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How a quick-fix idea led to the building of Saint John's long-standing Imperial Theatre.

When Peter Smith sits down at his desk at the Imperial Theatre in downtown Saint John, NB, he's very aware of the presence of the first and longest-serving manager of the institution, Walter Golding. It's not a ghost in the almost 100-year-old building, but a photograph of Golding, which Smith feels is watching all the time to make sure things are done right.

Doing it right means keeping the theatre open up to 200 nights a year, and in so doing, ensuring it holds a premier position in the performing arts life of Atlantic Canada, which is what Golding did from 1913 until his death in 1945.

It was Golding who, after years of campaigning, convinced the New York-based Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville venues to build the theatre. He was a man of small stature, but big ideas.

In 1942-Golding's 35th year in the theatrical world-the indefatigable Evening Times Globe reporter Stuart Trueman described Golding as "dapper, well dressed… (of) slight figure," with "inexhaustible energy," and "imaginative showmanship." He noted that Golding takes no time out from any worthwhile project that promises to advance the welfare of the community.

Golding's pet project was the Imperial-and he told Trueman the story of how it came into being. Movies first played on a regular basis in Saint John at the Nickel Theatre. The Nickel, as Golding explained, was originally the Mechanic's Institute, and after serving more than 50 years as the city's prime educational and entertainment centre, had fallen on hard times.

In the late 1890s, Keith-Albee had leased the building for a number of years, but their Maritime vaudeville projects failed largely because of the cost of transporting performers. "Motion pictures were brought in to help pay the rent," Golding told Trueman. "It was not expected they would be anything more than a passing novelty."

The first features-shown on April 15, 1907-consisted of five films, including Robbing his Majesty's Mail, and Adventurous Auto Chase. In  between the movies there were songs by live performers, so the vaudeville aspect was not entirely lost.

The following day the Daily Sun said the "Nickel thronged," adding that the Keith-Albee partnership "had the gift of recognizing what the public wants and has given it to them at the lowest possible figures…."

Within six months of the Nickel showing pictures, three other venues were following suit, the most aggressive competitor being the Princess Theatre. When the Nickel played The Night before Christmas in December 1907, the Princess offered the first Canadian showing of The Life of Christ, from Pathé, in Paris. In fact, the theatre quietly let the word out that it would play on Sunday, and then had to send home the crowd that gathered to see it when the police intervened.

When two more theatres opened in 1908, and skating and roller rinks lowered their admission prices to five cents, Golding had to become more creative. His showmanship came to the fore at Christmas 1908, when he introduced Santa Claus matinees-destined to become the Nickel's most popular attraction. Short films were shown, then live actors would stage a play that concluded when St. Nick came out of the chimney onto the stage.

Golding also had the idea to have a seven-piece orchestra accompany silent movies. When reflecting on his career with reporter Trueman, he recalled that New York owner N. Paul Keith wired him saying, "Give musicians a week's notice immediately."

He didn't… and six months later, every picture house in the Keith circuit, from New York to San Francisco, boasted an orchestra, and proudly publicized the fact.

Based on his successes, Golding had his eye on a better location, and tried to convince the Nickel's New York owners to invest in a grand theatre in Saint John. "We seldom, if ever, build in the sticks," he was told.

But when the stockholders of Paramount Pictures (which later became Famous Players) noted Golding's success in Saint John, and it was learned Paramount was contemplating a new movie house for the city, the Keith-Albee folks got moving.

They quietly bought land on King Square South and, in 1912, began construction of a $100,000 theatre.

When it opened on September 19, 1913, every one of its seats was filled. In the flowery language Golding was known to use in his career as a newspaper man in Saint John and Massachusetts, the brochure stated that "picked up bodily [the Imperial] might be most acceptable set down again in Broadway." Movies were the prime source of entertainment, but top names from vaudeville and well-known movie and stage entertainers were regularly part of the mix.

Ironically, it was Famous Players who took over the theatre when the talkies arrived in 1929, renaming it the Capitol; it eventually became part of a chain of movie theatres across North America. It was also Famous Players who, in 1948, opened the rival Paramount Theatre, across King's Square. This, combined with television, was the beginning of the end for the 35-year-old Imperial.

Golding did not live to see the end-he died in 1945. In 1957, his beloved theatre (in which he actually lived) was sold for $166,000 to the Full Gospel Assembly Church, remaining in their hands until 1982, when a citizens' group, deciding that the building should again be home to the performing arts in Saint John, bought it for one million dollars, refurbishing it over 11 years. The theatre was reconstructed to its original 1913 grandeur, and its official reopening was held on May 24, 1994.

Thus did a quick-fix idea of showing moving pictures for a few weeks to pay the rent lead to Saint John's delightful Imperial Theatre.

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