Saturday, October 15, 2022

501 Selkirk Avenue - The Palace Theatre

© 2022, Christian Cassidy

Place: The Palace Theatre
Address: 401 Selkirk Avenue
Opened: December 1912
Architect: Max Zev Blankstein

The Palace Theatre opened quietly in December 1912 as Winnipeg's sixth movie theatre. It was the first in what would one day become the largest theatre chain in Winnipeg.

The man who funded the construction of the Palace Theatre was Jacob "Jack" Miles.

Born in Russia, Miles came to Winnipeg in 1905 and first worked as a house painter. He opened a bicycle repair shop a couple of years later at 554 Selkirk Avenue that soon expanded into small engine repair. A second location on Main Street soon followed and in 1912 that shop is believed to be the first Harley-Davidson Motorcycle dealership in Winnipeg. (You can read more about Miles and his theatre empire in the companion post here.)

The same year he introduced Harleys to the city, Miles funded the construction of the Palace Theatre based on a design by Max Zev Blankstein. (The same architect who in 1913 designed the Merchants Hotel a few doors down.)

February 14, 1913, The Voice

Newspaper mentions in 1913 say that the Palace opened in December 1912 but it wasn't covered in the papers at the time. Aside from a couple of classified ads looking for staff and one ad in February 1913 for a special showing of Lt. Rose and the Train Wreckers, there's little evidence of the theatre's daily life.

According to street directories, the 1913 lineup of staff included: Jacob Miles, proprietor, of Selkirk Ave.; S. Chambers, manager; Ernest Tryman, pianist, of Arlington St.; Margarete Turner, cashier, of Selkirk Ave.; William Faddick, camera operator; A. W. Allen, senior camera operator, of Stella Ave.; Charles Beatty, usher, of Selkirk Avenue.

In August 1913, there was a week-long cluster of ads in the entertainment section and "advertorial" write-ups in the 'at the theatres' section of both the Free Press and Tribune. This is likely a sign that Miles left the bike shop to manage the theatre full-time.

The write-ups, supplied to the papers by the theatre owners, described the Palace as the "premiere North End picture theatre" that could "compare equally for comfort and decorations with any West End  (London) theatre." It extolled the venue's "splendid ventilating system and exhaust fans which keep the theatre cool and comfortable" and its "first class orchestra".

Without regular write-ups or ongoing ads, it is hard to tell whether the Palace was a successful, continuously operating venue or not.

July 22, 1921, Winnipeg Tribune

The ownership of the Palace became confusing towards the end of the decade.

If street directory entries are correct, Jacob Miles is referred to as the proprietor of the Place Theatre until around 1916. In 1917, he is referred to as the manager of the theatre and his brother Harry, a former blacksmith, is listed as the camera operator. 

In 1919, Jacob's Miles' name is no longer associated with the Palace. The following year, Ernest B. Barker is listed as the proprietor, and when a man named A. E. Robertson died in May 1921, his estate included the Palace Theatre which was put up for sale.

A newspaper story in July 1921 announced that Helmer Jernberg a former manager of the Province and Allen, (later renamed the Metropolitan), theatres bought the Palace Theatre. The article mentions that he had purchased it from Miles, not the Roberson estate.

The fact that he bought from Miles in 1921 is a bit confusing as he was listed in street directories as the proprietor of the Garden Theatre located on Kelvin (now Henderson Highway) and Hespeler Avenue in Elmwood from 1920 to 1925. it could be a sign that Miles had to bring investors into the ownership groups and for a time became a minority partner, or lost control altogether, of the Palace.

Jernberg used his theatre savvy to pack in as many extras around the feature films, from short westerns and newsreel clips, to live musical performances. He also vowed to have three full changes to the movie lineup each week to keep the selection fresh.

In May 1924, Jernberg moved on to other opportunities in the theatre world and sold the palace back to Jacob Miles.

October 26, 1928, Jewish Post

Not long after Miles repurchased the Palace, he created an investment group called Allied Amusements Ltd. with himself as president and is brother Harry as one of his partners. There was also a Samuel Miles, likely another brother.

Later that decade, Allied began a theatre-building spree with the Rose Theatre on Sargent Avenue (1926), the Plaza Theatre on Marion Street (1926), the Roxy Theatre on Henderson Highway (1929), and the Uptown Theatre on Academy Road (1930). Max Blanksein was the architect for all four buildings.

The Palace also received some attention during this time.

It closed for the summer on June 2, 1928 to be "completely remodelled and refurbished". This included a total renovation of the interior and the facade, including the addition of a 192-seat balcony that brought the Palace's capacity to nearly 800 people. It reopened in October.

The expansion and renovation were based on designs by architect Blankstein and the result was that the Palace came to resemble Allied's other early theatres. (I've not been able to find an image of the original Palace.)

