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Metro Cinema Society

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Behind the Silver Screen: The Secrets of the Garneau Movie Theatre | I step onto the roof of the Garneau Movie Theatre, high above the busy junction of 87th Avenue and 109th Street. One of the tour guide says, ‘’We shouldn’t be going out on the roof. Don’t tell anyone about this.’’ I can see south across the grid of leafy tree lined streets and avenues and the slanting roof tops and gables of neighbourhood homes. I can see the four-storey brick Garneau School and adjoining grassy playground, and way down the long flat length of 109th Street, with its mostly one storey businesses and fast food places. The traffic flows constantly down 109th Street and around the corner on 87th Avenue, and its sound rises up to the roof tops. I am with a group on a guided tour of the Garneau Movie Theatre.

The small, flat roof area has no parapet. Somebody could just walk over the edge. I feel both anxiety and exhilaration as the wind gusts hard all around. It reminds me of a scene I saw in a movie last year: a man and a young woman sat on the edge of the roof of an old theatre in New York. I remembered becoming anxious about where the movie was going. I felt dread that the young woman might jump at any second. I could hardly keep watching the screen. Movies can fill us with the anxiety of nightmares or the pleasure of dreams. Now I am neither in a nightmare or dream but wide awake, buffeted by a cold wind, on the exposed roof of my local neighbourhood movie theatre, high above the sidewalks and traffic below.

I soon step back inside the doorway of a small structure, a little tin sided cabin built in the middle of the roof; you can see it clearly from the sidewalk across the road below, and I’ve often looked up and wondered about it. Nichole, one of our tour guides, tells us that a year after the movie theatre was opened in 1941, Bill Wilson, first owner and manager, had this cabin built on the roof as a little hideaway, somewhere he could retreat to; it was rumoured that he even slept up there some nights instead of going home to his wife and family. I start to get the notion of Wilson as an eccentric man obsessed with his passion for running a movie theatre.

The tour continues with an exploration of the warren of passage ways and rooms hidden away from regular moviegoers. In the basement, we see the old apartment where the projectionist used to live, complete with its original bathtub; his work–previewing and repairing film, and running the projectors–kept him busy from noon to midnight, so he found it convenient to live in the building. I can imagine living in the cinema’s cozy basement apartment and never leaving it for days, immersed in film; this would be especially cozy during a long spell of Edmonton’s frigid winter weather. The projectionist at one time could even enjoy a restaurant meal without leaving the theatre, as a café also occupied a corner of the building.

Nichole points out a place in the wall where a door once led from the foyer into Joan’s Café (later Pharos’ Pizza and now Transcend Coffee); patrons could directly enter the theatre after eating at the restaurant. The doorway has long been blocked and plastered over. The only way into the café is now off 109th Street. Nichole tells us about other hidden places in the building: a room, now sealed off, at the front of the building, inside the theatre’s landmark art nouveau decorative tower, and even a blocked-off underground passageway thought to run across 87th Avenue, to the basement of Garneau School.

Facts, rumours, and myth tend to merge on the tour; it’s pitched a little like the movies, to be entertaining. On the balcony of the auditorium Nichole tells us about the possible presence of a ghost in a part of the building where a workman repairing the high ceiling had plunged to his death. Nichole tells of ‘’reports of unexplained noises, doors slamming, moving lights, and uneasy presence in that area.’’

After this flight of fancy into the world of ghosts, I learn from our guides a few more concrete facts about the theatre. Originally the theatre seated eight hundred patrons at its maximum capacity. And once the theatre had some double seats for courting couples, reminding me that for many of us a first date was often a trip to the local movie theatre. Present day fire regulations and ideas of comfort–more foot room–have reduced the number of seats to about five hundred but still it’s one of the biggest movie theatres in town.

At the back of the balcony, hidden away, is the projection booth. Most people don’t think of the projectionist working away to ensure that we have an interrupted and enjoyable movie experience—unless something goes wrong, which hardly ever happens. I open the door of the projection booth and lean forward and put my head inside. A projectionist points out the digital film projector and also the two reel to reel projectors. Most film is now digital and comes in plastic cassettes instead of steel cans; the old reel to reel projection system took much more work as most films came in six reels and the reels had to be changed every twenty minutes. Occasionally the old projection system is still needed and knowing the old skills still necessary. The projectionist also tells me he’s the last full-time movie projectionist employed in Alberta.

Our tour guides lead us back down the auditorium and we mount up the steps to the stage in front of the screen. In recent years, the screen has been moved back to make a deeper stage for live performances, such as an annual Edmonton Fringe play. In a corner of the narrow stage, we are led to an even narrower, smaller space behind the screen.

I remember seeing many movies on this screen and often after standing with my date in a long line that wrapped its way around the building. The first movie I saw at the Garneau was Love Story(1970). Other memorable shows that packed the theatre included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1975), Airplane (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The Garneau Movie Theatre is now home to Metro Cinema, a movie society, and still packs in audiences, the only remaining functional art nouveau styled movie theatre in Western Canada.

The tour ends in the foyer with its thick carpet resembling the original one that in 1940 would have given the place a touch of luxury, something likely not known at home for audiences who had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. There is also a story that the foyer once featured furniture from the royal suite at the Hotel MacDonald. Moviegoers could have once sat on the same couch as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (They stayed at the Hotel MacDonald on a visit to Edmonton in 1939). This reminds me of the egalitarian nature of moviegoing: everybody pays the same price for general admission and seating is a matter of first come, first served. The movie theatre provided entertainment for everyone and every movie goer enjoyed the same little touches of luxury.

Now when I pass the Garneau Movie Theatre, I see it in a new light. I realize the old building has its own secrets, romance, and myths, like the movies that have played at the theatre for seventy-five years.

Contributor: Graham Bell

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