The Sunshine Coast

Oh, the stories the “Pat” could tell

The venerable Patricia Theatre in Powell River, on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, has a fascinating cinematic history

by Sandra Albers
The Patricia Theatre in Powell River has a long and storied cinematic history. It is also a beautiful bit of architechure, inside and out.
The Patricia Theatre in Powell River has a long and storied cinematic history. It is also a beautiful bit of architecture, inside and out. — Darren Robinson photo

The Patricia Theatre in Powell River, B.C., is believed to be the oldest, continuously running movie theatre company in Canada and possibly the last theatre in Canada to feature organ music before many of the films.

"The Pat," as it is affectionately called, began as a silent movie theatre in 1913 with Bobby Scanlon at the helm in a narrow building that was known to shake in the wind. Patricia Entertainment Company administrator Ann Nelson explained how the theatre got its name.

"A naming contest produced the old girl's name," Nelson said. The Patricia is in honour of Princess Patricia, granddaughter to Queen Victoria and daughter of Prince Arthur, third son of Queen Victoria and Canada's first Governor General.

According to a history of the theatre by Karen Southern, found on the Patricia Theatre website, Scanlon was a well-loved manager who was known to open the side door to children who couldn't scrape up a dime to attend the show, who controlled rambunctious teenagers with kindness and who turned a blind eye to the boys and their dates who liked to canoodle beneath the balcony.

An elegant, state-of-the-art, no-expenses-spared Patricia Theatre was built in 1928, said Nelson.

Here are a few historical tidbits garnered from the Patricia's long and storied history.

  • The theatre sometimes hosted fashion shows before the movie. Salesmen from Vancouver would bring their trunks of clothes and furs with them to Powell River by steamship, and local girls would vie to model the luxurious goods.
  • The vaudeville circuit regularly supplied performers via the Thursday steamship: fan dancers, magicians, comedians and bands all graced the Patricia's vaudeville stage, before heading down the hill to present a more "adult" show at the Rodmay Hotel.
  • The famed John Barrymore once visited the cinema in person. Powell River residents were apparently surprised that the actor appeared much shorter in person than he did on screen.
  • In March 1932, the theatre's safe was blown up and the cashbox was stolen by the notorious criminal duo Charles Bagley and Edward Fawcett, who had earlier stolen a boat in Vancouver and made their watery way to Powell River on a crime spree. The mill's night watchman was overpowered and left trussed up in the ticket box office, but managed to dial the fire hall with his tongue and raise the alarm while the robbers were breaking into the safe at the liquor store down the hill. After the safe was repaired, the theatre reduced the monthly amount paid for the hired watchman services.
  • A long succession of pretty Powell River high school girls acted as usherettes over the years.
  • Saturday matinees often involved youngsters (mostly boys, we're pretty sure) throwing as much popcorn at the screen as they ate.
  • In 1944, a Second World War film commissioned and produced by the Powell River company, entitled Reunion in London, rated higher (at least in Powell River) than Gone with the Wind.
  • One of the best-selling shows was the 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, which played for a week, a longer-than-usual run during that era when it was usual to have two or three changes of film each week.
  • The theatre sometimes held special events like opera weeks, when staff gussied themselves up, complete with white gloves.
  • In the late 1950s and early '60s, when movie theatres were being threatened by television, the Patricia Theatre's management used creative gimmicks to entice people out. When The Apartment was playing, the theatre advertised the movie in the For Rent column of the classifeds. When Butterfield 8 was on the marquee, it was listed in the local newspaper's Personals section, instructing readers to phone Butterfield 8; when they did, a recorded message told them about the show.
  • The first R-rated show to play in Powell River was Top of the Stairs. Anyone under 18 wasn't even allowed to sell tickets.

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