Theatre relics restored - Former Thessalon movie-house memorabilia is now part of a cinema museum
By BRENT RANKIN -Special to The Star, THESSALON
The former Empire Theatre in Thessalon is no more than a memory in most people's minds, but for theatre buffs three pieces of equipment — removed before the 1990 demolition of the Empire — have become part of a museum display at the nationally acclaimed Highland Cinema in Kinmount, north of Peterborough.
Theatre owner and cinema historian Keith Stata has rescued items from 450 theatres across North America.
In 1984, while returning from Chapleau, where he was salvaging precious cargo for his expanding museum, Stata thought he remembered that there was a theatre in Thessalon and stopped into town.
"It was the middle of winter and I drove up to the theatre on Main Street and saw that the doors were chained shut," Stata recalls.
"I went next door to the municipal office and staff there made a call to the owner who arrived a short time later in a log truck and let me in."
Municipal office staff warned Stata that the theatre was in poor condition, but he says he wasn't quite prepared for what he saw.
"The roof was on the floor, having obviously fallen in some time before," Stata remembers, "and there appeared little worth salvaging."
Stata looked around and to his delight found that the ceiling of the projection room was intact, although leaking badly.
He was able to find a circa 1915 Cinephor brand projection lamp. Stata says the lamp may have been used in conjunction with a projector, or could
have been used independently to project "last call" at the candy bar-type messages on the screen.
As well, Stata confiscated a theatre horn speaker from the stage area. Found lying on its back, the unit had been dripped on from a leak and was filled with water. The speaker was frozen solid, but now sits on the museum floor in Kinmount, a reminder of what speakers of its day looked like.
The most valuable find, however, according to Stata was a Hortson 16-millimetre carbon arc projector.
Stata explains that 35-mm projectors were the most common, but in smaller,Northern communities it was not unusual to find the 16-mm format.
Thessalon resident John Valiquette owned and operated the Empire Theatre for a decade, purchasing the landmark in 1962. It was Valiquette who switched from 35-mm to the Hortson projector in 1963, following a fire that consumed the bank next door and damaging the theatre.
"When I first when to the theatre." Valiquette reminisces, "it had not been modified at all from its original condition. After the fire, we had to put a new
roof on the building and install new seats, and this is when we changed to the 16-mm format."
The 35-mm projector was becoming too expensive for small theatres according to Valiquette, who explains that converting to 16-mm did not require a unionized, licensed projectionist.
"The quality of a 16-mm projector wasn't as good," Stata said. "As theatres became less profitable in small communities, and 35-mm projectors became too expensive to operate and replace, the cheaper alternative was often sought."
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Prior to Valiquette's management a marquis was added to the front of the building, purchased second-hand the Orpheum Theatre in Sault Ste. Marie.
Valiquette says he used the marquis all the time, but as it became deteriorated over the years it was removed leaving only an I-beam frame, which remained until demolition.
Valiquette says when he first opened he recalls playing John Wayne and Elvis Presley movies to full houses. Times began to change, how and it was difficult to compete with competition for entertainment dollars.
After a variety of more recent owners ,the Thessalon theatre became the property of the municipality following a tax sale. After a number of structural and safety concerns about the deteriorating condition of the building were brought to the attention of municipal council the building was ordered demolished in 1990.
Stata has a number of items in his museum from area theatres, including collectibles from the Blind River theatre, built there bv the Solomon family in 1921.
Photos courtesy of the Thessalon Union Public Library.
Photo caption: The deteriorating Empire Theater as it looked prior to its demolition in 1990.