November 18th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 46
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Long Live the Roxy
Looking Back
courtesy Crowsnest Cando
Best popcorn machine in the west
After reading about the movement to resurrect the Roxy I was filled with joy and great memories came back to me. I had a flashback to what it was like to sit as a young boy in the front row of that amazing magical theatre in Coleman on a Saturday afternoon for the cowboy matinee. Being in the front row right with that big screen towering over you was just the best place ever.

Back then there was nothing short of a riot going on up at the front row until the show started. A lot of the hollering and laughing and guys using thick hollow red liquorice as pea shooters. Two bits got you in with 10 cents leftover for popcorn or an ice cold orange crush right out of a bottle-slide cooler. Sometimes I opted for a Cherry Blossom or a Turkish Delight chocolate bar which were monstrous by today’s standards. Goofin' off with the rest of the gang until the show started was the order of the afternoon. Besides, it was a handy place to be when that gorilla was chasing the Three Stooges and everyone screamed. You were real close to those dimly lit back exits.

Sometimes it would get totally out of hand and the two beleaguered ushers just couldn’t keep a lid on us. Then all of a sudden the lights would come up, the projector would shut down and a deadly hush would fall over the place. Out from her ticket booth would come the feared owner, Mrs. Fershweiller, who would prowl up and down the aisles, arms folded with a really serious look on her face as she scanned the raucous crowd both left and right. With this scary pause would come a stern warning that if we didn’t settle down she would shut the place down. Talk about effective crowd control.
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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 Theatre were lost. 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 Palm site, suffered a fire itself shortly after 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, many of 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 United States. 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 theatre in Victoria is stilling operating as a live theatre! There are Roxy’s around the world and across the United States, some of which have had a remarkable makeover. There once existed 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, boasted the largest oval rug in the world in its lobby, and even had its own pipe organ on the mezzanine.
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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 where it appears our Roxy is headed. All across North America theaters like the Roxy have been rescued and turned into dance halls, restaurants, live theaters and so. The Coleman Roxy is destined to be reborn.

Crowsnest Cando director Fred Bradley sees the Roxy becoming a multi-use community performing arts center. How exciting is that. There is a plan that is moving forward. Stage one – $50,000 needed (grants and fund raising) to help purchase it, stage two - $100,00 (grants and donations) for an engineering, restoration and design study and stage three – get busy raising the money to make this wonderful addition to downtown Coleman’s growing art scene. Think about joining in on this wonderful project!

As a kid I can recall being allowed up into the second floor of the front facade of the Roxy where the projectionist 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? Firstly the screen would grow brighter. This was because he had fired up the second projector to make the switch. There would be a quick change of light and the scene on the screen would shift. If you were to look back from your seat and upwards you would see the powerful v-shaped carbon arc light pouring from a different portal up in the back wall.
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There was a dangerous side to this film handling business and that was the threat of fire. Older movie film contained nitrate, a compound that had a high heat tolerance but was incredibly flammable, almost explosive. I can recall several times being in the theatre when the film jammed and watching a famous actor or actress burn up slowly on the screen as the operator scrambled to shut down the carbon arcs.

Projectionists had to apprentice for quite some time before they were qualified to handle film and the film reels and the rewinding device were generally kept in a separate room with an 8 inch thick concrete floor and walls. That rewinder was like an old milk separator in that it had a gear system that really let you get those reels spinning fast. I got to see a more modern version of this years later when Becky Fabro was running the Orpheum. Hers looked like it was electrically driven. Unlike the old Roxy Becky ran a single projector with the all the reels spliced together into one giant reel on a drum that ran continuously. Assembling and disassembling the show for shipping was a huge splice/unsplice job but she did it with joy.

To see that this project can really work one need only look to Fort Macleod where the beautiful Empress Theatre operates with live theatre, performing musicians and even film events. We will push this pandemic aside eventually and the Roxy will rise again as an entertainment hub for the Pass.
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November 18th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 46
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