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For the week of Monday September 13, 2004

On September 19, 1913, the Imperial Theatre officially opened in Saint John, New Brunswick. The grandiose decor of this combination vaudeville-movie theatre reflected the design trend of the times.

Postcard: Interior, Imperial Theatre, Saint John, New Brunswick, c. 1914
© New Brunswick Museum X13449

Built by the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain of New York City and the St. John Amusements Company Ltd., the Imperial was the most magnificent theatre ever built in Saint John. The site on which it was constructed formerly housed Lanergan's Dramatic Lyceum, which was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1877. Some of the stone foundations of Lanergan's were included in the construction of the Imperial so as to symbolize the link between the past and the future.

Philadelphia architect Albert Westover, who designed the Imperial Theatre, was inspired by Italian Renaissance design. The majestic front of the theatre was composed of yellow 'Titanic' brick trimmed by cream-coloured terra cotta. The huge pillars that framed the main entrance beckoned patrons to explore the magnificence of the interior. The richly decorated auditorium was a vision of rose, ivory and gold. With a seating capacity of 1,800, the auditorium featured a large balcony and many boxes. The incredible level of illumination inside and outside the theatre required more than 2,000 light bulbs.

The Imperial Theatre promoted the appreciation of culture and entertainment for years. It was known as "Eastern Canada's Premier House of Entertainment," when it was used as a combination vaudeville and movie theatre between 1913 and 1929. During this time, many famous vaudeville stars such as Sir Harry Lauder, Ethel Barrymore, Gracie Allen, and George Burns graced the Imperial's stage.

Modern Exterior of the Imperial Theatre
© Imperial Theatre

The Imperial was renamed the Capitol by the Famous Players Canadian Corporation in 1929 and films became the main focus. Although some live shows took place in the 1930s and 1940s, the Capitol was essentially used as a movie theatre. The Full Gospel Assembly, a Pentecostal congregation, bought the theatre in 1957 to use as a church. In 1982, the Bi-Capitol Project Incorporated, which comprised the citizens of Saint John and the local business community, raised enough money to restore the Imperial to its former glory. The 11 years of restorations resulted in an architectural masterpiece that currently functions as a performing arts centre.

Today, the former Imperial is now called the Bi-Capitol Theatre. It stands as a testament to the splendour of vaudeville-movie houses of years gone by. The Imperial/Bi-Capitol Theatre was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1985.

For more information on the Great Fire of Saint John, please visit The Wall Street of Saint John in the This Week in History Archives.

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