Colonial Theatre – Granville Street

We saw the buildings that once sat on the south east, north east and north west corners of Dunsmuir and Granville already. Here’s the fourth corner; the south west corner. It held the oldest building of them all, built initially in 1888 as the Van Horne Building. Sir William Van Horne was President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and there was no perceived conflict of interest for Sir William to acquire land and develop buildings on company property. It was in line with his responsibility to see the company’s investment pay off, so Sir William planned to build two buildings on CPR’s Granville Street holdings that were being promoted to drag the centre of the city westwards, away from its milltown origins. The first of his projects was on Granville Street at Dunsmuir, built in 1888 to the designs of Bruce Price. (Francis Rattenbury designed a second Granville Street building in 1903). Seen in this 1887 illustration, it’s an impressive building for a one-year old city that just survived complete obliteration in a fire. Actually, the completed building was only half the size, but still impressive (as the 1901 photograph on the right shows). The building lasted 24 years as an office, then received a dramatic $70,000 conversion to a cinema.

The 1912 building permit was to the Ricketts Amusement Co and the architect was E W Houghton, a Seattle-based architect originally born in Hampshire in England. Ricketts, who came from the same county, was the former lesee of CPR’s Opera House (just down the street from the building, and despite its title, a mainstream theatre). Ricketts probably ceased connections with the building before its completion; he managed the Imperial Theatre before retiring in 1915.  The 1913 opening saw the Kinemacolor Theatre offering movies, in colour – the first Canadian theatre with the system. Kinemacolor was invented by English cinematographer George Albert Smith, and marketed by American entrepreneur Charles Urban. Film was run through a projector at 32 frames per second, twice the normal speed, and then filtered through red and green coloured lenses to produce “the world’s wonders in nature’s colours.” A nine-piece orchestra accompanied the short films, and a baritone named George C. Temple “delighted the audience with some of the old songs.” Later, the theatre added a $10,000 organ to accompany the silent movies. The cinema failed to thrive, and was closed in 1914. The sign for the cinema remained however – perhaps because it’s 7 feet high and 13 feet wide. It mysteriously disappeared when the building was torn down in 1972 to make way for the Pacific Centre Mall, only to reappear in the Keg restaurant on Thurlow at Alberni, before it ended up removed from there too.

The theatre reopened as the Colonial in 1915 with Hector Quagliotti as the owner and for a time became the most popular cinema in the city. The pianist from 1917 was Paul Michelin, “The man with the Million-Dollar hands”, who could, it was said, play over 12,0000 songs from memory. He also incorporated other sounds for silent films including train whistles, steam engines, and battle scenes, but was criticised by the Musicians’ Union because he was doing the work of a sound effects man.

Towards the end of its life the theatre incorporated the Pauline Johnson confectionery store, a popular stop before the main feature. In earlier years it was one of Con Jones ‘Don’t Argue’ tobacconists stores (“Don’t Argue – Con Jones sells fresh tobacco”). Today there’s a 1974 corner office tower of the McCarter Nairne and Partners Pacific Centre Mall – the colours ‘brightened’ from the more sombre earlier ‘black towers’ to the south.

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