Last month, Todd Britton, president of Academy Lanes, announced his bowling alley was unable to reach a new lease agreement with the building’s owner. It means the end of a 35-year-old institution at 394 Academy Rd. and puts the future of one of the city’s more unique buildings in doubt.
Though it has been home to a bowling alley for the last 57 years, the building spent its first three decades as a movie theatre.
The Uptown Theatre was financed by Jack Miles’ Allied Amusements Ltd., which amassed a chain of neighbourhood theatres starting with the Palace on Selkirk Avenue in 1912, then the Rose on Sargent Avenue, the Plaza on Marion Street and the Roxy on Henderson Highway.
Initially, the Academy Road theatre was to be similar in size — about 800 seats — and appearance to the others in the chain. Late in the planning stages, Allied was able to purchase an additional lot on Ash Street.
In mid-May 1930, the company asked the city to change the zoning of the Ash Street lot from residential to commercial use so it could be included in the project. In return, Allied promised to build the "largest and finest neighbourhood theatre" in the country, with nearly twice the capacity and at three times the cost of the originally planned structure.
A number of area residents were concerned about noise and parking issues that might arise from having such a large venue at the end of the street. The two sides tried to negotiate an agreement but instead reached a deadlock.
The city took up the matter at the Aug. 30, 1930 zoning committee meeting. The opposing sides presented their cases, but rather than impose a decision, councillors sent them away to try again to reach an agreement on their own.
By December, there was a breakthrough. Allied agreed to have a shallower footprint on the Ash Street lot, leaving a buffer of land between the building and the residences behind it. They would also build a parking lot at the southeast corner of Academy Road and Waterloo Street for the use of their patrons. In return, a "reasonable majority" of residents signed a petition in favour of the project.
In January 1931, Allied took out an additional $76,000 building permit for the larger theatre, bringing the total permit value for the building to $136,000. (The final cost, including furnishings, was estimated to have been around $300,000.)
It was now up to architect Max Zev Blankstein, who had designed the chain’s four other theatres, to deliver a venue worthy of the company’s promise.
On the Roxy’s ceiling, Blankstein experimented with a new style of theatre design that had become popular in the United States in the late 1920s, known as the "atmospheric theatre." The objective was to make patrons feel as if they were watching the movie in the open air. For the Uptown, he pulled out all of the architectural stops.
The hall’s setting was that of a public square in a Moorish village. The surrounding walls included detailed facades of village buildings overlooking the seating area.
The ceiling was painted blue, with twinkling stars inserted into the plaster. Images of moving clouds were projected onto it to add to the open-air feel. The hall’s lighting came from 16 spotlights placed around the periphery of the hall rather than traditional chandeliers so as not to ruin the effect.
The exterior of the building was equally unique, designed to resemble a Mediterranean villa with wrought iron balconies, colourful stucco finish and red tile roof. The roof line, with its domes, resembled that of a mosque.
Though the setting was meant to be outdoors, patrons were certainly not roughing it. The Uptown boasted a large, well-furnished lobby with plush carpeting running throughout the building.
The seats, 1,200 on the main floor and more than 400 on the balcony, were mohair-backed with leather bottoms stuffed with horsehair for a feeling of luxury. The front row of the balcony and the loges had "chesterfield style" seating.
For safety, the Uptown included a state-of-the-art ventilation system and boasted a wood-free, fireproof hall. It was also claimed to be the first theatre in the country to use an Orthokrome screen which, a writeup in the Free Press stated, was "said to adhere all the red light rays reputed to be harmful to the eyes."
To name the theatre, Allied held a contest asking readers of the Free Press and the Tribune to write a short essay recommending a name and explaining why they chose it. The winning entry would receive a Northern Electric radio and have their essay published in the papers.
Some 30,000 entries were submitted. (This was during the Great Depression, so a free radio was a welcome gift.) The jury panel, made of a representative from Allied, the Tribune and the Free Press, sifted through them and chose the Uptown Theatre. The winning name was announced on Oct. 5, 1931 on the stage of the Roxy Theatre. Because there were 39 entries suggesting Uptown, no one person was singled out.
Mayor Ralph Webb presided over the opening ceremony on Christmas Eve 1931. Also on stage was Jack Miles and Donald Gauld, formerly the manager of the Roxy and the Uptown’s first manager. It does not appear architect Blankstein was present and, sadly, he died one week after opening night. The ceremony was followed by a newsreel, a movie short and the feature film The Brat, starting Sally O’Neill and Frank Albertson.
The theatre was built as a movie house but had a small stage area. Though too shallow for most live events, these were hard times for theatres, and the Uptown had to fill as many seats as possible. Management managed to squeeze in lectures, recitals and fundraising concerts as a regular part of the schedule through the 1930s and 1940s.
The Uptown mainly showed the second run of top films, often as a double bill. Saturday afternoons were the usual neighbourhood theatre fare of westerns and cartoons.
An exception came in the early 1940s through a partnership with Famous Players known as Sneak Preview Thursdays. For more than five years, theatre-goers could catch a first-run film, — including the likes of Jayne Eyre, Humphrey Bogart’s Sahara and the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movie Road to Morocco — at the Uptown before they premièred downtown the next night.
The theatre was also pressed into service in February 1941 to take over the run of Gone With the Wind when the Capitol gave it up after showing it continuously for a year.
The rising popularity of television helped bring an end to the neighbourhood theatres. Many chains, big and small, faltered, and their theatres were sold off for demolition or conversion into other uses.
The Roxy and Uptown hung on longer than most. By 1960, they were part of the Western Theatre chain, co-owned by Jack Miles, when it was announced they would both be converted into bowling alleys.
On Sunday, May 15, 1960, the Uptown Theatre held a farewell afternoon with a free feature and six cartoons.
It took four months to demolish the building’s interior and install 30 bowling lanes on two levels.
Uptown Bowling Lanes, Winnipeg’s largest, opened on Sept. 29, 1960. The next month, a formal opening ceremony took place featuring Cactus Jack Wells as MC and a fashion show of the latest bowling attire.
In the 1970s, Allied Amusements, by then called Miles Enterprises, hired Brian and Heather Britton of Saskatoon to manage the business. They eventually moved onto other jobs, but when Miles put the business up for sale in 1982, the Brittons purchased it, and it has been run by the family ever since.
In 1985, Miles Enterprises applied to the city for permission to demolish the Uptown Theatre/Academy Lanes building, arguing its impending Grade III heritage building designation was the same as "expropriation without compensation." David Miles, son of Jack, claimed the building was economically marginal at best and their only option was to replace it with a modern, commercial strip mall.
The move met opposition from some residents and heritage advocates, which set off a fight that saw the city uphold, then remove, then uphold again, the building’s heritage status. Though the demolition was prevented, Miles was permitted as a consolation to add a modern, two-storey addition to the side of the existing building. In 1990, the Miles family sold the business to Globe Property Management of Winnipeg.
Though the building was spared, the continuing decline in popularity of bowling put the business in jeopardy.
A new trend in the U.S. called "glow bowling" attracted the Brittons’ attention. Featuring nightclub-like lighting, glow-in-the-dark painted surroundings and a steady soundtrack of pop music, it was successfully bringing non-bowlers into bowling alleys for the first time. After checking it out for themselves, in 1996 Academy Lanes became the city’s first to offer glow bowling, and it is credited with saving the business.
Academy Lanes is scheduled to close its doors July 18, and the building’s owner has not yet revealed what the future holds for the place that has created fond memories for generations of Winnipeggers.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.