Sunday, June 25, 2017

394 Academy Road - Uptown Theatre / Uptown Academy Lanes

© 2011 and 2017, Christian Cassidy
Academy Uptown Lanes

Place: Uptown Theatre / Uptown Academy Lanes
Address: 394 Academy Road (Map)
Opened: December 24, 1931
Architect: M. Z. Blankstein 
Cost: $175,000

Selkirk Avenue, Winnipeg
Roxy Lanes Former Rose Theatre
Uptown's sisters: the Palace on Selkirk Avenue; the Rose on Sargent Avenue and the Roxy on Henderson Highway.

Allied Amusements Ltd. was created in 1912 by Jack Miles to run a single theatre, The Palace on Selkirk Avenue. By the end of the 1920s it had become a chain of four with the addition of The Roxy (on Henderson), The Rose (on Sargent), and The Plaza (on Marion at Tache).

The company's fifth theatre on Academy Road would be their most unique and most controversial.

May 8, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

Allied had acquired three lots on Academy Road to build a new, $50,000 theatre for River Heights. Late in their planning stages, however, they managed to purchase a fourth lot on Ash Street.

The company went before city council in May 1930 to ask for a zoning change to allow them to incorporate the residential lot on Ash Street into their plans so that they could create the "largest and finest neighbourhood theatre" in Canada. They vowed the cost of the new building would triple their original permit.

The application was controversial and opposed by residents who feared noise and parking issues.

August 29, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

After a few months with no decision from the city, the company pushed the issue in August 1930 by clearing all four lots and doing the preparation work for a foundation. The safety committee warned them not to build anything that came above ground level until a decision was made.

On August 28, 1930, the zoning committee finally heard the application. A Tribune reporter anticipated that the hearing would be "something of a field day."

Both the company and residents presented their cases. Rather than imposing a ruling, however, the committee sent everyone away with the instruction to try to work things out themselves and come back at a later date.

By December, there was a breakthrough. The company agreed to a shallower footprint on the Ash Street lot and to provide a parking lot at the south-east corner or Academy Road and Waterloo Street. In return, a "reasonable majority" of residents signed a petition in favour of the new building.

In January 1931, Allied Amusements took out at additional $76,000 building permit for the larger structure, bringing the total permit value to $136,000. (The final cost, including furnishings, was estimated to be about $175,000.)

It was now up to architect M. Z. Blankstein, who had designed Allied's other neighbourhood theatres, to deliver something worthy of the company's boast, which he certainly did.

On the ceiling of the Roxy, Blankstein experimented with elements of a new architectural style for theatres that had become popular in the U.S. through the 1920s called the "atmospheric theatre". The aim was to make patrons feel as if they were watching the movie in the open air.

On the Uptown, he took it to the next level.

Uptown's interior, December 24, 1931, Winnipeg Free Press

Patrons were meant to feel as if they were seated outdoors, in the square of a Moorish village. The walls of the theatre's hall included facades of village buildings overlooking the 'square'.

The ceiling was painted blue with twinkling stars inserted into the plaster. Images of moving clouds were projected onto it to add to the outdoor feel.

Lighting came from 16 spotlights placed around the periphery of the hall rather than chandeliers so as not to ruin the outdoor effect.

(For a more detailed description of the building’s interior see the
City of Winnipeg Historic Building’s Report.)

Academy Uptown Lanes Academy Uptown Lanes

The exterior was designed to resemble a Mediterranean villa with wrought iron balconies, a colourful stucco finish and a red tile roof. The roof line, though, was that of an Islamic mosque.

Though meant to feel open air, patrons inside were certainly not roughing it.

The interior included a large, well furnished lobby area. Plush carpeting ran throughout the building.

The seats, 1,200 on the main floor and just over 400 on the balcony, were mohair–backed with leather bottoms stuffed with horsehair for a feeling of luxury. The front row of the balcony and the loges had 'chesterfield style' seating.

For safety, the Uptown had a state-of-the-art ventilation system and boasted a wood-free hall. They were also the ‘first in the Dominion’ to use an Orthokrome screen “…said to adhere all the red light rays reputed to be harmful to the eyes” (Winnipeg Free Press, December 24, 1931).

