Larry Evans: The talkies make their debut in Fort St. John

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As the 1950s came to a close, and with the coverage of the major events that happened in the 50s, the Alaska Highway News had firmly established itself. As we leave the 1950s and move into the 1960s, I would like to leave you with one more event that happened that was an influence on me, as it was all the children in Fort St. John, and that's the opening of the Lido Theatre. 

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The first movie films to be shown in Fort St. John were shown in 1936 by Dr. Vasil Szilagyi and Julius Bottyan. Dr. Szilagyi was the dentist who travelled around the area performing much needed dental work. As the two men travelled, they entertained along the way by showing black and white films on a projector they carried with their dental equipment. The movies were ordered from Vancouver on a regular basis and were most anticipated by the viewers. 

In 1938, John Carlson of Dawson Creek expanded his Dawson Creek Carlsonia Theatre by bringing his movie films to the Village of Fort St. John and showing them in the community hall where dances, meetings, and special celebrations were usually held. 

By 1942, business was busy enough to open the first movie theatre, which was also named the Carlsonia. This building was located on 100th Avenue between where the Condill Hotel was and where the North Peace Cultural Centre is located today. It was described by Ma Murray as, “a show house where thousands of American soldiers, while here building the Alcan, shuffled their feet, dropped popcorn bags and at one time had about two tons of gum firmly affixed to the seat bottoms.”

Other buildings located on the block at the time were the Elks Hall and a bowling alley, all of which burned down in January 1948.

The first “show hall” that I remember going to was the Carlsonia Theatre that was built in 1948 to replace the theatre that burnt down. This new Carlsonia was built using a quonset hut for the theatre with an add-on front where tickets were sold. I just remember it as old and spooky. The Carlsonia Theatre remained open for a few years even with the competition of the new and modern Lido Theatre. The Carlsonia closed its doors in the early 60s and was moved from its site next to the Condill in 1962. The quonset hut was eventually moved to the Fort St. John landfill, where it is still in use today. 

lido-theatre-fsj
Interior view of the Lido Theatre when it first opened. Fort St. John North Peace Museum I987.91.18

The opening of the Lido Theatre on a Thursday in November 1957 was a momentous occasion for the Village of Fort St. John. It was built specifically as a modern moving film theatre, and was being advertised as having a new motionographer — a “Cadillac” of modern projectors. It was state of the art in that the front was well lit and you could wait in a warm entrance before buying your ticket. You could buy candy, pop, and popcorn at the concession. Fifty cents would cover your admission, popcorn, and two candy bars. The new theatre was complete with a big screen and comfortable seating. 

The first show in the Lido theatre was a Pat Boone movie called Bernardine that I attended with my best friend, Kenny Chase. The one thing that stands out in my mind was that in the movie they had their own Coca Cola machine. I think the reason that I remember this is the Peace River Bridge at Taylor had collapsed on October 16, 1957, just a few weeks prior to the Lido opening. At that time, all essential foods were trucked across the PGE railroad bridge; Coca Cola was not considered essential so the town had virtually dried up of the drink, so seeing the machine on the big screen was a highlight of the movie to the kids.

Of course, the Carlsonia had remained open for a few years after the Lido opened so we had a choice of which theatre to go to. The comparison in new technology experienced between the Lido and our new Aurora cineplex is quite similar to what we experienced between the old Carlsonia and the Lido when it was new. 

Kenny and I took in almost every Friday night show at the Lido. However, every Saturday (that we could con money out of our parents) we would tell our parents we were going to the matinee at the Lido, usually to see some sappy Disney movie, but actually we went to the Carlsonia to see such classics as The Fly, The Blob, The Abominable Snowman, etc. A bonus of this was a fact that it was only 20 cents to go to the Carlsonia compared to 25 cents charged by the new and modern Lido.

The Lido movies were usually Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies, but were also able to see the classics on the big screen such as The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Gone With The Wind, The Great Escape, and, of course, Ben Hur, which was rumoured to have caused a stampede by the people at the front door on opening night. It was reported the hinges were torn off the door as the crowd moved trying to get in. 

Over the years, as we got older, the Lido was one of the few places to take a date. For years, the Lido was a vibrant theatre but suffered the ups and downs of the boom-bust cycles, as did other businesses in town. Patronage was also affected as well by the invasion of videos. 

The Lido, in my opinion, was an institution and held its attraction to the very end, having packed houses with new releases and satisfying generations of moviegoers in Fort St. John. The Lido was managed very well in its later years and until its closing by George Moojelsky. My wife, daughter, and I attended the last movie at the Lido Theatre, which was Mr. Bean in Johnny English (somehow appropriate). 

When the new and modern Aurora Cinema opened, the Lido passed into history and will be remembered as the first modern movie theatre in Fort St. John.

Thanks to Brian Kirschner and his staff, the Lido Theatre is once again a hub of activity. The Lido is frequently packed with people enjoying performing art events and also many community-oriented performances.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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