The last theater in town
Powell River, Canada
By Andy Clark
As far back as I can remember, history has always fascinated me. Though my specialty as an amateur historian has been military history, just about anything that occurred prior to my birth has had my undivided attention. Recently while having a coffee with a friend, he mentioned he had been to a town north of Vancouver called Powell River and had happened to visit a local movie theater. He went on to say matter of factly, that the theater had been continuously running since it was built many years ago.
“Stop right there,” I said. “Did you take any pictures of the place?” Yes, he had and he pulled out his laptop to show me.
Powell River is a small community on the British Columbia Sunshine Coast and accessible only by water. To get there requires about two hours travel by car and a couple of hours crossing on two different ferries from Vancouver. The town was born around 1910 after a pulp and paper mill was built beginning in 1908. At one time the Powell River Company Mill was the largest of its kind in the world supplying paper to one out of every 25 newspapers in the world. In 1913, a small wooden theater was built to offer the locals entertainment that included silent movies, vaudeville shows and even local boxing matches. The town’s people decided to have a naming contest for the theater leaving their suggestions in a ballot box at the company store. A very popular public figure in Canada at the time was Princess Patricia of Connaught, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Princess Patricia was living in Canada at the time while her father The Duke of Connaught served as Governor General in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. Thus, the new theater was named the Patricia.
A new building was constructed in 1928 to replace the original tall narrow theater known to shake and rattle in high wind. It even had bats darting around in the ceiling during performances, forcing the audience to duck and cover their heads. In July 1928, workers broke ground on the new place. But this time, the building was constructed of brick, mortar and stucco. Four months later on November 6 the new Patricia Theatre opened for business. Eighty-five years later almost to the day on a dark and damp evening, I showed up at the Patricia.
As most photographers know, assignments can look or sound good on paper but until you actually get there and see, one never knows for sure. I had gathered a pretty good idea from my friend’s photos and after chatting with the current owner Ann Nelson by phone the theater sounded like a real gem of history. I was not to be disappointed. Just walking up to the theater for the first time was like stepping through a rift in time. The inside was another world. Mural paintings on the wall, wooden trim and of course the rows of old theater seats from the private boxes in the back to the foot of stage. Across the stage hung the original curtain still in place. Made to order in Seattle and shipped by boat one would not have been surprised if Al Jolson himself had stepped from behind the French Velvet to sing a song or two.
My first thoughts once inside the theater was how I was going to illustrate this amazing place. Following a tour and a generous dose of the history from owners Ann Nelson and her son Brian I spent the next couple of hours just wandering the place over and over. At one point, I found a single row of the original seats sitting in a corner. The originals had been replaced due to their well-worn age a few years back. The current seats had been made in the 1940s and had come from a theater in Vancouver that were discarded during renovations. I later found out that there was also another reason the original seats had to be replaced, namely human anatomy. It seems the originals were too thin and today’s human body has grown somewhat wider than those of the 1920s and 30s.
My four days observing and photographing life at the Patricia had some challenges. The main challenge was the light. The inside of theaters past and present, even with the house lights on, is a classic case of “available darkness”. Mostly, I shot the whole story on two prime lenses a 50mm f/1.2 and 24mm f/1.4 and I don’t believe I shot any photos beyond the wide-open aperture. Another was the projection room. They still have two original 35mm projectors plus the newly installed digital projector leaving little room to move, never mind photograph. I would love to have seen one of the old projectors in operation but in this day and age, with everything digital, the theater was forced to buy one.
I was given the opportunity to see the Patricia in full operation. From movies to a vaudeville show and even a Sunday afternoon chamber concert with a grand piano and cello. I even took a break from my photo story to actually sit down and watch an early evening showing of the classic movie Casablanca. Up until then I had never actually seen the movie in its entirety.
Though the Patricia Theatre is probably one of the last of its kind it is also the last movie theater in Powell River. Over the years, it has outlived all its competition. Another smaller theater was built in 1935 and operated until it closed in the 1960s. Over the years, Powell River has had two drive-in theaters and two full sized 35mm projection theaters but they are all gone now. The closest movie theaters these days are south in the town of Sechelt or on Vancouver Island in the city of Courtney – both places an hour ferry ride away. The Patricia was the first theater built and is now the last.