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.
Walter “Curley” Noyes was one of them. It appears likely that in November 1905, as a boy of thirteen, he was volunteering to open and close the doors of the spanking new Grand Opera House on George Street (on the site where the Venue is today). In 1913 he was a paid employee at the Grand when it was screening Paul J. Rainey’s Jungle Pictures. Just short of fifty years later – in 1961 – he was a doorman at the Capitol Theatre when that aged movie theatre closed down with a re-run of Winchester ’73 (1950), featuring James Stewart, on screen. As late as 1964 Noyes could still be seen greeting people at the nearby Paramount.
As Noyes recalled, when he started out, “The Royal and the Tiz-It used to play the same vaudeville acts and the players with make-up still on went from one show to the other by carriage and horses.” By the time he finished the world had fast cars and TV sets and a dwindling number of movie screens – and relatively few live performances.
Noyes, born March 10, 1892, was the youngest in a family of five children. His father, John, had first come to Canada in 1872 as a single man, then returned to England, got married, and finally immigrated for good in 1882 with his wife Mary, son George (born in 1879), and daughter Elizabeth (born 1881). At first the family lived in the area of Stirling, southeast of Peterborough, where another daughter, Caroline, was born in 1883. The rest of the flock – Lillian (1885), Florence (1888), and Walter – were born in Lakefield, just north of Peterborough. In 1900 the family moved to Peterborough, settling into a house in “East City” in the shadow of Armour Hill. For the next thirty years family members occupied the same house there, at 224 Munro Ave.
From 1901 to 1906 Walter's father John Noyes worked on the Trent Valley Canal, as it was then called, and later, until his retirement in 1921, on the Grand Trunk Railway. Mother Mary worked at home, looking after family needs. John's brother Charles also settled in Peterborough and raised a family. Charles worked on the GTR for most of his life, and when he died in 1925 an obituary noted, “For a number of years he was stationed at the Charlotte Street crossing where he made a host of friends.”
Walter "Curley" Noyes got his start in the theatre world by doing what he called “swinging the doors.” At a young age he made the half-hour walk from home to downtown, going west across the river on the old wrought-iron bridge and working his way south to Charlotte Street and the Grand Opera House, where he found a spot opening and closing the entrance doors for the patrons – a common pastime of a young boy who wanted to get into the shows but could not afford the price of a ticket. An eager boy, he explained, would show up at the theatre and “swing open the front doors for incoming theatre patrons.” The boy didn’t get paid, but the work was appreciated and afterwards he was allowed to go inside for free to see a show.
At some point, Noyes said, “another boy interested in the theatre” would come along wanting to swing the front doors, and the original boy would then go into the theatre to “swing the inside doors” for patrons. If he stuck with it, “a boy would work himself into a theatre job that would pay.” He might become an usher or stage hand or box-office attendant, among other possibilities.
In his teenage days, while not “swinging doors,” Noyes worked as a labourer; in 1909, as a seventeen-year-old, he was employed at the Curtis Brickworks. In 1914 the city directory listed him as an “app” – an apprentice to what is unknown – and in 1915 as a labourer. Soon enough, though, still a young man, he managed to follow the “swinging door” path to the theatre himself. By his own account he was employed at the Opera House by 1912; by 1916–17 he was officially listed as a “property man” there. In the 1910s and 1920s he did everything he could: stagehand, janitor, carpenter, electrician, doorman.
When work at the opera house wound down in the late 1920s, Noyes again became a general “labourer,” doing odd jobs around town during the difficult Depression years of the 1930s. Sometime in the early 1940s he returned to the “amusement” sector with a job at the Yeotes brothers’ “Louis Billiards and Tobaccos” on George St. before finding employment as cleaner, janitor, and finally doorman, or usher, at the Capitol Theatre. He remained there for almost twenty years. In 1962–63, after that movie house closed, he moved a few doors down George to the Paramount Theatre as doorman. Not surprisingly, Noyes was declared a “George Street fixture.”
Noyes never married. After his father died in 1925, he continued to live with his mother on Munro Ave. After her death in 1933 he stayed on in the house for a while before taking a room with his brother and family on nearby Rogers St. Soon after that, living alone, he took up a succession of rooms on Downie, Simcoe, and Rubidge streets.
His 1960 photo shows a large man, seemingly proud of his usher’s uniform, with a smiling, friendly demeanour and a sparkle in his eye. (I can imagine him there, greeting people inside the Capitol, when I went to see a re-run of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in the mid-1950s.) He admitted to having a certain nostalgia for the “good old days.” Walter "Curley" Noyes died in 1965.