By Jeri Knopp
On May 24, 1994, the City of Saint John was awash with celebration. The grand reopening of the famed Imperial Theatre had finally arrived, after 12 years of community fundraising efforts and bootstrapping renovations. As they say, Act IV of the theatre’s life had just begun.
The Imperial Theatre was originally built in 1913 on the site of the old lyceum by Walter Golding, a man well known in Saint John as the first person in North America to use live orchestration for silent films while working at the Nickel Theatre in May 1907. It served as an important stop on the vaudeville circuit, delivering shows for the everyman.
“All the way back to the beginning, back to Walter Golding, there has always been this drive to be something for the whole community,” says Lee Bolton, the Imperial Theatre’s Executive Director. “I mean, it was vaudeville. It wasn’t an opera house, it wasn’t just for an elite few. It was for everybody.”
In 1929, the theatre was renamed the Capitol Theatre, and started showing movies. Then, in 1957, the building was purchased by the Full Gospel Assembly Pentecostal Church and turned into a place of worship. The churchgoers met there for many years, but eventually the building fell into disrepair.
“There were owls nesting in the chandeliers,” Bolton says, “and [former students of] St. Malachy’s remember being able to look in the side of the building because there were holes.”
Finally, in 1982, a plan for the Imperial Theatre in its current glory was conceived when a local taxi driver by the name of Jack MacDougall walked into the run-down building to look at purchasing the church’s organ. He saw the immense potential of the building and offered to buy the whole thing instead.
MacDougall didn’t have the $1 million they were asking for, so he offered a one dollar down payment, and the church agreed that the building was his if he could bring back the rest of the money within one year. Thus began a year-long grassroots fundraising campaign, where the community scrounged together the cash through bake sales, car washes, and business investments.
“It’s really cool looking back, because at the time, we didn’t really know if this was going to work,” says Bethany Stout, sales and marketing manager for the theatre. “You know, is this actually going to happen?”
But happen it did, and in 1994, the Imperial Theatre was restored to its former glory, and has spent the last 21 seasons operating as a live performance venue. Bolton believes that the longstanding success of this run stems in part from the staff sticking to their mission statement.
“The mission when the theatre reopened was to enrich, inspire, and engage the community through the performing arts, which is really what it’s always been about.”
Another factor behind the theatre’s success is its diversity of programming. Much like the Walter Golding days of the theatre, the Imperial strives to bring in programming that will interest everyone, whether it is something traditional like Classic Albums Live, or something more cutting edge, like DakhaBrakha, who Bolton describes as a “Ukrainian fusion folk punk, hard to explain” band.
“It’s about looking at the different groups in the community,” she says. “Do we have something for the older people, the younger people; do we have something for the rock fans, the jazz fans; do we have something for the theatre people?”
In addition to the diversity in the programming, the Imperial Theatre does a lot of under the radar community work, whether it is through their Inspiring Artists Series or the intergenerational outreach program where seniors and high school students are matched and attend shows together. These initiatives have earned the Imperial the Big Heart Award, which recognizes organizations or companies who have made a positive impact in the community, at this year’s Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Business Awards
“I think hopefully everybody in Saint John knows that we do shows,” Bolton says, “but there’s a lot of work we do that isn’t necessarily so obvious to everyone.” These initiatives include the community involvement above, as well as their workshops where they bring in top-notch artists to work with people interested in furthering their skills in that field, so they can train under the best in Saint John.
The Imperial isn’t thinking of 10 year plans, but they have recently released their 22nd Season schedule, and Bolton can’t wait to see legendary singer and actress Darlene Love. She says that she can’t believe that she managed to get such a big star to come to the theatre, but it goes to show how the Theatre is small but mighty.
“This is a very unusual place for a town the size of Saint John to have,” she says. “It is beautiful and you can feel the hundred years of history in it. I hope that people in Saint John realize how rare and amazing this is because it’s not something that every town has.”
For more information about the Imperial Theatre, visit http://www.imperialtheatre.nb.ca/