Local News Links:... .........................

Saturday 13 February 2010

A Look at the Mac's Building / Ellice Cafe and Theatre

© 2010, Christian Cassidy
Ellice Café and Theatre

On Monday February 15th, 2010, the Heritage Winnipeg Preservation Awards will be held at the
Ellice Theatre at 585 Ellice.

It's a great little venue that has been nicely restored. I thought I would look into its past.

July 1913, Manitoba Free Press

The Mac's Building was designed by architect J. D. Atchison in 1912. This would have been a small project for him as he had already designed an extension to the Peck Building (1907), the original Assinboine Park Pavillion (1908), and the Union Trust / National Bank Building (1912).

I can't find any period newspaper references to its construction, original owner or who it was named for.

It was likely named after N. T. MacMillan. He is the businessman who marketed the Mac's Building for a number of years after it opened. (One of his companies, MacMillan adand Vollans marketed land along Ellice Avenue, including at Sherbrook Street, in 1905.)

If MacMillan was the building's developer and owner, it would explain how he could afford the services of an architect like Atchison for such a small project.

N. T. MacMillan started out in the grain trade in rural Manitoba but soon got into Winnipeg's lucrative real estate business and was first elected to the board of the Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange in 1906. He was also a long-time member of the Winnipeg Industrial and Development Bureau and served as its president in 1909.

Due to his varied business interests and his position involvement with Industrial Bureau, MacMillan travelled extensively throughout North America and was a great booster of Winnipeg and its fortunes. In a 1907 Winnipeg Tribune interview he even managed to put a positive spin on the weather, saying "The climactic conditions here make it one of the healthiest on the continent."

Top: October 23, 1908, The Voice
Bottom: J. R. Robinson ca 1916 (source)

The first retail tenant of the Mac's building was pharmacist Joseph R. Robinson who relocated his practice from Logan Avenue and Reitta Street.

Born in Toronto, Robinson came to Winnipeg to attend the
Manitoba College of Pharmacy. A brief Tribune write-up at the time of his death in 1949 suggests he arrived here around 1909, though a list of college graduates shows the only J. R. Robinson was in its very first graduating class of 1900. (The above ad from The Voice also suggests that the year he is said to have come to Winnipeg was incorrect.)

Robinson, a long-time resident of Gertrude Street, retired in 1939 and died in 1949. He had no wife or children and is buried in Brookside Cemetery.

A pharmacy was a constant in this space for decades to come. (This, despite the image above that was part of an ad for an upcoming Union Bank branch at the corner. This does not appear to have opened, perhaps called off due to talks that would see the Union and Royal Bank merge in 1925)

The space became Goodman's Pharmacy, Samuel Goodman proprietor, around 1940. By 1953, it was Rudy's Pharmacy, Rudy Goldman, proprietor, and remained some variation of that name, (Rudy's Discount Drugs, Gurvy and Rudy's Pharmacy), until the late 1980's when it became the Ellice Variety Store owned by the Holunga family

Nov. 7, 1913, The Voice

The first three upstairs office tenants in 1913 were: Dr. James R. McRae, physician, in suite 1; Mrs. Margaret Madill, hairdresser, in suite 2; and and the Winnipeg Motorcycle Club which began meeting there in September 1913 and lasted just a year before moving on.

By 1917, the office suites appear to be empty with two residential units in suite 3 and 4. The following year, the upstairs has no tenants listed. By 1920, it had been converted into four apartments.

June 19, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

The 320-seat Mac's Theatre opened with little fanfare in late 1913. There were no write-ups or ads for its shows until 1914. (It now has about 300 seats.)

The first manager was Henry Morton who would go on to build the Morton-Odeon theatre chain in the 1930s and 40s that owned movie palaces such as the Strand, Garrick, and Walker.
Morton wanted Mac's to be a family friendly theatre and “...would not tolerate the showing of any picture which would mar the feeling of the most fastidious.”

Admission was a dime and some weekend nights included prize giveaways. One 1915 'advertorial' about its upcoming line-up of movies began with the lines: "Everybody has one problem: Where can I get good entertainment for a dime? There is one answer: The Mac's Theatre, corner Sherbrooke and Ellice Avenues. Here at all times one is sure of the best and greatest of pictures."

March 8, 1919 Tribune
Such a small, independent theatre could not rely solely on second-run silent movies to make money - it also had to be a theatre for hire. It therefore featured a mix of music recitals, lectures, and independent documentaries shown by travelling 'movie men'.

Morton's tenure was short-lived and by the late teens Mac's was operated by Fred J. Crosbie, district manager for
Distributors' Corporation, the main independent film distribution company in the city.

Mac's Theatre had a small role in the Winnipeg General Strike. An early tactic of striking workers was to run  volunteer replacement firemen off their feet by calling in false alarms to fire halls. In the first couple of days of the strike there were 76 false alarms sending firefighters to Mac's.

November 12, 1931,  Lögberg

Mac's Theatre was completely renovated in 1931 and by October had reopened as a "talking picture house". The addition of a sound system allowed it to show second-run studio films which had become the norm for neighbourhood cinemas. Saturday afternoons were reserved for Westerns and it showed double bills throughout the week.

