She’s not exactly a grand old dame, but Bashaw’s Majestic Theatre is almost certainly one of a kind.
The plain-Jane clapboard building, restored a decade ago, is turning 100 years old and has gained new life as a community hub for local theatre, music and dance.
The Majestic Theatre is believed to be the last remaining theatre of its kind in Western Canada. While many “grand” theatres with eye-catching artistic embellishments have been saved by communities across the country, Bashaw historian Diane Carl said she could find no other example of a humble, century-old “boom-town theatre” that was preserved for posterity.
It almost didn’t happen in Bashaw.
Although dignitaries, including Alberta Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell, will pay tribute to the building’s past at a 100th birthday celebration on Saturday, Aug. 22, the abandoned theatre was considered an eyesore not long ago.
With a crumbling stucco facade that had been applied sometime in the 1940s, the theatre renamed the Dixy, was set to be demolished in the 1990s — until a few local residents began calling for its preservation.
“The building wasn’t remarkable looking at all. People said, ‘Why would you want to preserve it? It’s ugly,’” recalled Diane Carl.
But she, along with fellow resident Mary Kinsella and others saw value in preserving what was once a big part of the community’s cultural life. “Women couldn’t go into bars at one time, but they could always go to the theatre. Everyone was welcome, women, children, everyone,” said Carl.
In 1998, the Majestic Theatre Society purchased the building for a dollar from the municipality, and began fundraising. Restoration dollars were also sought from federal and provincial government. In the end, some $110,000 was raised for the project — which required a lot of work.
Not only did the wooden siding on the flat front wall of the structure have to be replaced because of deterioration behind the stucco, the whole building had to be moved six feet back from the sidewalk to comply with a new municipal setback bylaw.
Kinsella recalled it was “quite the thing” to transport the two-storey building back onto a new foundation. “We had to do that while supporting the original floor and … sides.”
Her brother, local commercial artist Ed McFadden, painted a large mural depicting the history of the town and the theatre, and it was affixed to the ceiling.
Kinsella recalled some original decorative architectural elements, such as a Greek key design, were uncovered. And a stage was installed, since the Majestic Theatre was built in 1915 for live performances.
Vaudeville-style artists were initially hosted at the clapboard theatre, as well as magic lantern shows that projected moving images from slides. (Magic lanterns were a precursor to film projectors.)
Soon it was screening silent movies and early talkies for enraptured audiences. The first known film to run there was More Deadly Than the Male (1919), starring Ethel Clayton, accompanied by a Mack Sennett comedy. The next week, The Last of the Mohicans was shown.
Although the building, which now has a historic designation, was converted to a more “modern” movie theatre in the 1940s and renamed the Dixy, it became a Catholic church at some point. The local joke is that this didn’t work out too well because it was too close to the bar.
Since the building’s restoration was completed in 2004, the Majestic Theatre has become home to a local theatre group, various plays, dinner theatre performances, dances and Christmas pageants.
What a wonderful way to make an early cultural landmark still relevant to the community, said Carl.
An open house celebration for the community will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 22, including historic presentations, a slide show, guest speakers and a cake cutting.