This area that so many of us are proud to call our ‘home town’ was only rugged wilderness when William Lincoln first introduced his amazing Wheel of Life or Zoopraxiscope in the United States in 1867. The unique invention would display the first simple images or movies that would be the humble beginnings of a glitzy motion picture industry that has now grown into a multi-billion dollar entertainment extravaganza.
Hungry for thrills, laughs and world news in the midst of hard work and tough times thousands of avid fans were soon paying five cents to watch flashing one reel silent black and white flicks at small Nickelodeons, which featured every subject from sports, to war, to comedy and mystical melodramas. Thomas Edison would open the first movie studio in a tarpaper-covered shack in 1893 and Alexander Graham Bell’s Photo-phone recorded sound on 35-millimetre film in 1910, the beginning of the talking era on screen. As the growing world roared in the 1920s the movie icons such as Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures, and Paramount were producing hundreds of films and features to thrill audiences, also now in colour. By this time there were already over 10,000 theatres in North America, and the bustling new Town of Ponoka was very quick to jump on the gala bandwagon.
In the early 1900s here in Ponoka, lanternslides were shown above Pete Horn’s Blacksmith shop, which also played host to numerous other social and community activities. Later when the fancy two story brick Town Hall was built, these events were moved upstairs above the new jail and fire station. Land Headley, who had moved to the Climax district from South Dakota in 1902, moved his family into town in 1912 and built the Empress Theatre on Railway Street. As well as featuring the first silent movies, the palatial building also played host to countless activities including dances, minstrel shows, boxing matches, town meetings, elections, concerts, auctions and on and on. During that delightful silent movie era local pianists provided the music for many events, and featured musicians included: Mr. Legerwood, Angeline, Albright, Tommy Chandler, Gladys Vellieux and Mrs. James Butterfield. The Empress Theatre also featured an upstairs balcony, which was great for viewing, as well as snuggling.
As I browsed through old editions of the Ponoka Herald I found many delightful advertisements of films and features showing at the Empress Theatre, direct from Hollywood and for admission prices of 15 to 30 cents, including treats. There was Queenie the Human Horse, Denny the Abysmal Brute, Hoot Gibson (the Galloping Kid), and saucy speed dramas and sunshine comedies such as Love Bounce and Apple Sauce. Some of the early names on the billboard were Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Donald Crisp, Mary Pickford, the Bowery Boys, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Spencer Tracy, and so many other up and coming stars of stage and screen.
Mr. and Mrs. Headley, along with daughter Grace and son Rufus lived in a house beside the theatre, where Mrs. Headley ran a millinery shop. Following Land’s tragic death in a storm in 1920, the business was eventually taken over in 1927 by his brother Bird Headley and family. Headley became a favourite of young and old in the community, and was always fondly remembered for his great sense of humour, friendliness, and keen sportsmanship. In 1947, after the Second World War he sold the theatre to ardent businessman Hector Labrie, who later built the International style Capital Theatre next door, and added an upstairs suite. After retiring Headley spent his winters in California and summers in Ponoka until his death in 1971 at the age of 93 years.
As many of us will recall the front of the posh and popular Capital Theatre also included the barbershops of Roy Kirkpatrick and Monte Klein. While the Empress Theatre operated for a few more years and was later transformed into a garage, the Capital Theatre was eventually sold to Ed Somshor. The Somshor family would later open an extremely popular Drive Inn Theatre at the present location of the Co-op Trailer Park…. where you could bring a whole carload in for a buck on Thursday nights, windows quite often fogged up due to overheating, and hopefully someone remembered to unhook the window speaker before we left, and what the name of the show was to convince our parents the next morning that we were all watching.
The theatre’s Carrara glass front and original facade and signage was replicated in 1998 with the assistance of the Ponoka Main Street program.
The century old community tradition of great movies and entertainment carries on to this day at the Capital Theatre in Ponoka, featuring two big screens, new heroes and adventures, comfy double love seats, and always-fabulous popcorn.