‘Boomtown’ theatre enjoys long life

Concerned residents formed an organization in Bashaw, Alta., in 1998 to save the historic building from demolition

BASHAW, Alta. — The more things change, the more they stay the same. This adage has proven true when it comes to the 104-year-old Majestic Theatre in the central Alberta town of Bashaw.

The exterior of the plain clapboard 1 1/2 storey structure looks almost identical to when it was erected in 1915. In the century since, it has gone through several visual transformations, business purposes, and owners. Today, the working theatre museum provides a venue for cultural and social entertainment.

“It’s great to have a home for our community theatre,” says Mary Kinsella, a local artist and founding member of the Friends of the Majestic Theatre Society, the organization formed in 1998 to save the historic building from demolition.

As well as being home to the local theatre troupe, the Majestic Players, the facility is a venue for dances, musical entertainment, board game nights, meetings, weddings, reunions and other community events.

Friends of the Majestic Theatre Society president Peter Graham has been involved in the annual theatre productions since he moved to Bashaw in 2003.

“They were looking for someone to do light and sound,” he says. “It’s a way to be involved in a hobby I enjoy.

“There’s a uniqueness about the building. The sound is incredible.”

Kinsella credits Diane Carl, Bashaw’s mayor at the time, as the person who spearheaded the Majestic Theatre Restoration Project.

“She had worked on a university research project on ‘boomtown’ theatres.”

Carl discovered Bashaw’s Majestic Theatre was considered to be the last of its type in Western Canada.

Boomtown architecture refers to oversized street front features allowing ample room for signage with a more humble, gabled building behind. This style of wood-built commercial structure was common in the early 1900s and continued to be seen into mid-century.

Kinsella says initially the future of the Majestic Theatre was a contentious issue. Some saw it as a historic treasure to be preserved, while others declared it an eyesore to be demolished. The Friends of the Majestic Theatre Society prevailed.

“We bought it from the town for a dollar and they didn’t want to hear from us again,” says Kinsella.

Thus began years of fundraising. As part of this endeavour, the Majestic Players came into being.

“We put on plays and dances and pie socials,” says Kinsella. “We did anything to make money.”

In 2000, the Majestic Theatre was designated a registered historical resource by the province and was designated a millennium bureau of Canada project. Provincial and federal grant monies were received.

The restoration, finished in 2004, was completed in stages. The theatre had to be lifted and moved back two metres to comply with municipal set-back bylaws. A crumbling stucco facade applied in the 1940s was removed.

“The bones of the building were in surprisingly good shape. Three walls, the roof, the floor; they’re all original. We just had to rebuild the front,” says Kinsella.

In addition to the necessary utilitarian and historic elements of the restoration, Kinsella said “the icing on the cake” part of the work was the signage, promotional artworks, and live theatre backdrops painted by her brother, Ed McFadden. McFadden’s artwork includes colourful murals that decorate the ceiling in the lobby and auditorium.

In 2011, Bashaw recognized the importance of preserving the century-old building by designating the Majestic Theatre as a municipal historic resource.

Records indicate that the 1915 build was initiated by town founder Eugene Bashaw at the request of Ella Wing of Ponoka, Alta. The Majestic became a gathering place, hosting community functions, as well as travelling theatre and magic lantern shows. Magic lantern was an early type of projector, in which painted glass plates were manually passed in front of a light source and projected onto a wall.

In 1921, the theatre was sold and converted into a silent picture house and renamed Majestic Theatre, The Home of Good Pictures.

Shows such as The Last Of The Mohicans, Mysterious Rider, and Jesse James, introduced Bashaw residents to American popular culture.

After some financial difficulties in the late 1920s, the theatre was bought and sold in quick succession and turned into a real estate office, with film showings on the side.

A decade later the Roman Catholic Church became the owner but according to records “as this first place of worship was next to a hotel, the deal was not considered very satisfactory”.

The theatre changed hands several more times over the years, undergoing renovations more than once. It was the mid 1940s when it was renamed the Dixy, and continued to operate as a movie house until 1984, at which time it became essentially unused. That was until Carl’s research brought to light its significance.

The landmark has come full circle. It again serves its original function as community hub.

“It’s great to see a historic building being used. It’s good for the community,” says Graham. “It brings a sense of pride and a sense of connection to the past.”

The Majestic Players are currently preparing for their upcoming spring dinner theatre Book Club, which is scheduled to run at the Majestic Theatre over several weekends in April.

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