Red Deer’s first theatre

Alberta’s annual Culture Days are fast approaching. This province-wide celebration of arts and culture will be taking place from Sept. 25th to 27th..

While the current arts and culture scene will be celebrated during this annual event, it is important to remember that arts and culture also thrived in frontier towns such as Red Deer more than 100 years ago.

Because television, radio, movies and the Internet had not been invented yet, people entertained themselves with all kinds of concerts, musicales, live theatre performances, lectures and public readings.

As early as the 1890s, when there were less than 200 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.

The Red Deer Citizens’ Band (the forerunner of the Red Deer Royals) was organized in the spring of 1902.

The performing arts got a tremendous boost during the summer of 1903 when Amos B. Purdy, a furniture store owner, decided to include an opera house on the second floor of a new business block which he was constructing on the east side of Gaetz Avenue, south of Mann (49) St.

The Purdy Block turned out to be an impressive looking building.

It was built out of local sandstone and brick from the Piper’s Brickyard. Because ceilings on the second floor were as much as 20 ft. high, the whole edifice looked as if it was Red Deer’s first three-storey structure.

On Jan. 8th, 1904, the Red Deer Dramatic Society put on the Opera House’s inaugural performance with its staging of The Circus Girl.

It proved to be a tremendous hit.

An impressive number of plays, minstrel acts, vaudeville shows, concerts, 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.

The Opera House was also used for public meetings, political rallies and community fundraisers. After the formation of the Red Deer Fire Brigade in 1904, the highly popular annual firemen’s ball was held there.

Following the opening of the Opera House, new cultural groups and organizations were established.

The first Red Deer Symphony Orchestra was formed in September 1904, with Robert Duncan as leader.

While this first orchestra ran into a number of difficulties, a second symphony orchestra was organized in November 1906 under the direction of W.B. McQueen.

In the summer of 1906, a new form of entertainment was provided at the Opera House.

The Sherman Moving Pictures company gave a showing of a short movie of the great San Francisco Earthquake.

Around the same time, the Opera House was purchased by Rev. James Rice, the principal of the Red Deer Indian Industrial School.

Amos Purdy continued to operate his furniture store on the ground floor.

In January 1907, R.L. McBride briefly opened a roller skating rink in the second floor hall.

The winter of 1906-07 was one of the worst on record.

There were heavy snows and several weeks of very frigid temperatures. In February 1907, the Town sent an engineer to look at the roof of the Opera House. They were alarmed by what they found. The back wall had major cracks in a half dozen places.

Consequently, all licenses for public gatherings were suspended indefinitely.

Rev. Rice brought in an architect to make a number of changes and repairs. However, on Dec. 20th, 1907 disaster struck.

The whole building was destroyed by fire.

While Rev. Rice had some insurance, his losses turned out to be much greater than his coverage. Amos Purdy also suffered a permanent blow to his furniture business and soon moved to Provost.

The Opera House was never rebuilt.

Instead, an old farm machinery warehouse on Ross Street was renovated by some local businessmen and turned into the Lyric Theatre. While this new theatre had a number of shortcomings, it soon became the new centre for entertainment in the community.

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