The Capitol

30 April 1970

Thursday, 30 April 1970 marked the end of an era for cinema and theatre fans in Ottawa. That evening, the historic Capitol Theatre held its last official performance—a screening of the movie Mash, the Oscar-winning, black comedy set in a Korean War field hospital, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. Earlier that day, a small advertisement appeared in the entertainment section of the Ottawa Citizen inviting people to come to the performance and join the staff of the Capitol in bidding farewell to the theatre. Beyond that, there was little fanfare to mark the theatre’s passing. The Capitol’s manager, Jack Critchley, is reported to have said: “you don’t celebrate something like this.” As cinema patrons filed out after the last show that evening, the only sign that something out of the ordinary had occurred was the presence of television cameras recording the event for posterity. Despite widespread protests, the Capitol, considered one of the most beautiful movie palaces in Canada, had a date with the wrecking ball. As a last hurrah, a special fund-raising event was held the following evening at the historic theatre to benefit the Canadian Save the Children Fund. With CBC host Alex Trebek acting as master of ceremonies, supporters watched the silent movie Pollyanna, starring Mary Pickford. At the end of the show, they sang Auld Lang Syne as the curtain dropped for the very last time.

The Capitol, Corner of Bank St and Queen St. 1920-1970

The Capitol, Corner of Bank St and Queen St.                                      1920-1970

According to Paul Terrien of the Ottawa newspaper Le Droit, the Capitol was a casualty of its own grandeur.  The massive 2,530-seat theatre was simply no longer economic to run, either as a cinema or as a theatre. It was a victim of the television age; people were not going to the cinema as frequently, or in the numbers they used to. Competition from smaller, multiplex cinemas that were cheaper to operate had also taken its toll. Most nights, there was only a thin sprinkling of viewers in the Capitol’s cavernous auditorium.

While built for cinema and vaudeville shows, the Capitol had also become the centre of Ottawa’s theatrical and musical life, hosting on its large stage the great performers of the age, including Nelson Eddy, Nat King Cole, and Glenn Gould. The New York Metropolitan Opera played there, as did the Royal Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony Orchestras. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar all had gigs at the Capitol. But the opening of the National Arts Centre in 1967, which provided a modern venue for such performances, was the last straw for the grand, but venerable, Capitol. Despite being an Ottawa landmark for fifty years, there was little heritage supporters could do to save the building; Ontario’s Heritage Act only came into force in 1975, five years after the Capitol was reduced to but a memory.

The Capitol had been built for Loew’s Theatres, a chain of upscale movie palaces owned by Marcus Loew, an American pioneer in the movie industry, who got his start owning penny arcades and nickelodeons. Scottish-born architect Thomas W. Lamb was the building’s architect. Lamb was the twentieth century’s foremost designer of cinemas and theatres, building landmark structures in major cities across North America, including New York, Boston, and San Francisco. He was the architect of Toronto’s Pantages Theatre, now known as the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Ground for the Capitol was broken in 1919.  Located at the corner of Queen and Bank Streets, the theatre was completed the following year at a cost of close to $1 million (equivalent to roughly $11 million in today’s dollars). The theatre’s concert pipe organ alone cost $40,000.

The Capitol, interior, circa 1943

The Capitol, interior, circa 1943

The building was an architectural jewel, beautifully decorated in the neoclassical Adam style. The rectangular building boasted three Palladian windows on the Bank Street side of the building, set above a central door and marquee. Theatre goers entered through heavy oak doors into a magnificent lobby that was lined with columns and large mirrors, and illuminated by crystal wall sconces. Ticket booths were finished in bronze and ivory. Geometric patterns decorated the ceiling of the foyer, lit by a large central chandelier. Ahead was a grand marble staircase that led up to the mezzanine level and, during the Capitol’s early years, a ballroom. To the right and left of the staircase were entrances to the orchestra. On the mezzanine level, there were a writing room, a ladies’ room furnished in mahogany with blue upholstery, and a smoking room decorated in “Pompeian green.” Comfortable leather chairs and couches beckoned the weary. Tapestries, murals and niches adorned the walls, while underfoot was an old rose carpet. The auditorium boasted an ornate proscenium arch that surrounded the stage. To ensure the comfort of its guests, large blowers circulated fresh air at all times via under-seat ducts.

The gala opening of the Capitol was held on 8 November 1920. Marcus Loew, accompanied by more than a dozen screen and theatre stars, came for the big event, arriving in Ottawa just before noon by a special train from New York. Newspaper accounts enthused that it was the greatest number of screen and theatre stars ever assembled in North America. At Union Station, they were met by an official delegation of Rotary and Kiwanis Club officials, thousands of fans, and the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards. Among the arriving stars was Grace Valentine, a “Broadway success,” who had just starred in the New York stage comedy The Cave Girl. She had also performed in the 1917 silent movie Babbling Tongues. The first female western star, Mary “Texas” Guinan was also there. She had played the role of The Tigress, a gun-toting heroine who could outmatch any man, in the 1918 movie The Gun Woman. Tall and blond, she later became known as the wisecracking “Queen of the Night Clubs,” rubbing shoulders with gangsters in New York speakeasies—a symbol of the Roaring Twenties. Another well recognized actress was Vivian Martin, at the time, a rival of Mary Pickford. Martin was the star of the 1919 movies, The Third Kiss, The Innocent Adventuress, and Louisiana.

