Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Victoria Theatre: Wellington Village's place to be in the 1930s and 40s

Many of us in Kitchissippi still have memories of the good old days of the Elmdale Theatre. In some ways it seems crazy that it has been now more than twenty years since it closed in 1994, unable to compete in the fast-moving and changing business of movies, with huge megaplexes, constantly evolving technology and a greater demand on overall movie-going experience. The little two-screen Elmdale at the corner of Wellington and Hamilton just couldn't keep up. Nor could any of its companions like the Somerset and Elgin. And it really is unfortunate that it could not. The youths of Kitchissippi today will likely now never experience going to a movie in this neighbourhood; an experience now requiring a long bus ride west (to the Coliseum), south (South Keys) or east (Silver City) to take a date and see a movie. Even all the downtown theatres are closed. A tragedy. At least we at least still have the Elmdale Theatre building to look at (or maybe not, after all it is a daily constant reminder of what we've lost).

But besides the Elmdale (which I'll surely cover some day more extensively on this blog), I wanted to briefly talk about a different movie theatre which I'd bet 99.9% of Kitchissippians don't ever know existed, and equally would be hard-pressed to even try to picture where it once stood for nearly 40 years.

In the early 1930s, Wellington Village was exploding. The Ottawa Land Association had finally sold off all the lots in the early 20s (after sitting on the land for 30 years) and the roaring 20s saw a huge boom in construction on streets on both sides of Wellington West. Even the depression did not slow development too much, and by the 1930s, there was a great movement afoot for commercial interests to move in to the area and take advantage of a lack of infrastructure such as shopping, grocery stores and most notably, entertainment.

Aerial photo from May 5, 1933 of Wellington Street.
Huron on the right, Caroline on the left.
Hintonburg had a theatre since 1914 at 1045 Wellington Street (now an empty lot next to the Wellington Towers apartment building across from the St. Francois D'Assise Church), but west of this theatre, there was nothing. So in the summer of 1934, construction of a new movie theatre began on a large empty lot on the north side of Wellington Street, between Huron and Caroline. 

The 800-seat theatre was built by a business called the "Wellington Amusement Company", at a cost of around $38,000. The general contractors for the job were a little-known Ottawa business, the Ottawa Construction Company (president Edgar Proulx). Walls, tiling, ceramic floors and steel windows were supplied by the F.H. Emra Company, specifically highlighting their use of haydite, a lightweight concrete, for "perfect sound" and acoustics. The seats installed were the Interior Hardwood Company's patented "Self-Tilt Theatre Chairs, which are roomy, comfortable", and were equipped with the Dunlop Tire and Rubber Goods Company's "Dunlopillo" cushioned seats "which mould themselves to your figure" and "never heats, as each unit is self-ventilated. As soon as it is released from weight, it springs back to normal shape." 

Construction details of the Victoria Theatre: Ottawa Journal December 1, 1934

The grand opening was held on Saturday December 1st, 1934 with 4 showings of the movies "The Thin Man" and "Evergreen" at 12:30, 3:00, 7:00 and 9:00.  

Programming consisted of two changes weekly of double-feature programs. The prices weren't too bad either: Admission to matinees on Saturdays and holidays were 10 cents for children and 15 cents for adults; while for evening performances, of which there were two each night, at 7 and 9 p.m., was 25 cents for adults.

The Ottawa newspaper at the time related the importance of the theatre: "As a theatre has become an essential feature in neighborhood community life it is natural that the West End merchants are keenly interested in the success of the "Victoria" which is a welcome addition to the social life of one of Ottawa's most progressive districts". 

The Victoria Theatre (photo from the Ottawa Journal, December 1 1934)

The Victoria was indeed an instant success in the community. So much so that within less than a year, already the community association and politicians were concerned about parking issues which had developed along Wellington Street. The obvious solution of course: ban parking on Wellington Street! I don't know how they resolved the issue, but this was merely a blip in a successful start-up of the local business.

Somewhat oddly, only four months after opening, the Wellington Amusement Company sold the theatre to well-known Hull-based theatre operator Donat Paquin for $40,000. Paquin would be the one to run the theatre for the next 13 years, the golden years of Wellington Village's development.