October 6, 1931. Winnipeg Free Press

To name the theatre, Allied held an essay contest that ran in both the Free Press and Tribune. The winner would receive a Northern Electric radio and had their essay published in the paper.

Some 30,000 entries were submitted, (this was the depression after all!) and the management chose their favourite: The Uptown. It turned out that there were 39 essays that suggested Uptown, so no one winning entry was singled out. (I'm not sure if this meant that 39 radios were provided, though the Free Press did print a series of the essays).

On October 5, 1931, the winning name was announced on the stage of the Roxy Theatre.

Top: December 25, 1931, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: J. Miles and D. Gauld

On Christmas Eve 1931, Mayor Webb presided over the opening ceremony that included Mr. J. Miles, president of the theatre chain and Donald Gauld, formerly the manager of the Roxy and the Uptown's first manager.

It does not appear that architect Blankstein was present. He died just one week after the opening.

The ceremony was followed by a newsreel, a movie short and the feature The Brat, starrting Sally O’Neill and Frank Albertson.

ca. 1945, Winnipeg Tribune

February 27, 1941, Winnipeg Tribune

The theatre was built as a movie house with a small stage area that was too shallow for most types of of live events. These were hard times, though, and the Uptown had to fill as many seats as possible. Small stage performances, including lectures, recitals, fundraising concerts became a regular part of the schedule.

The Uptown mainly showed the second run of top films, often as a double bill. An exception to this came in the early 1940s with a partnership with Famous Players known as 'Sneak Peak Thursdays'. Dozens of first run films premiered here before they opened downtown the following night.

Saturday afternoons remained a mix of Westerns and cartoons.

Top: Demolition of the Uptown Theatre's interior (source)
Bottom: May 14, 1960. Winnipeg Free Press

The rising popularity of television spelled the end of neighbourhood theatres.
A number of chains faltered and their theatres were sold off for demolition or to be converted to other uses.

The Roxy and Uptown were now part of the Western Theatre chain, co-owned by J. Miles. They hung on longer than some. In 1960, it was announced that both would be converted into into bowling alleys.

n Sunday, May 15, 1960 the Uptown held a farewell afternoon with a free feature and six cartoons.

September 29, 1960. Winnipeg Free Press

On September 29, 1960, Uptown Bowling Lanes opened as Winnipeg's largest with 30 Brunswick lanes on two levels.

On October 21, 1960, an official opening ceremony was held featuring 'Cactus' Jack Wells as emcee and a fashion show of the latest bowling attire.

March 14, 1983, Winnipeg Free Press

In the 1970s, Brian and Heather Britton came from Saskatoon to work as managers of the bowling Alley. In 1982, when Allied, which by then was known as Miles Enterprises, put the business up for sale, they bought it. Miles retained ownership of the building.

The following year, Miles Enterprises tried to redevelop the parking lot at Academy and Waterloo into a strip mall. Long-time residents pointed to the 1931 agreement that the parking lot be built as a condition for rezoning the land for the theatre.

David Miles, son of Jack, argued that the parking requirements for the 1,600-plus seat theatre and the bowling alley were not comparable. The debate was moot anyhow as the city noted that a 1944 zoning change to area property had negated the proviso that the parking lot be required. The strip mall was built.

December 12, 1985, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1985, just prior to the building receiving heritage status by the city, Miles Enterprises applied to demolish it, arguing that its heritage designation was the same as "expropriation without compensation." David Miles claimed that the building was economically marginal at best and that the only option was to demolish the existing building for a modern commercial strip mall.

The move met opposition from some residents and heritage advocates.

It was a back and forth fight that saw the city uphold, remove, then uphold again, the building's heritage status. Miles was permitted to add a small, two storey addition to the side of the building as a consolation.

In 1990, the Miles family sold the building to Globe Property Management of Winnipeg.

In June 2017, Todd Britton announced that a new lease agreement could not be reached with the building's owners and that it will close on July 18th, 2017. (That has since been extended to September 1.)

When contacted in late June, 2017, Globe management said that it would be too early to announce their plans for the future of the building.

394 Academy Road Historic Buildings Committee
Theatrical Debut Winnipeg Free Press feature (July 2017)

First movie ad: December 24, 1931, Winnipeg Free Press

Bowling ad: September 8, 1961, Winnipeg Tribune

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