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October 22nd, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 41
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Quonset Hut Theaters – Long Live the Roxy
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear and Herald Contributor photos
Interior view from stage of quonset like the Roxy with projector wall at the back.
I had a flashback the other day to what it was like to sit as a young boy in the front row of the Roxy Theater in Coleman on a Saturday afternoon for the cowboy matinee. Being in the front row right in front of the screen was just the best place ever.
Back then there was nothing short of a riot going on up front until the show started what with all the hollering and laughing and guys using thick hollow liquorice as pea shooters. Sometimes it would get totally out of hand and then all of a sudden the lights would come up and a deadly hush would fall on the place. Then would come the owner, Mrs. Fershweiller, prowling up and down the aisles, arms folded and with a warning that if we didn’t settle down there would be no show.
It was a wonderful theater to go to as a kid and in later years slipping into one of those double wide love seats with a gal was kind of fun also. The Roxy was a magical place and its peculiar design is fairly unique.
How the Roxy came to be all started with a nasty fire back on February 16th of 1948 when a blaze, whipped by strong west winds, wiped out almost a block of businesses on Coleman’s main street. Gentile’s shoe repair, Sam Riva’s barber shop, Weir’s Novelty store, Rite Spot Cafe, the community hall and the Palace Theater were wiped out. According to the Crowsnest Heritage Initiative signage on the building there was a shop named The Palm that stood right where the Roxy now stands that sold fresh fruit and ice cream, served light lunches and was known for its oysters! It was next door to the Palace and had operated since 1908 until the fire reduced it to ashes.
The Roxy was soon built on the old Palace site, suffered another fire but was quickly repaired and back in operation by 1950. The Roxy is one of about 150,000 quonset huts that were manufactured during World War Two which were eventually sold by the US military as surplus to the public. Quonset’s were designed to be an all purpose, lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere and assembled without skilled labour. They can be found all around the world. Prefabricated structures of corrugated galvanized steel with a semicircular cross-section.
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A search on the internet reveals a wonderful site called cinematreasures.org with a quonset hut map that shows 18 still open quonset style theaters across Canada and the US. Two of these are in Canada and can be found in Wainwright, Alberta and Victoria, BC. The Alma Theater in Wainwright is typical of a design in which the whole theater (projection booth, seating, screen and stage) were contained within the hut. Others like our Roxy combined the quonset with a new facade. Also typical of these theaters is the construction dates which usually are in the late 1940’s or early 50’s. The Alma quonset fits that profile and was eventually adapted into a three screen operation in 1980, splitting the seating up into one large and two smaller theaters. It is hard to look at a picture of the Alma and believe there are three viewing areas within it!
In case you thought the name Roxy was rare you would be wrong, especially when it comes to theaters. There are Roxy’s in Edmonton, Airdrie and Hinton. The quonset Roxy in Victoria is stilling operating as a live theater.
There are Roxy’s around the world and across the United States, some of which have had a remarkable makeover. There once was a Roxy in New York just off Times Square that was, in 1925, the finest and largest motion picture palace ever built. It had a 5,920 seat capacity and boasted the largest oval rug in the world in its lobby and even had its own pipe organ on the mezzanine.
There is a spectacular Roxy theater operating in Miramar, Wellington, New Zealand that has brought back the romance and magic of cinema with twin theaters and a licensed restaurant. It is all about adaptive reuse and that is my wish for our Roxy. All across North America theaters like the Roxy have been rescued and turned into dance halls, restaurants, live theaters and so. The Coleman Roxy has the potential to be any of these.
As a kid I can recall being allowed up into the second floor of the front facade of the Roxy where Mr. Sekella was running the twin projectors. It was a world unto itself where I was able to look down on those below and watch as he made that oh so tricky switch from one projector to another. You remember that don’t you? There would be a change of light and scene on the screen and if you looked back you would see that powerful carbon arc light pouring from a different portal up in the back wall.
Whether the name was Palace or Orpheum or Rex or Capital or Roxy they all bring the magic of the film theater to mind. A magic that has been swept aside by the digital age. But there is no denying that this is a loss. Someone once said: “Film is a series of photographs separated by split seconds of darkness; film is light and shadow and it is the light and shadow that were there on the day you shot the film.”
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October 22nd ~ Vol. 84 No. 41
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