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.


Other possible chapters to follow

12.New theatres, old theatres, and drive-ins,1940s–1970s

13. Multiple Screens, repertory cinemas, and the Cineplex Experience
14. The Magic of Film Festivals and the cinema today