The history of theatre in Red Deer

Michael Dawe

Michael Dawe

On Sept. 7, Central Alberta Theatre officially opened the new City Centre Stage on 49 St. The evening was a wonderful success. While the gala event was a celebration of a new culture and entertainment centre in the heart of downtown Red Deer, it was also a celebration of the 120-year history of theatre in Red Deer.

From its earliest days, Red Deer had a very vibrant cultural community. Because television, radio and the iPad had not been invented yet, people entertained themselves with all kinds of concerts, live theatre performances and musicals. In the early 1890’s, when there were less than 300 people in the town, Red Deer had three local theatrical companies: the Red Deer Dramatic Society, the Red Deer Amateur Comedy Company and the Burnt Cork Dramatic Society.

Red Deer’s cultural activity got a tremendous boost in 1903 when Amos Purdy constructed an opera house on Gaetz Avenue south. On Jan. 8, 1904, the Red Deer Dramatic Society put on the inaugural performance with The Circus Girl. It proved to be a tremendous hit.

An impressive number of plays, minstrel acts, vaudeville shows, concerts, operettas, musicales and other public performances followed. Some of the most popular theatricals included Lost Paradise, The Confidential Spy, The Queen of Hearts and The Little Minister. The famous Canadian poet, E. Pauline Johnson, performed at the opera house in 1905. Noted traveling theatrical companies such as the Nelson-Bruce Company staged performances of Arizona and The Prisoner of Zenda.

Disaster struck on Dec. 20, 1907 when the opera house was destroyed by fire. Fortunately, shortly thereafter, a new theatre, the Lyric, opened in an old farm machinery warehouse on Ross St.

The Lyric also offered a new form of entertainment, silent movies. However, because the films were often very short, musical entertainments were often added to lengthen the program.

In late 1912, another larger theatre, the Empress, was constructed on First Street North (51 St.). It provided a much better venue for live theatre. It also featured higher quality motion pictures.

Additional performance space became available in 1913 with the construction of St. Luke’s Parish Hall on Gaetz Avenue North. It had a full stage, dressing rooms, an auditorium seating 300 and a balcony that could seat another 100.

The outbreak of the First World War brought a lull for the local entertainment community. The aftermath of the War brought two decades of economic hard times.

However, the theatrical community enjoyed a resurgence as people turned to local live theatre as an affordable form of entertainment. The 1930’s also saw the beginning of the Golden Age of movies. Red Deer boasted two movie theatres, the Capitol and the Crescent, which provided venues for other entertainments.

The advent of television had a big impact on the local theatre. Before long, the number of theatrical performances dropped off and Red Deer had only one surviving movie theatre, the Paramount.

Fortunately, the theatrical community enjoyed a revival as Red Deer entered one of the biggest booms in its history. Another boost came with the opening in 1951 of the Memorial Centre, which offered good quality performance space.

One strong dramatic group that developed was the Cothurn Company. In 1959, it spawned a second company, the Parkland Players. Other groups soon followed.

In 1970, the Parkland Players merged with Red Deer Musical Theatre to form Central Alberta Theatre. It has become one of the most successful amateur theatrical organizations in Western Canada.

In 1979, Central Alberta Theatre made a successful foray into dinner theatre, which has become an excellent source of revenue. In 2002-2003, C.A.T. had grown to the extent that it constructed a new facility, C.A.T. Studios, onto the west side of the Memorial Centre.

Now Central Alberta Theatre has marked another significant milestone with the conversion of the old Uptown Theatre on 49 St. into a new dinner theatre, performance space, and cultural centre. This should be a wonderful new addition to Red Deer’s growing theatrical and cultural attractions.