The owner of the "new" Mac's theatre was an Icelandic immigrant named Gudmundur Christie.

Gudmundur came to Manitoba around 1889 as a teenager and settled in the Gimli area. Along with wife Jonina and adopted son William (Bill), the family ran a hotel and other businesses in the town. Around 1930, they relocated to Winnipeg and when they took over Mac's they moved into suite 2 above it.

Godmunder died in June 1943 at the age of 70 whist still running the theatre. Jonina then ran it until around 1948.

The theatre had two short-term managers until 1951 and then there is no mention of one. As the theatre rarely advertised, it's unclear if the theatre was open during the early 1950s or if it was just a venue for hire.

June 20, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press

A 1956 article in the Winnipeg Free Press about the plight of independent theatres notes that Mac's was a "Miles-run house", referring to Jack Miles' Allied Entertainment Ltd. and its chain of neighbourhood theatres. (One of its best-known and largest was the Uptown Theatre which Miles commissioned in 1912.)

Some independent owners complained that after Miles' large theatres were done with a movie, it would be sent to Mac's before it was made available to them as a second-run film. They felt this additional holdup was unfair and a sign of how much influence Miles had when it came to local film distribution.

By the end of the 1950s, many neighbourhood cinemas were on the ropes as television had
established itself as the dominant media for mass entertainment. Theatre chains folded or merged and many of their buildings were demolished or converted to other uses. (Even Miles' beloved Uptown became a bowling alley in 1960.)

The remnants of the Miles community theatre empire, including the Deluxe, Windsor, College,
Starland, and Mac's, continued to advertise together until late 1965.

In 1966, Mac's Theatre was bought by Nestor Holunga. He was the son of Romanian immigrants who, in 1946, built and ran a theatre in Inglis, Manitoba.

Initially, Holunga kept up the tradition of showing second-run mainstream movies and began intermixing them with foreign-language films from countries such as Germany, Poland and Ukraine.

The success of the foreign language films brought attention and new investors.

April 4, 1975, Winnipeg Tribune

Three Winnipeg businessmen: Basil Lagopolous, (who ran a boutiques store in Osborne Village); David Rich; and Will Hechter (a law student) reached a lease agreement with Holunga and invested $1,200 to do minor renovations.

The venue was rechristened "Cinema 3". The name, Hechter would later explain, was in response to the Garrick and Northstar Inn both opening with a "Cinema 1" and "Cinema 2". The partners thought Cinema 3 sounded "kind of ridiculous".

The venue would specialize in "interesting foreign and English-language movies which are unable to gain bookings at the more commercially-minded Winnipeg Cinemas" and opened on September 24, 1969 with La Guerra est Finie by French director Alain Resnais.

Ca. 1980s. Image credit: Howard Curle

In a March 1970 Free Press article, the owners expressed surprise at how successful the venue was, saying they had grossed $20k in the first five months despite only two showings a day, four days a week. This was thanks in part to the French film The Two of Us that played played for almost nine weeks.

In the early 1970s, the partners had to concentrate on their main businesses and Chris Jones was brought in to manage the venue. In 1974, Hechter returned. he looked after the bookings and management and brought in Holunga, who still had the lease on the building, to look after the front of house, including managing the small staff.

By 1978, Holunga was managing the venue and booking the films.

Holunga siblings, Oct. 6, 1988, Winnipeg Free Press, (Rob Mullin)

By the 1980s, the Holunga siblings, Bonnie, Connie and Wayne, also worked in the Mac's Building.

They leased Ellice Variety, the store that Rudy' Pharmacy had become. It still had pharmacy counter that was likely still run by Rudy Goldman, a gift shop, a postal outlet, and a lunch counter with about ten seats. They purchased the business in 1986.

Around 1980, they also took over the running of Cinema 3 from their father and continued the tradition of showing foreign language films. Connie and Bonnie worked the front of house and Wayne did the books and at times was the projectionist.

According to a 2003 Free Press article, the cinema closed around 2000 and Ellice Variety closed in March 2003.

Ellice Café and Theatre

In April 2004, just weeks after the cafe closed, Rev. Harry Lehotsky announced that his New Life Ministries bought the Mac's Building.

They converted the former Ellice Variety space into a community café featuring seating for about 40, renovated the upstairs suites for low-income housing, and renovated the theatre. The Ellice Theatre and C
afé opened in February 2005.

The ministry continued to operate the building after the death of Lehotsky in 2006, but in August 2012 announced that they could no longer afford to. They would sell it so that they could concentrate on managing two residential buildings it owned nearby.

The last day for the Ellice Cafe was August 24, 2012. (More about the

In April 2013, the CBC reported that actor Adam Beach, who grew up in the neighbourhood, purchased the building and it would house the Adam Beach Film Institute. The organization moved to Balmoral Street the following year.

Also Feast
Café and Bistro  specializing in Indigenous themed foods.

Some images of the Mac's interior Also see my photo album of the Mac's Building.

Ellice cafe:
Ellice Café Interior
Ellice Café Interior

Above image: ellicetheatre.com
Ellice Theatre Interior
Ellice Theatre Interior
Ellice Theatre Interior

No comments: