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Thursday 24 April 2014

A history of the Park Theatre

© 2014, Christian Cassidy. Please respect my research.
Park Theatre, Osborne Street, Winnipeg
In the past few decades, all of Winnipeg's neighbourhood theatres have been demolished or "repurposed" into bowling alleys, churches or commercial spaces. The Park managed to hold out for 73 years before fate caught up with it.

After sitting vacant for nearly a decade it was revived into what is now one of Winnipeg's most popular live music venues.

Here is a look back at the history of the Park Theatre.

ca. 1930 (Source: Fort Rouge Through The Years)

The origins of the Park Theatre at 698 Osborne Street are a bit of a mystery.

The building is first listed in the 1915 Henderson Directory and was certainly open by July as that is when it is first mentioned in local newspapers. That first small announcement indicated that the theatre's manager allowed the Riverview Red Cross Society to host a picture show as a war-time fundraiser. The following week, the “Riverview Workers” were given the receipts for the day as a fundraiser of their own.

The first manager was Alexander McKinney who lived three doors down at the Oakwood Block. It is likely that he was the owner as well.

Listed as employees in the 1915 Henderson Directory were: Hubert McKinney, Alexander's son and the theatre's pianist; George Hollings, projectionist, of Logan Avenue; and Phyllis Dobson, musician, of 547 Rathgar.

The Park may have struggled under the McKinneys. Aside from the two small notices July 1915, the theatre was not mentioned in either newspaper again under their management.

Above: September 4, 1915, Winnipeg Free Press
Below: September 11, 1915, Winnipeg Tribune

In September 1915, a consortium of new owners, Messrs. Salvage, Davis, Watson and Little, took over the Park and reopened it under the same name on Labour Day 1915, boasting that it was “under new management and showing better pictures.” In October 1916, the same group took over the Star Theatre on Main Street.

The Henderson Directory lists E. Parrington Salvage as the working manager of the new Park Theatre. He was also the choirmaster and organist at St. Luke's Church.

The initial week’s offering was five nights of entertainment. On Monday and Tuesday it was episode number one of the serial “The Black Box”, Thursday was episode one of the serial “Who Pays”. Live entertainment consisted of a few performances by the Orpheus Glee Singers, a male quartet. The first weekend's feature film was Maurice Tourneur’s 1914 French film "Le puits mitoyen" (Secret of the Well).

The lineup for the weeks that followed were very similar. Subsequent episodes of each series played on their respective nights and the Orpheus Glee Singers were the house entertainment.

The Park enjoyed a quiet run as a combination cinema and community theatre until Christmas 1918 when it appears that movies were dropped from the lineup. The 1918 Henderson Directory lists only one employee for the Park and none in 1919.

The fortunes of the Park improved in 1926 when it was purchased by Harry Hurwitz. Just 25-years-old, he had already worked for his uncle Harry Morton in the theatre industry for half a dozen years. His brother, Bob Hurwitz, moved from their native Boston to help run things.

At the time, Morton Theatres owned at least two large Winnipeg theatres, the Monarch and Garrick. In 1941 they formed a partnership with Ontario's Odeon Theatres and took over the Walker, which had been closed for nearly a decade, converting it into the Odeon Cinema.

Hurwitz only owned the Park until 1930 but it was a time of stability, regularly showing second-run silent movies, while still home to a number of live community events and fundraisers. He also invested in some renovations. 

When it came time to sell up so that he could move to Saskatoon to look after Morton's investments there, Hurwitz attracted Rudolph Besler of Besler Bros. who for many years had operated theatres in Yorkton and Melville, Saskatchewan.

August 10, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press

Besler closed the Park for a couple of months for extensive renovations, which included lengthening the building by twenty-seven feet to allow for more seating and raising the roof by four feet for acoustics. As for the interior, a new air-cooling system was installed and the seats, flooring and carpeting replaced.

The most important change, however, was the addition of a Northern Electric Sound System to make it a "talking picture" house.

The talkie Park Theatre reopened at 6:00 p.m. on August 10, 1933 with the film 42nd Street. With this upgrade, its regular fare became second-run feature films, bringing stars like Cagney, Garbo and Barrymore to the neighbourhood.

