Ask Alicia – Town Cinemas

Hi Alicia,

Town Cinema 2016
Photo Attribution: Town Cinemas 2016 – Taken by Dan McKnight

It is great that St. Catharines has a new Film Theatre downtown at the PAC.  The last Theatre to show movies downtown was the Town Cinemas.  I remember seeing films there until it closed in 2004.  I’d like to know more about the history of this Theatre (e.g. any famous Vaudeville Acts, significant events, etc.).  It would be great if this Theatre could be restored.

Thanks for your assistance.

Regards,

Dan McKnight


 

Dan,

Great question! I still remember the first time my mother took me to that theatre when I was a young girl. We saw the film “Mermaids” starring Cher and Christina Ricci.  I still remember there being a wishing well with goldfish in the front lobby.

The theatre you are speaking of was located at 280 St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. It has gone by three different names beginning with “The Griffon”.  Construction on The Griffon Theatre began in 1913 and opened on May 6th, 1915. The Theatre had 1, 346 seats, including a 346 seat balcony that was removed in 1934. It was owned by John Griffin, the largest theatre chain owner in Canada at the time.  On opening day, the feature presentation was the classic Charlie Chaplin silent film “The Tramp” that was played from a hand cranked projector.  When the equipment was upgraded, the original projector sat on display in the lobby.

S1942-21-2-2
Photo Attribution: Happy Andrews & the Gang at the Palace theatre 1942. St. Catharines Standard Collection, StC Museum S1942.12.2.2

The Griffon featured many films which were accompanied by a live piano player and/or orchestra. There were also live stage shows including vaudeville acts along with orchestras, symphonies, minstrel groups, plays, novelty dance performances, ballet groups and comedians. They also had rather interesting events such as in 1928 they held as the Long Hair Contest held in 1928, where the winner was awarded $25.00

A historic event occurred on June 12, 1918 when 4 reels of film caught fire. It took firemen 4 chemical fire extinguishers to put out the blaze, but the orchestra continued to play through the incident, assisting in dispelling any chaos that may have broken out among guests.

1968-84-1A
Photo Attribution: StCM 1968.84.1

In 1941 the building was renovated and reopened that October with great fanfare as “The Palace Theatre”. The Palace was inaugurated with a presentation by the Niagara Symphony and remained a local hot spot for many years.

S1968-6-5-2
Photo Attribution: Line-up to see Gordon Lightfoot at the Palace Theatre, St. Catharines Standard Collection S1968.6.5.1

Throughout the 1940’s various events were held to help raise money for the war effort.  In 1964 The Palace was over-taken by a stampede of teenage girls rushing to see a screening of a Beatles concert.  For the premiere of “A Hard Day’s Night” there was a lineup of over 1, 000 teenagers hoping to get a seat for the show.

In 1973 a fire destroyed the back room of the theater. The fire proof retaining wall prevented the entire theatre from burning to the ground. On May 6th, 1973, the Palace ran its last feature before closing its doors for extensive renovations.

The building was re-opened on August 2, 1973 as the Town Cinema, owned by Canadian theatres, which included two auditoriums to enable the screening of two features at a time. Just twelve hours later the fire department was called to a 3-alarm fire that had started in the rear of the building.  Firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze and luckily there was minimal damage to the theatre auditoriums, however the rear section which was still in its original condition, was destroyed.  The cinema reopened after a brief closure.  There were no longer live performances held at the theatre.

n 1976 Canadian Theatres opened Pendale Cinemas which grew to include the Odeon theatre chain, which was eventually bought by Cineplex in 1984. Ultimately Cineplex Odeon leased the building, however they ended their lease in 1992 when the Fairview Mall Theatre was opened. The opening of the new theatre featured Ron Howard’s 1991 hit “Backdraft”.

The property had changed hands a few times over the years but in 1993 Art and Bette Lefstein purchased the Town cinema with hopes of restoring the theatres presence in the downtown core. They began by screening second-run Hollywood movies.  Various newspaper articles tracked their progress and discussed the sky-high expenses that came along with operating a theatre, including the $20, 000 a year property tax and average $2, 000 per month electricity costs.  The Lefstein’s also sought investors to help them convert the theatre to include a live stage as it had once been: “Our ultimate dream is to provide a performing arts facility for the community to use, to revitalize downtown.”

In 1999 the Lefstein’s began a “Support the Griffin Opera House (Circa 1915)” campaign to rally assistance with preservation of the theatre. Piles of letters from citizens, historical societies, and community groups poured in, to no avail.

Unfortunately, after years of struggling to restore the former glory that once was The Griffin, the Lefstein’s were forced to close in November of 2004. The facility was later used as a space for amateur bands to have live performances, however it has fallen into disrepair and has been sitting vacant for many years. The Lefstein’s are still hoping to find a buyer who will be able to restore the building.

2 comments

  1. Hi Alicia,

    Very informative!
    Was the Palace Theatre the only theatre in St. Catherine’s in the 1950’s?
    My grandmother tells stories of when she worked at a theatre in St.Catherine’s in the 50’s and how she and my grandfather met there, but she never mentions the name. The reason I ask is because their 60th anniversary is coming up and we would love to surprise them with a reproduction archive photo of the theatre.
    Any thoughts on where I might find one?
    I should mention that I live in Alberta.

    Any help is much appreciated!

    -Laurel

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s