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.
Luckily, a local police constable was pounding his own beat that night in the vicinity of the Peterborough Hardware store at 368 George, just north of Simcoe. P.C. Clarence Dickson ran out into the street and hopped onto the tail board of the wagon. Quickly scrambling to the front, he worked his way out over the shafts and managed to grab hold of the horse’s reigns, bringing the horse “to a standstill.” Quite possibly the bystanders gave a round of applause. As the Examiner reported the next day, they had been treated to “an unusual thrill.”
The horse and wagon belonged to the Spenceley’s family’s express delivery service (City Transfer Co.). The driver had gone into the C.P.R. station on George just south of downtown. While he was inside, the horse, somehow spooked, had dashed wildly up four blocks of the main street – crashing past the Turner Building, Grand Opera House, Custom House, Market Hall, Royal Theatre, and Dominion Bank.
A “runaway” horse was not an uncommon event in Peterborough in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century; stories about runaways appeared regularly in the pages of the local papers. The heroic rescue of P.C. Dickson was less common. For the bystanders the incident was surely a sensation. But it was also something more: a real-life glimpse of what would become a standard action scene witnessed in countless movies – especially “B” Westerns – over the following decades. Just as significant was the newspaper’s next-day description. A reporter related how the horse’s hoofs went up the street “clattering on the pavement with all the runaway realism affected by a versatile traps man [or drummer] in a movie orchestra.”
The “movie” experience had truly entered the cultural imagination of the times.
“The New ‘Empire’ Theatre . . . opens to-day.”
So proclaimed a not-to-be-missed banner ad stretched across the top of the Examiner’s page 7 on Friday, July 24, 1914. The name of the theatre proved prescient, for just a few days later saw the beginning of the bitter battle of the “empires” first known as the “European War” and soon as the “Great War” and later the “First World War.” Although touted on the home front as a case of “Humanity against Barbarism,” under any name it would prove over time to be both supremely misbegotten and painfully costly on all sides.
In the meantime a middle-aged veterinary surgeon, Dr. Fred L. Robinson, had decided for some reason that animals and motion pictures would make a profitable mix. In December 1913 the vet announced plans for extreme renovations to what was known as “Robinson’s block,” an area that took up much of the north side of Charlotte Street, west of George, with buildings stretching from the Curling Club Rink (no. 218) to Alymer Street. Robinson had decided to transform part of his Charlotte Street property into a “modern picture theatre . . . ornamented with a splendid front.”