“Texas” Guinan, circa 1920

“Texas” Guinan, circa 1920

Led by three soldiers carrying the British, American, and French flags, followed by the scarlet-clad Foot Guards and mounted police, Loew and the film stars were brought by limousine from the train station to the city hall for a civic reception. With Mayor Fisher out of the city, the celebrities met other members of the city’s Board of Control. The parade then wound its way through Ottawa, passing in front of the new Capitol Theatre, before visiting Parliament Hill, entering through the west gate. There had been a rumour that they were to meet Acting Premier Sir James Lougheed, but this was later denied. Loew and the stars then attended a lunch held in their honour at the Château Laurier Hotel, hosted by the Rotary Club. Two cameramen took motion pictures to record the proceedings.

The doors of the new theatre opened at 1pm that afternoon. It was standing room only to greet the arrival of the stars. The cost of a ticket was fifteen cents (taxes included) for a balcony seat at the afternoon performance; a seat in the loge or in one of the boxes went for thirty-five cents. Prices went up to as much as fifty-five cents for the evening performance. Novel features of the theatre including no reserve seating, and continual screenings of a feature picture, alternating with a vaudeville show, through the day. That first week, theatregoers were treated to D.W. Griffith’s 1920 movie The Love Flower, starring Carol Dempster, Richard Barthelmess and George McQuarrie. It was a suspense story of a detective who falls in love with the daughter of a murderer on a tropical island. The vaudeville production headlined “a girly whirly” act called Choir Up, a musical comedy that was billed as a “tuneful tonic for tiny troubles.”

That night, following the formal opening of the Capitol, the fun really got started. The actors, led by “Texas” Guinan, certain city councillors, and friends whooped it up at city hall. There was plenty of booze despite Prohibition being in full swing. Afterwards came the political fallout, with complaints about the appropriateness of the reception accorded by city officials to the celebrities. Alderman McKinley proposed a motion of censure against the city’s Board of Control, arguing that when the mayor was away, the city had been “buncoed and stampeded into a civic reception.”  When Lower Town’s fun-loving and appropriately-named alderman Napoléon Champagne, a past and future mayor of Ottawa, was taken to task for participating in the revelries, the unmarried Champagne, argued that as he was above suspicion, he had only been at the party to look after the other controllers, and had “warned some of the ladies that all the other controllers were married and that if they wanted to say any sweet things they should say them to him.” He had attended to be the “moral watchdog,” and “had kept the married men from entanglements.”  After Champagne’s assurances that the controllers had conducted themselves respectfully, McKinley withdrew his motion.

In 1924, Marcus Loew sold his Canadian theatres. Ottawa’s Capitol was purchased by the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theatre chain, with the Capitol renamed “Keith’s Vaudeville.” In the late 1920s, the Capitol’s name changed again to RKO Capitol, following the merger of KAO and the Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) in 1928. The following year, RKO’s Canadian operations merged with the Famous Players’ group, and the theatre’s name reverted back to the Capitol, and remained that way until the theatre’s demise in 1970 to make way for an office building.

Sources:

Capitol Cinema (Ottawa), 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitol_Cinema_%28Ottawa%29.

Griffth, D. W., 1920. The Love Flower, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nPofsDGwjY.

Miguelez, Alain, 2004, A Theatre Near You: 150 Years of Going to the Show in Ottawa-Gatineau, Penumbra Press.

The Citizen, 1920. Film Stare Are Here For Opening Loew’s Theater,” 8 November.

———————.“Girl Act Heads The Performance,” 8 November.

———————. “Notable Cast Seen in Loew’s Feature,” 8 November.

———————. “‘Love Flower’ Latest Griffith Production,” 8 November.

———————. “New Loew Theater Is One Of Canada’s Finest Play Houses,” 8 November.

———————. “Council Talks OF The Reception To Marcus Loew, Etc.” 16 November.

The Ottawa Journal, 1970, “CSCF Benefit: Mary Pickford Returning to Ottawa—On Film,” 25 April.

———————–, 1970. “Children Will Benefit As Capitol’s Era Ends, 1 May.

Mahon, Elizabeth, M. 2011. “Texan Guinan – Queen of the Night Clubs,” Scandalous Women, http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.ca/2011/09/texas-guinan-queen-of-night-clubs.html.

Russell, Hilary, 1975. All that Glitters: A Memorial to Ottawa’s Capitol Theatre and its Predecessors, Canadian Historic Sits: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History – No. 13, Parks Canada.

Terrien, Paul, 1970. “Le Capitol ferme ses portes, victime de sa propre grandeur,” Le Droit, 1 May.

Images: The Capitol, http://www.pastottawa.com/tag/capitol-cinema/537/.

The Capitol, interior, circa 1943, by Chris Lund, Archives and Library Canada, PA-110976, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitol_Cinema_%28Ottawa%29#mediaviewer/File:Ottawacapitolmgs2.jpg.

“Texas” Guinan, Scandalous Women, http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.ca/2011/09/texas-guinan-queen-of-night-clubs.html

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