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BOOK EXCERPT: Winnipeg's Picture Palaces

In 1923, the Met embodied the vision of the city's 'future greatness'

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After acquiring the Allen Theatre in Winnipeg, Famous Players found itself with two magnificent movie palaces half a block apart in the heart of the city's shopping and entertainment district. A contest resulted in the former Allen Theatre being renamed the Metropolitan. It reopened at noon on Saturday, July 28, 1923. More than 1,800 names were submitted for the contest, with "Prince of Wales" and "Tivoli" among the most popular. Metropolitan won because its shortened version ("Met") was "snappy and easily said" and because it reflected the "present position and character of Winnipeg in relation to the Dominion at large... and its future greatness." The prize of $200 was a large amount of money in 1923, but it was divided among the 194 entrants who had submitted the winning name.

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Winnipeg's first picture palace opened on January 2, 1920, built, owned and named by the Allen family. From a modest start with a small movie house in Brantford, Ont., in 1906, Allen Theatres had expanded under the leadership of brothers Jay J. and Jule Allen (with backing from their father Bernard) to become the largest Canadian-owned motion picture theatre chain. Their only competitor was a much smaller circuit controlled by N. L. Nathanson. It was to become the Famous Players Canadian Corporation.

After the resumption of theatre construction following the war years, the Allens opened a large and luxurious theatre in Toronto in 1917, sparking a cross-Canada battle between the two chains to outdo each other in erecting palatial movie houses. By the time construction of the Winnipeg Allen Theatre was underway, the Allen family owned 45 theatres from coast to coast.

Winnipeg's Allen was designed by C. Howard Crane following the neo-classical motif that was first used in American movie palaces by Charles Lamb. With light brown brick and terra cotta ornamentation over a steel frame, it was constructed for an estimated cost of $500,000. The ventilation system alone was said to have cost $52,000, enough to build a conventional movie house at the time.

Although there was access to the main floor of the 2,000-seat auditorium through two portals, the theatre was designed to encourage patrons to choose balcony seating. Twin grand staircases led to a magnificent 120-by-30-foot (37-by-9-metre) promenade on the mezzanine level that was decorated with plaster ornaments and garlands. It featured beautiful arched windows, mirrors and wall sconce lighting, with a luxuriously furnished gentleman's smoking room and a ladies restroom at each end. Two portals provided access to the curved, 1,000-seat balcony. The promenade was furnished with overstuffed sofas, upholstered chairs and writing desks and included a fountain and live orange trees. The colour scheme of the theatre was described as "old rose, ivory and French grey."

Suspended from the impressive domed ceiling of the auditorium was a massive crystal chandelier that dimmed but continued to glow softly when films were being shown. The chandelier could be lowered when it required dusting. The lighting in the dome itself was recessed, and the entire theatre could be illuminated without a single bulb being visible. A dimmer system enabled the house lights to be turned up gradually after a movie to allow patrons' eyes to adjust to the change. The exceptionally wide, upholstered leather seats were the latest design, and could be adjusted independently without disturbing neighbouring seats. The end seats in each aisle incorporated an "aislette," a small light that illuminated the aisle for patrons to find their way but didn't interfere with the projection of the picture. The seats in the loges were made of wicker.

The Allen Theatre was clearly the largest and most luxurious motion picture theatre in Manitoba, and its owners and managers were justified in taking great pride in it. Unfortunately, its status as the biggest and the best was to be brief, and the empire that the Allan family envisioned was soon to crumble.

Allen Theatres was an exclusively Canadian company that relied on Canadian investors, and its ambitious building program, aggravated by a recession in 1921, left the firm seriously overextended. Despite its name, Famous Players Canadian Corporation had considerable backing from major American movie studios and had wrested away from Allen the exclusive rights to distribute Paramount films in Canada. In 1923, the Allens declared bankruptcy and Famous Players purchased 35 of the largest Allen theatres, including the Winnipeg cinema, at bargain prices.

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Over the decades, the Metropolitan (along with the Capitol) continued to draw crowds to see first-run pictures, and it maintained a schedule of six showings a day well into the 1970s. The Met closed its doors on Nov. 26, 1987 and the building was put up for sale by Famous Players.

There have been relatively few changes to the Metropolitan Theatre building since it opened. With the arrival of talkies, sound equipment was installed in 1928, and this was periodically upgraded. Other alterations in 1928 saw the removal of the two shops on the front of the building and the relocation of the box office, as well as the opening of two new entrances to the auditorium. Other than the removal of some seats at the back, the auditorium has remained basically intact.

The Metropolitan Theatre building was designated a Grade II Historical Building by the City of Winnipeg in 1997 and is also a National Historic site. Various proposals for its use have emerged periodically, but as this book went to press, the last remaining picture palace in Winnipeg sat intact but vacant.

Excerpted from Silver Screens:

an Illustrated History of Motion Picture Theatres in Manitoba, by Russ Gourluck copyright 2012, with permission from Great Plains Publications.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 J4

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