The official opening of the City Centre Stage by Central Alberta Theatre on Sept. 7 in the old Uptown Theatre building has created a wonderful new entertainment and cultural facility in Red Deer’s Downtown core.
The refurbishment of this downtown landmark, parts of which date back to 1919, has also helped to draw new attention to the history of the heart of our community.
The earliest theatrical and entertainment centre in Red Deer was the Purdy Opera House, which stood on the east side of Gaetz Ave. south of Mann (49) St.
The high ceilings in the auditorium helped give the two-storey building the appearance of being a three-storey structure and therefore an imposing landmark in early Red Deer.
The Purdy Opera House was destroyed in a spectacular fire on Dec. 20, 1907. Fortunately, just before the loss of this theatre, a new one, the Lyric, had opened on Ross St. just across the alley from the current site of the City Centre Stage.
The beginnings of the Lyric Theatre were very modest. The building had originally been constructed as the Massey Harris farm implement warehouse.
However, the large open spaces in the interior of the building made the conversion to a theatre a relatively simple process.
Nevertheless, while the Lyric offered seating for more than 300 people, it was never as fancy or as architecturally appealing as the Purdy Opera House. Moreover, the stage area was much smaller than what had been available at the Opera House.
On Nov. 1, 1907, the Lyric officially opened with a performance by the Kilties, a Scottish music and bagpipe band. So many people turned out for the performance that several had to be turned away at the door.
The Lyric soon offered a new form of entertainment to the community – movies. The movies were often very short so a song or recitation was often offered to lengthen the program.
The films were also silent. Consequently a pianist at the front of the hall helped set the mood. Initially, for more elaborate musical accompaniments, a gramophone was used. Later, the theatre was enlarged and an orchestra pit was added to the front of the auditorium.
The Lyric generally showed two different films per week. Other nights, the theatre was busy with drama productions, concerts, operas and operettas, musicales, vaudeville shows, public meetings, political rallies and lectures.
Originally, the Lyric used sets of wooden chairs for seating. That allowed the auditorium to be opened up for other events such as dances and church bazaars. Before long, much better quality ‘opera style’ seating was installed.
In August of 1910, when Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister of Canada gave a speech in the Lyric, the owners were so excited that they double-varnished all the seats.
Unfortunately, the varnish did not properly dry before the event. Consequently, many of those in the crowd ended up leaving bits of their clothing on the seats when they got up to leave.
In 1914, the Lyric was sold. The new owners made extensive renovations to improve the quality of the theatre. In 1919, the Rex Theatre Company bought the Lyric. The Company announced plans to demolish the old building and replace it with a large, more modern facility to be called the Rex.
Unfortunately, with money being in short supply during the post First World War economic depression, the lavish plans had to be dropped. Only modest renovations and the name change took place.
Nevertheless, the Rex (Lyric) remained the main entertainment and culture centre of the community. In addition to the regular movies, it featured such entertainments as the Red Deer Choral Society concerts, Red Deer Dramatic Society plays, the Pantages’ travelling vaudeville shows, the Brandon Opera Company’s production of the Mikado and even boxing matches.
In October 1925 a major fire seriously damaged the Rex Theatre just as it was being sold to a new owner. The new owner wanted to repair and restore the old theatre, but the City was concerned about future risks of another fire and refused to give permission.
Consequently, the old Lyric/Rex was demolished. An attractive new theatre, the Crescent, was built in 1926 on the old site of the Rex. The new theatre boasted 485 seats, superior modern projection abilities for movies and much improved ventilation for patrons. Three years later, sound equipment was installed and Red Deer got its first ‘talkie’ movies.