Sunday, 11 December 2011

Academy Lanes / Uptown Theatre is turning 80 !

Academy Uptown Lanes

It turns out that December 2011 is a milestone for more than one Winnipeg entertainment icon ! On December 24, 2011 the Uptown Theatre, now Academy Bowling Lanes, will celebrate 80 years !

Here is a look back at what was one of Winnipeg's most unique theatres !

Selkirk Avenue, Winnipeg
Roxy Lanes Former Rose Theatre
Uptown's sisters: the Palace on Selkirk Avenue; the Rose on Sargent Avenue and the Roxy on Henderson Highway.

Allied Amusements Ltd. commissioned local architect M. Z. Blankstein to design the fifth in their chain of neighbourhood theatres which already consisted of the Roxy (on Henderson), The Rose (on Sargent), the Plaza (on Marion at Tache) and the Palace (on Selkirk).

A building permit was granted in the summer of 1930 for a the $50,000 building that was to take up three lots. Before serious construction got underway, Allied redrew their plans. They purchased a fourth lot at the rear of the site and planned to spend triple the original estimate (up to $150,000) to create one of the "largest and finest" neighbourhood theatres in Canada:

The three lots have been cleared of the bush and -underbrush and some digging has been done but the work has not been pushed forward vigorously awaiting the outcome of the application respecting the fourth lot.
Winnipeg Free Press, August 16, 1930

In August 1930 city council rejected the expansion plans, even though more people signed a petition in favour of the larger theatre than those who signed one opposing it. Allied went ahead with their original plan and the fourth lot became parking.

Uptown's interior, December 24, 1931, Winnipeg Free Press

The interior was built for patron comfort. There was a large, well furnished lobby area. Plush carpeting ran throughout the building. The seats, 1200 on the main floor and just over 400 on the balcony, were mohair–backed with leather bottoms stuffed with horsehair for a feeling of luxury. The front row of the balcony and the loges were 'chesterfield style' seating.

Safety, of course, was a key selling feature of any theatre of the day. The Uptown would have a state-of-the-art ventilation system and boasted a wood-free hall, (brick with metal lath was used instead). They were also the ‘first in the Dominion’ to use an Orthokrome screen “…said to adhere all the red light rays reputed to be harmful to the eyes” (Winnipeg Free Press, December 24, 1931).

Academy Uptown Lanes Academy Uptown Lanes

It was, of course, Blankstein's architectural details that set the theatre apart from anything Winnipeg has ever seen.

The exterior resembled a Mediterranean villa with wrought iron balconies, colourful stucco finish and red tile roof. The roofline, though, was that of an Islamic mosque.

Inside, patrons were meant to feel as if they were seated outdoors, in the square of a Moorish village. The hall's walls included the facades of village buildings overlooking the 'square'. The ceiling was painted blue with twinkiling stars inserted into the plaster. Images of moving clouds were projected onto it adding to the outdoor feel.

Lighting came from 16 spotlights placed around the periphery of the hall rather than chandeliers so as not to ruin the outdoor effect. (For a more detailed description of the building’s interior see the
City of Winnipeg Historic Building’s Report).

October 6, 1931. Winnipeg Free Press.

To name the theatre, Allied held an essay contest that ran in both the Free Press and Tribune. The winner received a Northern Electric radio and had their essay published in the paper.

Some 30,000 entries were submitted, (this was the depression after all !!). Management sifted through them until they found their favourite: The Uptown. It turned out that there were 39 essays that suggested Uptown so no one winning entry was singled out. (I'm not sure if this meant that 39 radios were provided, though the Free Press did print a series of the essays).

On October 5, 1931 the winning name was announced on the stage of the Roxy Theatre.

Left: December 25, 1931, Winnipeg Free Press
Right: J. Miles, President of Allied Theatres; D. Gauld, Uptown's first manager.

On Christmas Eve 1931, Mayor Webb presided over the opening ceremony that included Mr. J. Miles, president of the theatre chain and Donald Gauld, formerly the manager of the Roxy and now the Uptown's first manager. It does not appear as if Blankstein, architect of Allied's Uptown, Roxy and Tivoli Theatres, was present. He died one week after the opening.

December 24, 1931, Winnipeg Free Press.

The ceremony was followed by a newsreel, a movie short and the feature: Sally O’Neill and Frank Albertson in The Brat.

ca. 1945, Winnipeg Tribune

February 27, 1941, Winnipeg Tribune

The theatre was built as a movie house and the stage area was too shallow for many types of of live events. These were hard times, though, and the Uptown had to fill as many seats as possible. Small stage performances, lectures, recitals, fundraising concerts and the like were a regular part of the schedule.

The Uptown mainly showed the second run of top films, often as a double bill. An exception to this was their Uptown's 'Sneak Peak Thursdays' of the early 1940s. Dozens of first run films premiered here before they opened downtown the following night. Saturday afternoons were a mix of Westerns and cartoons.

May 14, 1960. Winnipeg Free Press
The rising popularity of television spelled the end of neighbourhood theatres. A number of chains faltered and one by one their theatres were sold off for demolition or to be converted to other uses.

The Roxy and Uptown were now part of the Western Theatre chain, which hung on longer than some. In 1960 it was announced that both buildings would be converted into into bowling alleys. O
n Sunday, May 15, 1960 the Uptown held a farewell afternoon with a free feature and six cartoons.

September 29, 1960. Winnipeg Free Press

On September 29, 1960 Uptown Bowling Lanes opened as Winnipeg's largest with 30 Brunswick lanes. On October 21, 1960 they held an official opening featuring 'Cactus' Jack Wells as emcee and a fashion show of the latest bowling attire.

Uptown Lanes is still in operation as Academy Lanes.


Demolition of the Uptown Theatre's interior (source)

394 Academy Road Historic Buildings Committee (source of above demolition photo)


Andrew Cunningham said...

A lot of Winnipeg is about to celebrate its 100th birthday!

mrchristian said...

Yes, it will be hard to keep up in the months ahead. Selkirk Settlers hit the 200 year mark next year !

Colin Fast said...

I'm confused. If the theatre opened in 1931, isn't it celebrating its 80th anniversary?

mrchristian said...

Lol, no it is me that's confused. I am working on a couple of '100' things at the same time as this post and well, you know...

Thanks !

Anonymous said...

Imagine trying to open a 1600 seat theatre on Academy road these days!

The neighbourhood cried blue murder over Pizzeria Gusto's 20 seat patio. Any idea how 1600 people would get to the Uptown? Seems way too many for transit and parking would have been similar to what it is today.

mrchristian said...

Back then I guess they were very much a community cinema. 1600 seats but 75% of the traffic would be walk up !