In the beginning were the Coliseum and Wonderland, which quickly came and went, but not long after that the downtown was dotted with a number of theatres. Next came the Royal and the Princess on George Street – and, opening in summer 1914, 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.
In the 1910s, then, Peterborough had five motion picture theatres, of various sizes, all within a brief walking distance of each other in the city core. In small towns, as a writer observed as early as 1907, the array of these places of “cheap amusement” was a “boon” to local businesses, transforming an otherwise commonplace downtown street “into a bright, gay avenue, where the residents flock nightly ‘to see what is new.’”
When the Royal Theatre opened in December 1908 at 348 George St. it was replacing, at least in a small way, the nearby Bradburn’s Opera House, which was just next door. The Bradburn building itself had remained a busy place in the first decade of the century. In 1903 and 1904 the occupants of 344 George Street included T. Evans Bradburn, real estate agent (and son of the Bradburn’s original owner, Thomas), who managed the Bradburn estate; the Grand Trunk Railway ticket office; Wm. Bunton, a passenger agent for the GTR; the Albany Club; Wm. H. Callahan, billiards; and a room or rooms occupied by a mysterious Mrs. Mary O’Brien. But the Bradburn’s performance space, or Victoria Hall – the glorious site of the town’s very first motion picture exhibition – had fallen on hard times. By 1905 the auditorium tended to be featuring wrestling and boxing events and the odd concert and political event. It could also still pack in the audiences: as late as mid-January 1905, one Friday evening the Bradburn was “packed to the doors,” with “not a vacant seat,” for a concert organized by the St. Peter’s Total Abstinence Society, which was clearly a going concern in those days.
Yet the original opera house, only a quarter of a century old, had, according to one account, “become outmoded and was no longer adequate for the business.” In January 1904 a man signing himself “Humiliated” had written to the Daily Examiner complaining about a recent evening spent at the theatre. He had seen “an excellent pair of plays splendidly produced,” but they had been “cruelly marred by the absence of stage scenery and accessories.” He compared the experience to the “shame” of “receiving a guest in a drawing room furnished something after the manner of a stable.” A town with the “beauty and progressiveness” of Peterborough could do much better.
He was not alone. In the early years of the century local worthies were decrying the city’s lack of a proper auditorium. The rumblings had started as early as April 1902, when owner Rupert H. Bradburn, apparently feeling the pressure, announced plans for major renovations, including lowering the floor of the opera house one storey and increasing its width to the full extent of the building. He envisaged “modern seats, placed in amphitheatre form,” larger stage accommodations, more “spacious galleries,” and “other improvements.” For years the general feeling had been that, despite a steady flow of minstrel shows and concerts and plays, the opera house had “outlived its usefulness” and could not bring in “the very best attractions to draw a large audience.” With Bradburn’s new design the town would at last see “an opera house which will fully meet all requirements.”
Those ambitious plans seem to have fallen by the wayside, with other inclinations taking over. It appears that Rupert Bradburn decided it might be better to start afresh, with a brand new opera house. Early in 1903 an Examiner editorial opined: “The central fact remains that Peterborough – whether town or city – in order to have her equipment of modern convenience up to the mark, must have an opera house worthy of its importance.” In February 1903 local real estate agent William Fair travelled to Toronto “on business in connection with the Peterborough Conservatory of Music” in an attempt to raise money for the building of a new opera house. Fair apparently met with several former Peterborough “gentlemen” who had moved to the bigger city. He also spoke with rising theatre magnate Ambrose J. Small, who owned opera houses in Hamilton, Toronto, London, and Kingston. According to the report, Small agreed to take a “large block of stock” plus lease the promised Peterborough building for ten years. For the time being nothing seemed to have come from that, and two years later a new opera house was still only a dream, with the urgent need for one continuing to be expressed. An Examiner editorial in March 1905 extolled Peterborough’s “advantages” as being “far in advance of other towns, and most cities” – including the many “splendid” parks, the water works system, “the cheapest electric light and power in the province,” an excellent street railway system, summer resorts, and, looking ahead, the “splendid” armouries and “fine collegiate institute and separate school,” which were in the works – but “an opera house is one of our wants, and that will, it is hoped, soon come.”
The sadly lacking Bradburn hall continued to draw good audiences for the occasional evening – on March 18, 1905, it was again “filled” to capacity “in every part” for a concert by the T.A.S., and Peterborough’s very popular (and very good) 57th Regimental Band played there to a large house a week later – but still the need for a proper auditorium stood out. When the Bijou Comedy Co. brought its play Under Two Flags to the Bradburn in February the notice stated quite frankly that it was coming with “improved stage furnishings which will be made suitable to the inconveniences of the Opera House.” Peterborough, now a city of about 15,000 people, had experienced a “dearth of good entertainment” through the previous winter, the Examiner editorialized. “Peterborough has arrived at the stage of importance, when the humiliation of having to hold entertainment in a sort of superior barn like the present so-called Opera House is very greatly felt.” The city was without a place “where respectable dramas can be respectively put on or where a respectable concert can be respectably held. . . . Even the barn-storming dramatic companies that hold forth in the present Opera Hall make its dilapidated grotesqueries a butt of ridicule by their cheap comic man.” Peterborians were having to go off to “the city” to “hear a good opera or good concert under tolerable conditions.” Finally, the editorial concluded: “It’s none too early now to begin moving for a new Opera House which can be ready for the opening of next winter’s entertainment season.”
Amazingly, after such bleak prospects for so long, the “dream of years” would soon be realized. . . .