The Closing of the Capitol Theatre, 1961

The “Entertainment District”: George Street, looking south from Charlotte, showing Capitol, Odeon, and Paramount, 1961. Trent Valley Archives, Electric City Collection, F50.

 

In small towns all over, including Peterborough, as a writer observed as early as 1907, the array of motion picture theatres 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.’” 

I almost feel like I should be there in this photo, lazily crossing George Street at Charlotte on my way to a Saturday afternoon movie. In 1961 I was sixteen or seventeen years old and going to the Capitol, Odeon, and Paramount on a regular, if not weekly, basis. Out of sight, just to the right on the corner of George and Charlotte, was Woolworth’s, where I bought my first LP, Elvis’ Golden Records (1958).

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The Closing of the Capitol Theatre

For those of a certain age, if you grew up in Peterborough in the 1950s and went to movies, you might, like me, have received a certain kind of education at the Capitol Theatre. That was where I first encountered iconic monsters – in Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, but screened in the mid-fifties at the Capitol). That was where I saw, and loved, countless Randolph Scott westerns. I recall too the strange but perhaps not surprising appeal of The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) or Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959, and not quite as sensational as the title would imply).

At that time the Capitol Theatre on George Street screened re-runs and cheaper Hollywood fare. By the 1950s the theatre, once a grand and prime site of movie-going in Peterborough, had seen better days – but it still had a lot to offer.

Capitol Theatre in 1951, cinematreasures.org.

Capitol Theatre in 1951, cinematreasures.org.

The Capitol opened amidst much fanfare on Monday, April 18, 1921. Its establishment represented the decline of local ownership and introduction of the corporate cinema in town – it was owned by the Famous Players Canadian Corporation (U.S.-controlled). It boasted 1,150 seats on a main floor and balcony, surrounded by “artistic lighting effects” and fixtures that were “exceptionally decorative.” Its opening featured an appearance by the famous magician John C. Green, the Ontario district manager for Famous Players Canadian theatres – who had in July 1896 in Ottawa overseen one of the earliest film exhibitions in Canada.

From its highly publicized opening until the construction of the Odeon and Paramount theatres in the late 1940s, the Capitol screened the biggest pictures: beginning with Humoresque (1920) through Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), the city’s first talkie (The Broadway Melody, which played in June 1929), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Gone with the Wind (1939).

Years later Stella Fulton Hetherington remembered how she and “her beau,” Red, got a spot near the beginning of the long lineup for the initial showing of Gone with the Wind – and they had come all the way from Buckhorn to be there. Among the others in the line that night was Jack Menzies, “decked out in a shirt and tie and suit coat.” Why? “It was a dress-up affair,” he recalled.

With the advent of the Odeon and Paramount, Famous Players leased the Capitol to its affiliate, 20th Century Theatres, and the movies shown there were decidedly no longer a dress-up affair. Then came the day the Examiner stated, “Peterborough’s corner of the movie world will undergo a minor earthquake this weekend,” announcing the closing of the Capitol and the restructuring of ownership of the other two remaining theatres.

The last pictures shown were, typically, quite old but worthy re-runs: Winchester ’73 (1950, with James Stewart and Shelley Winters) and the film noir Criss Cross (1949, with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo). A subsequent citizens’ movement aimed at protecting and reviving the theatre came to naught (city council decided not to help the group). Today the building, completely renovated, remains in place (the front has a new brick facade, but you can still see the original brick extending back on the north side, in the slight gap between buildings), and is home to various offices and businesses, including the Curry Village and Silk Roots restaurants.

Robert Clarke