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The hidden history of the Theatre Block (5 photos)

In this edition of Remember This, Mary Harris takes us back to the dawn of moving pictures

In April, 1963, a notice in the Barrie Examiner announced the application by Roy Lem Limited, owners of the Roy Lem Restaurant at the corner of Maple Avenue and Dunlop Street West, for a dining room license.

The Lems had plans for “the sale and consumption of liquor with meals” in the adjoining building, 41 Dunlop St. W.

This was the beginning of the long-standing Miramar Gardens, remembered by many in Barrie.

Today, Miramar Gardens is only a memory and the site now houses The Market, an eclectic array of shops and small businesses under one roof. 

In 2017, I had the good fortune to have a short tour of some of the secret spaces in the old building. A friend, who was then managing the day to day operations of The Market, eagerly showed me some of the outstanding links to the past, most of which are well hidden by modern renovations.

What is still visible is the fine original tinwork ceiling, installed in 1923 when the Capitol Theatre opened here. It can be observed by any visitor to The Market just inside the front door.

Also, just inside the entrance, there are two steps going up to the main vendor hallway. This spot marks the place where the theatre floor began to slope downward to the stage and screen at the south wall of the building, a distance of over 90 feet. This floor, altered later, still exists below in the form of a very long crawlspace.

In the basement of 41 Dunlop St. W., nothing much remains of the theatre glory days. The stage and screen are long gone. Perfectly preserved though, hidden away from most sources of light, are the cinema walls adorned in the same hues of fuchsia and cream, as bright as the day they were painted 95 years ago. The heavy cast iron radiators remain as well.

The Capitol Theatre was not welcomed by all when it first arrived in Barrie. In fact, word of its impending arrival sent the Opera House and the Dreamland Theatre into an uproar. They requested that the town grant no more theatre licenses saying that Barrie was well enough served by theatre seats. The council declined to comply.

In April 1923, R.F. Garrett purchased what was then known as the Wilkinson property which included most of the block on the south side of Dunlop Street West, then called Elizabeth Street. He proposed to build a moving picture theatre and a garage. 

This had been the site of James Wilkinson’s land, just north of his mill which stood approximately where the bus station sits today. The Wilkinson house had been located on John Street, now Maple Avenue, just behind the former Roy Lem Restaurant on the corner of Dunlop Street West.

From start to finish, including the demolition of the old house to the rear of the property, the construction of the Capitol Theatre took ten weeks. An article in the Sept. 27, 1923 edition of the Barrie Examiner gave an extremely detailed description of the brand-new entertainment venue.

The newly minted picture house measured 35 feet by 145 feet and was made from brick and concrete with a roof supported by steel girders 50 per cent over the required specifications. The front was faced, in various shades, with something called green rug brick.

Inside, customers could look forward to a spacious lobby, a convenient ticket office and an especially luxurious ladies’ rest room. The auditorium itself was reportedly well lit by eight chandeliers and 10 wall sconces, and contained 570 comfortable seats on a floor with a seven-foot drop to allow great viewing from any vantage point.

In 1923, moving pictures were all the rage but live theatre had not died out. The Capitol Theatre opened with the latest in film technology, a Simplex Projector, but also boasted a 16-by-20-foot stage, with a dressing room below, for vaudeville performances. The first show presented in this theatre was a version of Rob Roy.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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