A 2009 view of the former Rex Movie Theatre. Built in 1912

A 2009 view of the former Rex Movie Theatre. Built in 1912

The Best Moving Picture House in the West

JANUS: Cranbrook Then and Now: Jim Cameron talks about one of Cranbrook's early theatres.

Jim Cameron

The Rex Theatre opened for business on Norbury (10th) Ave. on Saturday, November 28, 1912. It was not the first movie theatre in town — the Edison Theatre adjoining the Wentworth Hotel on Baker Street and the Auditorium on Norbury Avenue, directly adjacent to the newly constructed Rex Theatre had both been showing slides and moving pictures off and on for a number of years — but it was the first building whose sole design was dedicated to the increasingly popular medium of film.

It was a good time to open a movie house. By 1911, moving pictures, once the dominion of low-brow nickelodeons and sideshows, were slowly becoming respectable. Although 15 minute one-reelers were still very much the norm, new companies such as Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, Universal and Columbia were exploring the role of feature, full-length pictures, while movie distributors such as the Famous Players Film Co. were ensuring that the movies made in the young community of Hollywood were reaching theatres across the continent.

Further, in 1912, a publication titled Photoplay began publication. Generally considered the first true “fan” magazine, it contributed greatly to the concept of the “movie star” among the general public. Although the movers and shakers of the day didn’t know exactly how big movies would become, they certainly knew they were on to something, so saying, when the Johnson brothers rolled into Cranbrook and struck an agreement with local contractor George Leask to construct a new movie house which he would then lease to them, they were riding the crest of what would soon become a tidal wave of film.

The west side of Norbury Avenue wasn’t exactly crowded at the time. A 1911 directory lists the Palm Confectionary (now High Country Sports), the Auditorium Theatre, R. J. Binning photo studio and the original Catholic church as neighbours, with perhaps a residence or two thrown in (house numbering in the early directories was nominal, to say the least). By October, 1912, the theatre was rapidly taking shape and by late November it was ready to open. The plate glass mirrors, cosmetic trim, assorted projection equipment and radiators were still on their way but the grand opening took place regardless.

The local Prospector newspaper gushed in praise of the new theatre, claiming that the Rex Theatre “…will stand for some time to come as an example to the city of Cranbrook, in architecture and for the method of providing general comfort to its patrons. Its decorations and general appearance is par excellence, and can easily be considered the neatest and best equipped building in the city.” The “neatest and best equipped” comment may have irked local businessmen of the day but it also likely ensured continuing advertising sales for the Prospector.

The interior of the theatre was fitted with an “Eye Comfort System” of special lighting (most likely a system of electric chandeliers) manufactured by the Albert Sechrist Manufacturing Co. of Denver, Colorado.  The issue of safety was apparently uppermost in the mind of A.A. Johnson, the designer/manager, as the projection booth was encased with fire-proof walls and all openings fitted with automatic shutters in order to inhibit blazes from within, a not uncommon and occasionally deadly occurrence when dealing with film of the era. On the same note, there were two large exits at the back of the building and another at the side, each marked by a red, electric “Exit” sign; a novel concept in the city. The American Seating Co. seats were deemed “so comfortable” and the general design, also by A.A. Johnson, displayed “exquisite taste.” Little else is available in terms of description of the original theatre. It would certainly have been “intimate”, if not rustic by today’s standards, but it would have undoubtedly made a distinct impression on the theatre-goers of the day.

Promising an evening of high class pictures and illustrated songs (sound was not yet available on film so live singers were hired as required) the owners cannily donated all opening night proceeds to the St. Eugene Hospital. The Prospector stated as an “… absolute fact that it is the best Moving Picture House in the west today.” An exaggeration to be sure but, no mind, the undertaking proved immediately popular with the locals, drawing large crowds on a regular basis.

As for the “high class entertainment”, that, too, may have been somewhat of an overstatement considering the list of movies and accompanying comments for December 7, 1912: “Capt. Barnacles Messmate” — lot of snap and crisp, bristling fun to it. The Captain helps his friend, Bunce, out of another scrape. It has the proper spirit and we get right into it. “The Stolen Gray” — justice is dealt to horse-thieves. “The French Army” — in war maneuvers. “The Haunted Room” — an interesting comedy — will keep everyone in a maze of wonderment as to how it is done.”

Well, if not high-class, the shows must have proved entertaining to an audience generally used to the varied live vaudeville acts and travelling theatre troupes next door at the auditorium. John Bunny and Norma Talmadge, the stars of Captain Barnacle, became household names among local movie goers, soon to be joined by a constant 35mm stream of others. The long-awaited radiators arrived and were installed in January, 1913; no doubt to the comfort of patrons and, by April, 1913, the Rex Theatre was changing programmes daily with the addition of four matinees each week.

Next week: The Rex, Part II.