On this day in 1943, one of the city's most storied theatres was taking on a new role.
Earlier in the week, audiences had taken in the final show at the Empire Theatre. According to newspaper accounts at the time, it ended its run in a "blaze of glory" with a packed house for famed American singer Marian Anderson. Soon after, the stage would be shut down and given a new part to play: as a space for the thousands of U.S. military members stationed in Edmonton during the Second World War.
When the playhouse first opened in 1906, it was on the corner of 100 Street and 100 Avenue. It was the site of a 14-hour sale of lands belonging to the Michel Band, which had been under tremendous pressure from both the provincial and federal governments to sell off holdings. More than 8,000 acres of Michel Band property was sold to settlers, much of it for half its market value (and the band didn't actually get paid most of what was owed.)
In 1912, the Empire moved to a spot further east, where Enterprise Square now sits. It played host to some of the best-known vaudeville acts of the day, including Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.
The Empire moved again in 1920 to its final location on 101 Avenue and 103 Street. While not quite as extravagant as the Pantages Theatre, it was still a popular venue that drew large crowds and was considered the superior stage for "serious dramas". The Empire was also the preferred venue for Edmonton's first orchestra (which disbanded in 1932 due to lack of funds).
After that last show in February 1943, the Empire became one of the dozens of buildings in the city to be leased to U.S. military contractors working on wartime projects in northern Canada, including the Alaska Highway. After the war, the building was purchased by local investors. A condition of the sale meant it couldn't be used as a theatre for another 25 years, but that didn't mean it wouldn't once again be home to an orchestra. The Trocadero Nightclub took over the space, complete with its own jazz musicians. The club was a staple of downtown nightlife for 35 years before shutting down. The building then served as a bingo hall for about a year before finally being torn down to make way for Manulife Place in 1981.
Live theatre has always been a rocky industry. And even though modern theatre companies no longer have to deal with the possibility of being conscripted for military use, many are still struggling with other challenges, like coronavirus. While many hope that 2022 might allow the entertainment industry to inch towards normal, the rise of the Omicron variant has forced many stages to cancel shows.