As the deadline nears for proposals on the city-owned Civic Theatre — will it screen films again or be converted to a squash club and climbing gym? — here’s a look at its history, including some lesser-known facts.
1) The Civic opened on April 25, 1936, a few months after the arena in the same building. It was the city’s fifth movie house, after the Gem, Starland, Empire, and Capitol, and its inauguration came one year and one week after the Nelson opera house — previously the city’s largest auditorium — burned.
2) On its opening, the new theatre was described as “a thing of beauty to be admired.” It had maroon carpets, a rose velour curtain, and “modernistic” designs on the walls and ceilings. “Silver and black predominates in the wall coloring and this is topped with a gothic design in multi-colour forming a pleasing border below the ceiling,” the Daily News wrote. “Main portions of the walls are blended in a cream colour with a maroon dado or wainscotting.”
3) The Civic originally sat 950. The “opera chairs” cost $8.70 each, were ordered from England, and their transport to Nelson was closely watched in the press. When, why, and how the theatre’s capacity was reduced to 750 isn’t quite clear.
4) The Civic was meant to be a live venue, not a movie house. The commission that managed the building didn’t want to compete with the privately owned Capitol, and balked when approached by potential lessees. However, when the balance sheet showed only $900 in revenue, far short of the projected $2,300, they reconsidered.
A 10-year lease was signed with Calvin Winter and a Mr. Butler for $45,600, including provisions that community organizations would still be able to use the building. The lease was subsequently transferred in 1938 to Red Deer businessmen R.M. Beatty and Percy W. Johnston of Kootenay Amusement Co. Later that year, Famous Players took over, and for a time had both the Capitol and the Civic. The company continued to run the latter through the 1970s.
5) A stone plaque in a lobby alcove bears the following inscription in gold letters: Nelson Civic Centre 1935-1936/Mayor J.P. Morgan/Aldermen T.H. Waters, A.G. Ritchie, R.W. Sharp, H.B. Lindsay, T.W. Salder, N.C. Stibbs, J.E. McKenzie/City clerk W.E. Wasson/City engineer R.E. Potter/Architects McCarter and Nairne/Superintendent J. Burns.
6) World War II was evidently good for business, as people sought to escape the horrors of reality: in 1944, the Civic played to an audience of over 200,000 — an average crowd of 550 a night.
7) What was the most popular movie ever screened at the Civic? The first one filmed in Nelson. Roxanne premiered on June 19, 1987 in Nelson and Los Angeles — a week before it opened in Vancouver — thanks to a deal between Civic management and Cineplex Odeon, which owned the distribution rights and demanded the lion’s share of the receipts. While it was no windfall for the Civic, people did come in droves during the two-week run. Opening night saw dignitaries, a wine and cheese, midnight buffet, and big band bash at the badminton hall.
Sources: Calgary Daily Herald, March 17, 1938; Nelson Daily News, April 23, April 27 and July 3, 1936; January 25, 1945; February 12, 1947; June 22, 1987; “Civic Centre ‘paying its way,’“ Heritage Now column by Shawn Lamb, Nelson Daily News 1994; timeline prepared by Shawn Lamb