England, Toronto, Ottawa, and Toronto again. I did a second degree, a B.Journalism at Carleton University, in 1976. A long-time editor (since 1978) at Between the Lines Press, Toronto, I moved back to Peterborough in 1990 and took up freelance book editing. In 1997 I put together a posthumous book by a great friend: dian marino: Wild Garden: Art, Education, and the Culture of Resistance. In 2008 I was shortlisted for the national Tom Fairly Award for Editorial Excellence for my work on Ruth Howard’s Gold Dust on His Shirt: The True Story of an Immigrant Mining Family. My own books include Ties That Bind: Canada and the Third World (1982), co-edited with Richard Swift; Getting Started on Social Analysis in Canada, 3rd. ed., co-written with Michael Czerny and Jamie Swift; A Judge of Valour: Chief Justice Sam Freedman – In His Own Words (2014), and Books Without Bosses: Forty Years of Reading Between the Lines, a graphic book illustrated by Kara Sievewright (2017). I’ve most recently edited a fascinating (and lengthy) book on a history close to my heart and experience – Radical Ambition: The New Left in Toronto, by Peter Graham with Ian McKay (Between the Lines, 2019).
A Big Thank You:
You wouldn't be reading this now without the encouragement, support, and creative computer wizardry of my son, Jonah Cristall-Clarke, who is helping so much to take me deeper into the twenty-first century.
And thanks also to the rest of my constant support group: Ferne Cristall, Gabe Clarke and Pete Barbour, Alex Gates, John Wadland, Richard Peachey, Krista English, and to all the members of the original ReFrame group who did so much to place this historical project in motion.
I’m too young to remember going to the Regent – someone I know recalls sitting in that theatre in the 1940s with mice running over his feet, I hate to say – but I do remember going in the early 1950s to the Centre, Capitol, Odeon, and Paramount, all on George Street. All now, of course, gone. But the ghosts of those theatres linger .
“Going to the show?” My memories of growing up in Peterborough – I have to say it was a while back, from the late 1940s into the early 1960s – are flooded with a steady and I hope not too damaging rush of movie-going experience.
Thursday evening, January 21, 1897, downtown Peterborough: Bradburn’s Opera House, with its seats and upper boxes for 1,000 people, was the place to be. Most if not all of the people who came out to the opera house on George Street on a clear but cold mid-winter evening would not have known quite what to expect.
In August 1905 in Peterborough, for a nickel patrons could hop on a trolley that eventually made its way up Monaghan Road to Jackson Park, where they could spend an evening listening to the band music and, as darkness fell, watching pictures “flashed on a large white board supported by stilts.”
The Rise and Fall of Wonderland. The city was by no means an easy place to break into. In April 1907 a couple of men came to town from London, Ontario, looking for a downtown spot to place a “vaudeville show.” But, a report said, it was “almost impossible to secure a store in the business section” given the “great demand for business places.” Soon enough, though, crowds of people no longer had to go to the outdoors of Jackson Park or other occasional indoor spaces to see the motion picture novelties.
In the beginning were the Coliseum and Wonderland, but very quickly thereafter the downtown was dotted with a number of theatres. Next came the Royal and the Princess on George Street – and, soon after that, the Empire Theatre on Charlotte. Meanwhile the Grand Opera House continued to show moving pictures along with its live performances; within a few years it would become the most prestigious venue of the motion picture.
Towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the supposedly magical technological gimmick and cheap amusement of motion pictures had become, in the words of a Daily Evening Review reporter, a “form of entertainment which is very apparently meeting with the rapidly growing appreciation of the public.”
On a Tuesday in early September 1912 readers of the Examiner were treated to a rare comment on the motion picture experience. A day or two earlier a lover of the pictures had walked into the paper’s office at 419 George and submitted a lengthy poem “bearing on . . . the Picture Theatre license discussion” – presumably the issue of provincial government fees for motion picture theatres. The paper’s editor decided to print the poem, giving the writer’s name as “Maria Emma Liffert.”
One autumn evening in 1916 people out and about on the George Street sidewalk were startled to see a runaway horse pulling a small wagon come pounding up the George Street pavement. The horse and wagon were “in full flight,” with no driver at the reins.
The modern amusement business did more than engage audiences; it also created job opportunities. Over the years, as outsiders came to town to open and manage motion picture houses (and soon departed), many steadfast Peterborians spent long years – even their lifetimes – working in the downtown theatres.
In 1916 a runaway express delivery horse had thrilled pedestrians with its charge in full flight up George Street – with the daring movie-like intervention of the police officer saving the day. As reported, the horse’s hoofbeats on the pavement sounded for all the world like the drumming of a musician in a silent-film movie orchestra. Well over a decade later, on a winter’s day in late February 1929, it was not a runaway horse but a car and driver who provided another real-life movie-like incident.
Marking the end of one era and the beginning of another, the talking pictures come to town in June 1929, to the delight of most, though perhaps not the local musicians.