As an entertainment venue created at the beginning of the Great Depression, in a rural community the Capitol sits squarely on the demarcation line between the old and the new in Canada. The democratization of culture fostered and forced by easy access to the new media was brought to this place by this building at that very moment in time. As an National Historic Site, the Capitol would be a vehicle for interpreting this “beginning of an era” moment using the authenticity of the preserved theatre and the simplicity of its atmospheric special effect to take us back to the beginning of the 1930’s.
Built at the dawn of the Great Depression and the beginning of the sound film era any theatre of this vintage might be said to be evocative of the story of those social, political and economic conditions. That the Capitol is so well preserved with so much of its original exterior and interior detail remaining after eighty years of almost continuous operation, coupled with its status as a very rare intact example of the “atmospheric type” make it an outstanding candidate for the illustration of the era of its origins.
The Capitol contains many examples of the new technology emerging in this modern era. As the first fully fireproof public building in Port Hope, it was a wholehearted response to the modern demand for safe venues for the new entertainment media, namely talking pictures. In addition, as a building constructed for the sole purpose of displaying talkies, it was plastered with the latest acoustical plaster and equipped from the outset with one of the earliest sound projection systems then available. According to the Ontario Archives web site, the Capitol was the first purpose built sound cinema in Canada. On opening night August 15th 1930, the show was a talkie called Queen High starring Ginger Rogers. The research has not revealed exactly which emerging sound replication systems was used on opening night but we do have evidence that two systems, a “sound on film” system and a “synchronous disc system” were in place at the Capitol from the very beginning. As the film technology evolved the disc system was replaced with the sound on film system.
The most unique and lasting fact of the Capitol Theatre’s heritage significance is its very atmospheric character. The Capitol as a “purpose built” sound movie cinema is not a building in transition from the live entertainment venues that precede it. It is a fully conceived modern movie house. For this to be possible, the architect made use of his considerable skills and the latest available technology to create an experience for the audience that left them in no way wanting the expensive live entertainments of the past. The architect for Famous Players was Murray Brown. Here he designed a machine for entertainment that required no expensive theatre organ, no live performers or piano players, no dressing rooms or klieg lights, not even a fire curtain at the proscenium – after all, there was no “back stage”. Instead, he offered a special place that engaged the audience as they approached from the street and kept them in trawl as the theatre filled and until the lights dimmed and the curtains opened on the transformative sights and sounds of Hollywood and the larger world beyond.
The technical innovation – added to the architectural details –that actually created the atmosphere was the placement of a pair of Brenograph Junior cloud projectors, hidden from view behind foliage, opposite one another high on the castle walls of the auditorium. These motor driven units projected a slowly rotating series of images of the clouds on the midnight blue night sky plaster ceiling of the auditorium, and in so doing completed the courtyard atmosphere of the auditorium where the audience waited like royalty for the command performance. The whole point of the use of these projection devices was to satisfy the need for a theatrical experience without the cost and uncertainties associated with live performers. The device was successful and the theatre used the projectors as installed up until the 1950’s. By that time, a significant modernization of both the building and its patrons had occurred and the simple cloud effect was temporarily forgotten. One of the original projectors is in the possession of the Capitol Theatre Heritage Foundation along with the original cloud disc that was projected from it. The other projector is safe in a theatre museum in Kinmount Ontario. Both are in working order. The technological details of the photographically reproduced cloud discs and the early plastic-like material they are made from is the subject of future research opportunity. The existence of the actual silver photographic cloud disc and our documented knowledge of how it was placed in the auditorium and how it operated will allow us, one day, to restore this extremely ethereal and elusive “special effect” in a fully authentic and non-conjectural way. Our search of the internet indicates that when it occurs, this restoration of a well documented, and in its day, highly acclaimed dramatic special effect might well be unique in the world. We can find no example wherein a heritage theatre interior is so authentic as to poses and employ the actual special effects that made its community love it in the first place.
On the question of the validity and importance of such a restoration; from an interpretive perspective, it may be that we can measure our social evolution by coming to terms with how unassuming and unsophisticated we were as a society a short eighty years ago.
One measure of the power that Brown had to stir the imagination of his audiences is the certitude with which theatre patrons from its early heyday when the clouds were operating, insist that there were stars in the night sky above their heads. After fully researching the building at the ceiling level and inspecting all the equipment for possible methods of achieving it, we have concluded that there never were any stars on the ceiling either painted or electric and that the idea of them which comes from the lips of virtually everyone we have interviewed is the result of the stimulation of the imagination of audience members by Murray Brown’s creation.
As we move forward to interpret the atmospheric theatre to Canadians, this power of the imagination to fill in the blanks in what we are experiencing is part of what we will use. As part of any theatrical experience, this exploitation of the imagination is fundamental and our architect Murray Brown made use if it as a master.
Architect Murray Brown died many years ago. He served as President of the Ontario Association of Architects 1935 36 and is known to have designed several other theatres for Famous Players. Little else is known about his practice or influences. Brown’s other accomplishments present an interesting opportunity for research. Family members communicated with the CTHF in its early days and were a source of some important photographic documentation.