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

By Robert G. Clarke

 

“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

From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.
— Groucho Marx, blurb for S.J. Perelman’s first book, 1929

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”).

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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.

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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