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Grab some popcorn and let’s go to the movies: 1905 to 1960

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Randy Evans & Gary Shrumm

In March of 1920 Sarnia’s first Imperial Theatre opened its doors downtown with great fanfare.

Tyron Power Sr., a huge theatre and film star of the day, took the stage before a packed first night audience, which was quite a coup for a city of 13,000 people.

Townsfolk had been flocking to movies since August of 1905 when the ‘Electric

The air conditioned Park Theatre was located in what is now the Stones ‘N Bones Museum.
Pauline Wetering photo

Palace’ opened in Lake Huron Park.

Reported crowds of five hundred souls would attend the Palace and downtown’s Market Square, and be entertained by up to ten shows per night – so short were the silent films of the era.

The first film reportedly screened in Sarnia was the long forgotten “Burned at the Stake.” As silent films matured in length and depth, local folk were entertained by the pioneering stars of the silver screen, including Sarnia-born Marie Prevost (1898-1937) and Toronto’s Mary Pickford (1892 -1979).

In 1907, the Empire Theatre became Sarnia’s first indoor movie theatre. Located at 153 Front St. in a building now gone, the Empire’s management offered a reward of $10 to anyone who found its product immoral. It cost four cents to see a movie called “The Dog Smuggler,” and apparently the response was strong, because the management asked woman and children to restrict their attendance to afternoon showings only. The Empire closed its doors in 1913.

Competing with the Empire was the Princess Theatre (now Norton Hairstyling), the Royal Theatre (in a Front Street building now gone) The Crescent Theatre, which billed itself as ‘A Picture Playhouse of Character’ (now Stone ‘N Bones Museum) and The Auditorium (where City Hall now stands and later renamed The Griffin). The Royal and Princess, however, faltered within a few years.

By the time the “talkies” arrived in the early 1920s the town had three movie theatres: the Imperial Theatre (site of today’s Stardust Book Lounge), the Crescent Theatre (renamed The Park in 1941-42 and now Stones ‘N Bones), and the Griffin Theatre, which was renamed The Temple in 1927.

These venues provided not only movie entertainment but also live vaudeville performances. Although promoted as “Class Acts,” the ads for these shows bear witness to the fact Sarnians weren’t treated to vaudevillians of the highest calibre.

Over time new venues were established — The Capital (1936, now The Imperial Theatre,) the Odeon (1945-46 and now the vacant Industry Theatre) and The Star Top Drive-In (1952-53) on Plank Road.

The theatre landscape changed abruptly on May 21, 1953 when the infamous Sarnia tornado literally brought the house down at The Imperial. At the time, the establishment was advertising its twin bill of movies as “smash hits.” Indeed.

In less spectacular fashion, The Park folded in 1960, leaving the Capital, Odeon and the drive-in as the only place moviegoers could see the stars, including local notables such as James Doohan, Ryck Rydon and Susan Clark.

Except for those teens who were preoccupied in the back rows, movie watching was fun in the day. And we can smell the popcorn even now.

Randy Evans and Gary Shrumm are historical researchers and writers in Sarnia



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