The Cranbrook Auditorium: Part II

Now vanished buiding became one of the most-used public places in town through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression and two World Wars.

At left: Although constructed for live performances

At left: Although constructed for live performances

Jim Cameron

The Cranbrook Auditorium opened for business on August 13, 1907, on the present day site of the Armond Theatre on 10th Avenue. Over 600 people attended the comic opera “Olivette” performed by the Juvenile Bostonians, a troupe of young ladies working out of Seattle.

Two days later the Cranbrook Herald proudly noted, “Cranbrook has an opera house that will afford pleasure to the people and also give a magnificent assembly room for large meetings of all kinds as well as balls and parties on a large scale.” The “large scale” was accurate whereas “magnificent,” may have been a bit of a stretch.

Accessed by a staircase from the front street, the main hall boasted a large stage viewed by the audience from folding wooden chairs placed on both the hardwood main floor and a six-row balcony at the back of the hall. For a number of years seats were reserved on the right-hand side of the balcony for the local ladies of the red-light district. So, too, was the upper space occupied as often as possible by youths scaling the adjacent Courier Office (now High Country Sports), crossing the roof and entering through the balcony windows.

As with most of the buildings in Cranbrook, it was wired for electricity and many are the early descriptions of the wonderful coloured lights strung about the room during dances.

The acoustics were generally poor, compounded by the scraping of the chairs and, at times, the rain hammering on the roof 23 feet above the floor. Nonetheless, it was Cranbrook’s first and only real theatre and, in the beginning at least, was well supported by the townsfolk.

Originally under the management of part-owner and local druggist Robert Beattie, the theatre changed hands a number of times over the next decade, each new manager promising the best that theatre had to offer yet generally falling somewhat short of the mark.

So, too, the advent of moving pictures forced the theatre to reinvent itself within the first year by offering “illustrated songs” — photographic slides backed by live music — and one-reel movies and travelogues such as “Spanish Postcards, I’ll Dance the Cakewalk, The Tale of a Tooth, The Drunken Motor Cyclist, the Haunted Bedroom and A Doctor’s Conscience.”

Regular bookings for conventions, political rallies, fund-raising balls and masquerades, along with numerous touring comedic, dramatic and vaudeville acts filled the playbill on a regular basis.

In the days of rail travel, Cranbrook was a natural layover for entertainers travelling between Calgary and Winnipeg to Spokane and Vancouver and thus patrons witnessed a large variety of entertainments over the years as operettas gave way to Vaudeville and slide shows gave way to full length.

Known originally as the Cranbrook Opera House, the theatre became the Cranbrook Auditorium by 1908, was renamed The Opera House in 1910 and reverted permanently to The Auditorium in 1911.

Despite the appearance over the years of such luminaries as Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney (see Cranbrook Then and Now – Volume One); Verna Felton, who went on to become a voice in many beloved animated Disney movies; Virginia Brissac, later an actress in television and such movies as “Rebel Without a Cause; troupes such as the Georgia Minstrels and William’s Dixie Jubilee Singers, lecturers Ida Tarbell and Nellie McClung and prime ministers Robert Borden and McKenzie King, to name but a few, the theatre constantly struggled to bring in acts that met with wide-spread approval.

A Herald editorial of February 21, 1918, stated unequivocally that, although local theatre-goers were willing to pay generously to see a show, their experiences in the past were “theatrical disasters … In many cases the public got the harpoon thrown into them without mercy. Some fearful things were offered from time to time  — howling atrocities are about the only way one can describe them.”

Still, that was the theatrical side of things, the building itself  became one of the most-used public places in town, hosting social, political, religious and intellectual gatherings through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression and two World Wars.

In August, 1921, while the new Star movie theatre was under construction a few doors to the south, the local chapter of the Independent Order of Oddfellows purchased the building. Despite rumours of the auditorium’s demolition to allow for the construction of the Oddfellows lodge, the group decided to renovate the building, electing to simply close off the balcony for their meeting space.  The front of the auditorium was covered in metal, the dressing rooms renovated, new backdrops and scenery painted and the entire space generally revamped.

A fire in December 1926, may well have put paid to the both the auditorium and its neighbours if not for the quick response of the fire department, requiring the Oddfellows to undertake renovations once again.

The Great Depression of the 1930s took its toll on local nightlife, forcing the Oddfellows to request city tax breaks as there were very few opportunities to rent the auditorium as compared to former years. In fact, by 1934 the main hall was utilized as a badminton court.

Occasional assemblies, movies, dances and other activities kept the structure afloat until 1946, when it was sold to Cranbrook Theatres Ltd., owners of the nearby Star Theatre.

The Auditorium underwent remodeling for use as a temporary movie house in 1948, while the Star underwent months of extensive renovations. The interior walls were covered with soundproofing donnaconna board, the lighting switched to fluorescent, the stage made smaller and upstairs windows filled in.

It was all for naught. The end came in 1951 when the building was demolished to make way for the present day Armond movie theatre.