The Victoria Theatre - National Archives photo C80423, and borrowed from
Alain Miguelez's incredible book "A Theatre Near You". Thyme & Again's
building can be seen in the background at right.

Ottawa Citizen - August 14 1936

In August of 1936, The Victoria showed "Charlie Chan's Secret" starring Rosina Lawrence, who spent her childhood years on Wilmont Avenue in Westboro before moving to Hollywood and starring in several major movies.






Below is a really cool fire insurance plan view from 1948, showing the block between Caroline and Huron: the Royal Bank (now Flock Boutique), Loblaw Groceteria (now St. Vincent De Paul), the Century Theatre (now the large apartment building), and Higman's Hardware & Paint Shop (now Thyme & Again).
Goad's Fire Insurance Plan from 1948 

Aerial photo from 1965, showing the theatre in use as a car dealership
The Victoria would later be purchased by Twentieth Century Theatres in 1947, and would be renovated (with air conditioning) and reopened as the Century Theatre in 1948, to compete with the Elmdale Theatre (which had opened across the street in 1947). It lost out, and after a brief stint as the "Towne Cinema" from 1954-55, sat vacant for two years (it was considered an option to deal with the overcrowding of Fisher Park High School in 1956), re-opened as the Towne briefly during the winter of 1957-58, was a temporary lodging site of the Parkdale Baptist Church during renovations in 1958, and finally re-emerged as a car dealership and service centre in December of 1958 (Paul Cardinal Ltd., dealer of Austin cars). Cardinals would remain open until 1969, replaced by Jack Samuels Garage for a few years, until it was torn down around 1975, and replaced with the apartment building which is still on this spot today.

Ottawa Journal - December 30, 1952

I hope you enjoyed this article, and maybe you'll view this spot on Wellington a little differently now! I've only really covered the basic history of the theatre. For more information, a more comprehensive history of the theatre is covered excellently in a great book written by local Ottawa historian and movie theatre expert Alain Miguelez, "A Theatre Near You". If you have not seen this book yet, I encourage you to seek it out.  Easily one of my 3 favorite books I own. It is nearly 400 pages of well-researched and wonderfully-described stories and details of every theatre in Ottawa's history. More photographs than you can imagine, and you can tell he has put his soul into this book. There are 4 pages on the Victoria Theatre alone. 


4 comments:

  1. I loved this story, and the map and pictures. When we first moved to Caroline in 1974, the theatre was gone, but Higman's Hardware was still there. The apartment building was already there when we moved in (May 1974) but the Loblaws had disappeared. One error, I think: Samuels' car dealership was on the next block west, where the apartment building with Bridgehead is now. (I live next door and for may years my view was of that garage building as it deteriorated.)

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    1. hi Barbara, thanks very much for visiting the site, and for your comments! This is exactly why I love doing this blog, it brings out first-hand accounts and experiences of these very businesses and streetscapes. As for Samuels, you're right. Well, technically we both are I guess. I researched a bit more deeply, and you're definitley right - Samuels was up just west of the Caroline intersection for a very long time (back to the 50s). It appears that when Cardinal closed his shop in '69 in the former Victoria location (and moved his operations to Hull), that Samuels took over 1259 Wellington, as additional space to their flagship location at 1277 Wellington. They used 1259 to sell exclusively used cars at that location, and apparently did so for a few years. So it's interesting to put that together. Thanks for the heads-up on that. And again, thanks for reading. Cheers!

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  2. Excert From Obituary - Death notice J Romeo Cyr , the Ottawa Journal , Wednesday March 30 1960 ( death date March 28 1960 )

    J. Romeo Cyr

    J. Romeo Cyr , 309 St. Patrick street , a painter at the Jack Samuel Garage until his retirement in 1955 , died suddenly at his home Monday . He was 62 .

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  3. I remember all of that. It also had an Ottawa Journal paper depot in the rear of the building. I suspect the Victoria Tea Room which was kitty corner to the theater may have taken its name from it.

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