A moment in history: March 29, 1971

A moment in history: March 29, 1971

· The Pulse

On this day in 1971, credits rolled on the career of Bill Wilson, the longtime manager of the Garneau Theatre.

Film was the Wilson family business — his father started managing the Capitol Theatre in the late 1920s. Bill Wilson was responsible for creating the Roxy Theatre in 1938. He managed it for a year before leaving to start up the Garneau.

Although central Edmonton had a healthy number of theatres, options for cinephiles south of the river were limited; the Garneau was only the second film theatre to open outside of downtown, three months after the rival Varscona opened just a few blocks away.

Architect William G. Blakey built the two-storey theatre in an Art Moderne style, which developed from the Art Deco style popular in the 1930s. The theatre's marquee and neon signage make it instantly recognizable to anyone travelling along 109 Street, and the two-tone bricks that spell out Garneau on its north wall make it impossible to misidentify.

The nearly 800-seat theatre reflected the growing wealth and optimism that bloomed in Edmonton just after the Second World War — the interior featured golden pillars, a fireplace, and philodendron-packed wallpaper. On Oct. 24, 1940, the Garneau showed its first film, The Great Waltz.

The theatre ran independently before it was leased to the Famous Players chain, but its popularity as a first-run theatre began to decline in the 1980s and '90s as new, modern multiplexes opened in Edmonton. Magic Lantern bought the Garneau in 1991 and turned it into a discount theatre targeting students. This proved lucrative enough that the company started showing new releases again in 1996.

Edmonton is a city with a long history of demolishing beautiful old theatres. The Garneau has narrowly escaped that fate a few times. Defiant neighbours stopped a plan to turn it into a sports-themed restaurant in 1992. It similarly faced possible demolition in 2001 and 2007.

The theatre's future was secured in 2009 when the City of Edmonton offered funding to restore the original 1940 exterior and designated the building a historical resource. Atlas Obscura recently showcased it along with a dozen historic movie houses as one of the few surviving Art Moderne theatres in North America.

In 2011, the nonprofit Metro Cinema Society took over the lease. It has continued restoring the historical elements of the theatre, as well as showing a diverse range of classic films and independent releases. It also uses its stage for special programming, such as a Q&A with Skinamarink director Kyle Edward Ball, as well as events on harm reduction and homelessness, not to mention film festivals.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera via Twitter.