Top: Ca. 1937 (Fort Rouge Through the Years). Bottom: Aug. 29, 1936, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1936, Besler invested further in the building. He hired architects Green, Blankstein and Russell to "practically rebuild" the Park inside and out. This included a twenty-five foot wide by one hundred twenty-five foot long extension and the replacement of the facade. Inside, new seating, air conditioning and electrical systems were installed.

The $20,000 worth of renovations took two months to complete. The Park reopened on August 31, 1936 at 1:00 pm with the Astaire - Rogers film Follow the Fleet.

 October 20, 1937, Winnipeg Tribune

The Park's existence was a quiet one. There were no fires, robberies or other major mishaps that made the newspapers. The one exception was in October 1937 when it was the scene of protests. 

When the contract for Besler's projectionist, a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees Local 299, ended in June 1937, he hired a new projectionist from Projectionists Union No. 1 of the One Big Union. This angered Local 299 and in October they staged three protests outside the theatre. 

Besler called the police and fourteen men were charged with intimidation and later acquitted when the protests were considered "information pickets" by the judge. Because the dispute was primarily between the two unions, Besler did win an injunction preventing future pickets and $1,000 settlement for lost earnings which the union never paid.

July 26, 1940, Winnipeg Tribune

The Park continued in its role as a community space hosting lectures, church services and fundraising nights for places like the Riverview Community Club and area schools. It was a particularly active place during World War II, (Besler was a Veteran of World War I), participating in numerous fundraising events for the Red Cross and related charities.

December 5, 1942, Winnipeg Tribune

In the 1940s, the Beslers also owned the DeLuxe, (later known as the Hyland), on Main Street. The exact years of ownership are unclear, but the two were advertised jointly from 1942 to 1947. From 1951 to 1954, they also owned the Garry Theatre on Pembina Highway before selling it to Oscar Weinstein.

The 1950s were tough on the theatre industry. People were moving further into the suburbs and television had become the main form of nightly entertainment. Many neighbourhood theatre chains crumbled and their properties were sold off for demolition or repurposed uses such as bowling alleys.

The Park remained independent and held out until 1965 when the Beslers retired. According to Rudolph's obituary, he was the oldest theatre operator in Western Canada at the time.

December 21, 1946, Winnipeg Free Press

The Beslers kept a low profile. They did not appear in the society or church pages and, unfortunately, I cannot find a picture of either of them. 

What can be pieced together from a vital statistics search and their obituaries is that Rudolph of Melville SK and Mary (Schultz) of Winnipeg were married in Winnipeg in 1925. When they moved to Winnipeg in 1930, they lived at the Oakwood Block at 692 Osborne Street, for the first few years before settling into a home at 345 Baltimore Road.

Molly Schultz, Mary's sister, worked for the Beslers for nearly twenty-five years at the DeLuxe, Garry and Park. She was manager of the Park Theatre when she died in 1954 at the age of forty.

The couple had no children but the Park Theatre was a family affair. As described by Melinda McCracken in Memories are Made of this: What it was Like to Grow Up in the Fifties:

We bought our tickets, green admission tickets, off a roll for twenty-five cents from Mrs Besler, who sat behind the ticket window. Inside Mr. Besler, with his grey suit, round black-rimmed glasses and broad beaming face would tear them in half. 

By all accounts the couple ran a friendly, family-oriented theatre. On top of McCracken's account, Frank Morriss, the Free Press’ long-time entertainment editor, wrote in one of his columns that “It’s a pleasure to go to Rudy’s theatre, where you will always find courtesy and a real spirit of friendliness.

Rudolph Besler, 83, died on August 24, 1974 at his Baltimore Road home and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Mary, 88, died on May 8, 1991 at Princess Elizabeth Hospital and is also buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

The Beslers' retirement coincided with Odeon-Morton's expansion outside the downtown. They had already purchased the King's Theatre on Portage and opened the Odeon Drive-In (1963) when they bought the Park in 1965. They added the DeLuxe in 1966, renaming it the Hyland.

February 22, 1972, Winnipeg Free Press

Under Odean Morton, the Park hosted a film festival that focused on international cinema. These were so successful that in 1972 it became a full-time "art cinema" showing international, foreign language and independent films.

