By Mike Rainone for the News
Throughout all of the hundreds of stories that I have been pleased to put together about the long and colourful history of our community and surrounding districts there is absolutely no doubt that over all those years Ponoka was never going to be referred to as a “one horse town.” Throughout all of those very vigorous and challenging adventures from the late 1800s and on to the present days our local leaders, families, and individuals have shown an ongoing enthusiasm to succeed, no matter what, and together through several vibrant generations have been rewarded with a steady growth, amazing progress, and countless outstanding successes in our lush and sprawling urban and rural areas.
Along the way these hardy souls have had to face so many ongoing hardships, challenges, and the unpredictable elements, but for the most part they bravely carried on and eventually succeeded through their rigorous hard work, determination, and a strong faith. But through it all they would always strive to find some quality time to play, socialize, share, and celebrate together whenever they had the opportunity.
A tale of two theatres
As the population of both the town and country districts began to grow at a rapid pace in the early 1900s, new homes, churches, schools, businesses, and farms began to appear everywhere. Our community would become a steady daily hustle and bustle of family shoppers, congenial business owners and their staffs, professionals in their new offices, farmers bringing in their grain and stock and visitors from the train. When their business, appointments, and chores were done the citizens from near and far would look forward to some relaxation and social activity. While the ladies visited the Community Rest Room the gents might tie up their horses or park their wagons and vehicles along Chipman Avenue and then pop into the Royal Hotel or Leland taverns for a pint, a game of pool, and to catch up on the latest and hottest local news. Throughout the year there were always special events for the whole family to attend, including baseball or hockey games, fairs and rodeos, auctions, dances, concerts and more.
In the early 1900s in Ponoka Lantern slides were shown above Pete Horn’s Blacksmith Shop, where most of the other local social activities were also carried on until the town moved all the action up to the second floor of our first town hall. One of Ponoka’s very first and extremely ambitious pioneers was Land Headley, who moved with his family to the Climax District in 1902, and then in 1912 with the coming of the silent movies he relocated to town and built the Empress Theatre at the corner of 49 Ave. and 50 St. Also including his family residence on the side the Empress Theatre was considered as one of the finest structures in the community, hosting countless year round features such as dances, boxing and wrestling matches, minstrel shows, meetings, auctions, elections, and much more. It was in those glorious days that patrons could enjoy a movie, popcorn, and a drink for under 50 cents, and for the gents who were looking for a dark and quiet place to court their sweetheart, the Empress even had an upstairs balcony. During that rollicking era of the silent movies Mr. Headley would also bring in local pianists to provide music during the show, as well as bands for countless other local concerts and events. In the 1920s Land Headley was tragically killed one evening during a storm after coming in contact with a downed electrical wire, but his wife and family along with his brother Bird Headley and family would carry on the local business tradition.
In 1947 after WWII Bird Headley would sell the Empress Theatre to Mr. Hec Labrie, who constructed the new palatial two-story Capital Theatre right next door. The Capital, which was built in an international style seen in 1940s Germany would feature a suite on the top floor as well a busy barber shop next to the theatre entrance, which first welcomed congenial Ponoka clippers Roy Kirkpatrick, Monte Klein and many others who would follow over the years. The Labrie family would continue to bring in Hollywood’s and the world’s best films and added features as well as hosting many other community events at the popular Capital centre until the 1950s, when it was sold to Mr. Ed Somshor, who later also opened our towns first and only drive-in at the north end of town. Some of us will still fondly remember … it had an outside concession stand, speakers that you clipped on your window, on a cold night we had to turn on the heater because the windows were always steamed up, and Thursdays was buck night where you could fill your vehicle up with guys and gals and get in for just a dollar.
As a youngster I will never forget the occasional super-treat when mom and I got to sit next to my father up in the projection room of the recreation hall at the Provincial Mental Hospital. It was a real joy to watch the famous movies and glitzy stars of that roaring era on the big screen, as well as the news of the day and the Disney cartoons. For all of us who were growing up in and around Ponoka at that time our parents often took us to a Saturday afternoon matinee at the Capital Theatre, where we always tried to race up to the front row to get the best seat, and there was a “cry room” in the corner where mothers could take their babies if they wouldn’t behave or wanted to be fed. Later on as teens we would proudly take our first dates to the show (often going Dutch), would sit close together and share treats in those nifty double seats, and then had to wait outside till one of the parents picked us up to go home. I am sure that going to the movies has changed just a little bit over the years, especially the admission price and the subject matter, but that long-standing entertainment tradition will always be around to allow folks and families of all ages to laugh, cry, scream, and occasionally snooze through two glorious hours of Hollywood fantasy, force, and fun.