October 10, 1929, Winnipeg Tribune

Part of the reason for the theatre's interior renovations was to prepare it for the eventual installation of  sound equipment to make it into a talking picture house. The "talkie" era began at the Palace on Thursday, October 10, 1929, with the feature film Speakeasy starring Lola Lane, Paul Page, and a bit part played by a newcomer named John Wayne.

Allied Amusements' roster of theatres grew by purchasing the odd venue here and there in the 1930s and the company's name was changed to Western Theatres Ltd.

Western Theatres was involved in a blockbuster deal in 1936 when Famous Players purchased a 50% stake in it and subsequently transferred the ownership of all of its neighbourhood theatres to the smaller company. (Famous Players was only interested in big downtown venues like the Met and Capitol but had acquired these smaller venues over the years mainly through buying out competitors.)

Western Theatres continued to acquire smaller theatres and introduced Winnipeg's to the drive-in era with the Pembina Drive-In in 1959. At one point, it owned about 20 theatres which made it Winnipeg's largest theatre chain.

September 30, 1964, Winnipeg Free Press

The Palace's grand opening was a quiet affair and so was its closure.

Western's portfolio of theatres shrank through the 1960s as television established itself as the popular medium of choice. Many of its neighbourhood venues were sold off and converted into bowling alleys, retail spaces, or simply demolished.

The Palace's last night appears to have been Wednesday, September 30, 1964, with Tammy Tell Me True followed by Summer Magic.

The closure wasn't covered in the papers. The only mention of it came in a December 1964 Free Press column by entertainment editor Gene Telpner when he posed the question: "Have you noticed that the old Palace Theatre on Selkirk Avenue has closed up with no fanfare?"

August 17, 1972, Winnipeg Free Press

The theatre's sloped floor was boxed in to create a 5,200 square foot room that became home to Advance Auction Sales in April 1965. It was used as an auction house and used furniture and appliance store until June 1972.

Two months after Advance left, it became a Stylerite Department Store. The discount clothing store was a division of Big 4 Sales Ltd. which operated from the old Ashdown's department store at Main and Bannatyne. There was also a Styerite in the old Starland Theatre on Main Street.

The store was re-branded as Big 4 Sales in 1979 and was in business until the end of June 1987.

By August 1987, the building was home to Portage Markets, a liquidator that sold an eclectic range of goods, including clothing, used appliances, restaurant equipment, and even vehicles. The business itself was liquidated in June 1993.

December 3, 2005, Winnipeg Free Press

Bob Checkwitch purchased the building in 1996 and fixed up the interior using labour from the surrounding neighbourhood. The following year, he sold it to the Red Roots Community Theatre and the Shakespeare in the Red Theatre for $1. Their intention was to turn it into a 250-seat theatre and cultural space featuring Indigenous productions.

The cultural centre never got off the ground as some of the driving forces behind the project at the two theatre groups soon moved on. For those who remained, it was felt that managing the building and planning the renovations sucked valuable resources from the groups and distracted them from producing plays.

Some Indigenous works were produced in the late 1990s but they took place at venues such as the Prairie Theatre Exchange and Fringe Festival, not the Palace.

In 1999, the building was rented out to a social service agency and was soon sold off. It is unclear who the new owner was.

A group called the Selkirk Avenue Culture and Arts Organization Inc. was incorporated in April 2002 and received funding from the federal government for a feasibility study to turn the Palace into an arts centre. It was announced as part of a coming redevelopment of that block of Selkirk Avenue that would include the $5.2m Winnipeg Education Centre and $1.5m Urban Circle Training Centre.

This second attempt at a community arts centre also failed and the building became property of the city which put it up for sale in 2005. By 2012, it was owned by the University of Manitoba.

City of Winnipeg photos of interior, 2021 (source)

The University of Manitoba appeared before the June 6, 2022 meeting of city council's Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development, Heritage, and Downtown Development.

In a memo to the committee, it stated that "Last year the University of Manitoba decided to demolish the existing building and clear the site", noting that in the years it had owned the building it had not been able to find a new use for it. It was expected that the demolition would take place later in the summer of 2022.

The application and media attention alerted the community of the building's fate and a couple of days later the demolition request was put on hold until it consulted with community groups such as the North End Community Renewal Corporation about its future.

April 28, 1961, Winnipeg Tribune

North End Historical Society Twitter account
The Palace Theatre Twitter account
The Year Past (2002) City of Winnipeg
The Palace Theatre Michael Redhead Champagne
Palace Theatre to be demolished Winnipeg Free Press
Palace Theatre saved from the wrecking ball CTV Winnipeg
Demolition plants for theatre scrapped Winnipeg Free Press

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