The manager through much of the 60s and 70s was Dave Robertson. He had worked for over twenty years in the theatre business and was manager of Odeon-Morton's Osborne and (old) Garrick before being appointed to run the Park.

In 1984, Odeon bought out Odeon-Morton and the Park Theatre returned to more mainstream fare.

April 22, 1988, Winnipeg Free Press

On April 21, 1988, the Park showed the George Burns film 18 Again. In the following day's cinema listings the above notice appeared: The Park Theatre is Now Closed. A spokesperson for Odeon Cinemas told the Free Press that the closure would facilitate an expansion of their Grant Park cinemas. (On January 18, 1990 Odeon closed the Kings, the final stand-alone nieghbourhood cinema in the city.)

The Park Theatre sat vacant until 1994, then reopened for about 18 months showing discounted second-run films. It reopened again briefly in 1996 as a music venue that featured midnight showings of Phantom of the Paradise and Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1999, the vacant building was seized by the city for being three years in arrears on its property taxes.

August 25, 2005, Winnipeg Free Press

In 2005, Erick and Melanie Casselman bought the empty theatre and spent over $350,00 to convert it into a movie rental store, cafe and cinema. 

Over time, the movie rental store disappeared and the cinema gave way to a performance venue specializing in live music. At the 2012 Western Canadian Music Industry Awards Casselman won Talent Buyer of the Year and the Park Theatre was a finalist for Live Music Venue of the Year.

UPDATE 2019: Renovations are underway for a new Park Theatre !

Park Theatre homepage
ca. 1970s history pamphlet Fort Rouge Then and Now


Anonymous said...

Once again, excellent work. I was always curious what the Crescent Theatre looked like but have never seen a picture. It was torn down to build the MTS building on Corydon.
There is some interesting info and pictures of the Park in this Riverview history booklet that was done many years back.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks for the comment and thanks for the link ! I'd not seen that book before. A great little treasure that someone took the time to scan !

I'll try to find a Crescent Theatre photo.

Christian Cassidy said...

No luck on a photo. Went through both newspapers in great detail. Sorry.

Unknown said...

For local children, the Beslers operated a wonderful Theatre in the 1960s. They greeted the children, gave everyone a lollipop and showed movies that kids loved. The Besler family were friends of my parents. And you are right, they were a very private family and lovely people.

Unknown said...

For local children, the Beslers operated a wonderful Theatre in the 1960s. They greeted the children, gave everyone a lollipop and showed movies that kids loved. The Besler family were friends of my parents. And you are right, they were a very private family and lovely people.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks for adding that, unknown!

Unknown said...

The Park was my neighbourhood theatre when I was growing up, and I went (or was sent) down every Saturday to see whatever was playing. Over the years I remember seeing such fine fare as SASQUATCH: THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT, IN SEARCH OF NOAH'S ARK, XANADU, GHOST STORY and GHOULIES.

I do wish there was some extant photo of the lobby as it was in the 1970s and 80s. I remember it being small and cozy but of a really attractively modernist design. Even the bathrooms seemed fancier than might be expected in a neighbourhood cinema.

Anyway, thanks for this history of the place!

Sarah said...

Great article again as always Christian, but can you tell me where park theatre is located as I cant place it

JSK said...

Thanks for te-posting this. My father and his parents lived on McNaughton Avenue iafter moving from the U.K. in 1948. He speaks fondly of teenage Saturday afternoons spent at “the Park show.”

Anonymous said...

I lived on Morley and from a very early age went to the Park with my mom. The cost for children under 12 was 10 cents. For that we saw 2 features films, mostly cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, plus a cartoon and a newsreel too. I was tall for my age so at 10 years old Mr. Besler wanted me to pay 25 cents. The lobby was painted hot pink. When we were teens we went to the show on Friday night and always sat on the left side, 3rd light down.

Saw lots of good movies there over very many years. Glad it is a vital venue for live entertainment.

THE PARK said...

Sarah - The Park Theatre is located at 698 Osborne Street just a little north of Jubilee Ave. You can check out our website at www.myparktheatre.com for more information. We are closed right now, as is most of the world as we distance for COVID-19. But we will be back as strong as always when it is safe again.