A look at arts and culture in Red Deer

Red Deer, for a great many years, was considered a very quiet prairie town. However, that peaceable appearance has sometimes given people the wrong impression about the vibrancy of Red Deer’s arts and culture community.

In 1892, a year after the townsite of Red Deer was created, the Blue Ribbon Society was organizing ‘entertainments’ in the Wilkins Hall on Ross Street.

By 1893-94, although the hamlet had a population of less than 150, there were three local theatrical companies: the Red Deer Dramatic Society, the Red Deer Amateur Comedy Company and the Burnt Cork Dramatic Society.

All three groups were financial successes.

In 1903, Amos Purdy built an opera house on the upper floor of a business block he constructed on the east side of Gaetz Avenue, south of Mann (49) Street.

The Red Deer Dramatic Society successfully staged the first play, The Circus Girl.

An impressive number of plays, minstrel acts, vaudeville shows, concerts, musicales and other public performances followed.

Shortly after the opera house opened, Red Deer’s first symphony orchestra was formed. While this first group ran into difficulties, a new symphony orchestra was organized to replace it in November 1906.

On Dec. 20th, 1907, disaster struck. The opera house was destroyed in a spectacular fire. The insurance coverage was too limited to allow a replacement. Hence, a farm machinery warehouse on Ross Street was renovated and turned into the Lyric Theatre.

Although the Lyric had a number of shortcomings, it was still the site of an impressive array of theatrical and musical performances. It was also the place where Red Deer’s first silent movies were screened.

In 1912-13, the Anglican Church built an impressive parish hall on Gaetz Avenue, north of McLeod (54) Street. The facility included a large 300-seat auditorium, a banquet hall on the lower floor and a small library.

At the same time, the Empress Theatre opened on Blowers (51) Street.

It also could seat 300 patrons and specialized in higher quality motion pictures as well as theatrical performances.

The outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent severe post-war depression put a severe damper on Red Deer’s arts and cultural scene. However, the Lyric Theatre was soon extensively renovated and became the Rex Theatre. The refurbished facility provided silent movies, Red Deer Choral Society concerts, Red Deer Dramatic Society plays and Pantages travelling vaudeville shows.

In 1926, the 485 seat Crescent Theatre was constructed to replace the Rex. The Elks Boys Band held regular Saturday night concerts there.

In 1929, sound equipment was installed in the Crescent and Red Deer got its first ‘talkie’ movies.

With the popularity of movies and amateur theatrical performances, a second theatre, the Capitol, was constructed across the street from the Crescent in 1938. Both theatres continued to operate successfully for more than 20 years.

In 1951, the Memorial Centre was created out of an old army drill hall on 58 Street.

Red Deer now had a facility dedicated to the performing arts, although the east side of the building was used as a gymnasium by the Lindsay Thurber High School for many years.

Two dramatic groups that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s were the Cawthorn and Parkland Players. In 1963, the Red Deer Allied Arts Council was formed as an umbrella group for arts and culture in the community.

Central Alberta Theatre was created in 1970. In 1994, the Red Deer Cultural Charter Partners was formed. It was succeeded by Culture Link (Inc.) and later by the Red Deer Arts Council.

On the evening of Jan. 31st, the Red Deer Arts Council is hosting its first Arts and Craft (Beer) Fundraiser at the Festival Hall (east side of the Memorial Centre). Tickets are only $50. For more information, contact reddeerartscouncil@gmail.com.

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