Movie Magic on Downtown Front Street
Author: Connie Carson
Connie is a well-known local story-teller and professional who has a passion for the history of the City of Belleville, in particular, the downtown streets.
Movies have captured our hearts and fueled our fantasies in downtown Belleville for well over 130 years. Local citizens have always been more than ready to step outside their everyday lives and transport themselves to faraway worlds of mystery, mayhem, and magic.
Griffin Opera House
The glitzy and glamorous Griffin Opera House leads the way in 1883 when it introduced a new style of nightly entertainment to Belleville by offering musical drama performances on an elaborate balcony and stage with full orchestra to a new genre of theatre-goers from all walks of life.
Picture the dramatic, lavish, and often gaudy costumes showcased in the Friday and Saturday evening five-act plays that sold out to packed audiences of 1,300 patrons in the garishly lit brick building overlooking the Belleville Armouries.
Silent films were becoming very popular at the turn of the century and our enthralled crowds are welcoming their big-screen heroes such as Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, and Clara Bow to the silent screen and although fans had to rely on title cards, pantomime, and music to ‘hear’ them; they can now actually hear them!
When the first world war ended it signaled the beginning of the end for the Griffin Opera House as the owners struggled with the post-war economy and stock market crash. The doors closed in 1933, the building was demolished in the 1940s and is currently home to O’Flynn Weese Law Firm at 65 Bridge Street East in Belleville.
Take a stroll with me now a few blocks downtown to the Palace Theatre at the corner of Front and Campbell Streets, come inside and feel the excitement in the air! The beautiful screen star Beatrice Lillie waits in anticipation for the swashbuckling hero Douglas Fairbanks Sr., to take her in his arms for one last kiss. The “talkies” are FINALLY here in Belleville and are definitely the talk of the town!
Sadly the Palace Theatre suffered a devastating fire and burned to the ground along with most of its history but as you walk along that stretch of Front Street just stop for a moment, take a breath, look up and admire the Canadian Bank Of Commerce building that was built on that site in 1916 in the classical Victorian Italianate style. It is truly a jewel of the downtown district!
The year is 1929 and affluent investors in New York are reeling from the tragic news from Wall Street; the stock market has crashed and The Great Depression has officially begun. But, from the west coast, a ray of hope lights up the night sky. The very first Academy Awards are presented at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the swashbuckling hero, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. is the host for 230 celebrity guests at this gala event. Big screen and big sound movies are now firmly entrenched in the global culture, officially changing the movie industry forever!
Also in 1929 and much closer to home at 139 Front Street in downtown Belleville, the Capitol Theatre opens its ornate double glass doors to usher in an excited crowd of over 603 moviegoers that stretches all the way to City Hall to finally see their first movie on the big screen! The production is titled The Iron Mask and the star of the movie is no other than our swash-bucking hero Douglas Fairbanks Sr.!
Movie theatres are now a new way of entertainment and our city embraces the experience including the thrill of sitting way up in the balcony, smelling the pungent scent of hot buttered popcorn and tobacco filling the air, and the sheer excitement of the opening music and dimming of the lights that signal the start of a newsreel plus a double feature movie that is all set to begin.
The Capitol Theatre has been run by 20th Century Theatres until the mid-1950’s when it begins operating as Famous Players Theatres. The name changes to The Park Theatre in the 1960s and closes in 1985. It becomes a non-alcohol teen center in the early 1990s after it sitting vacant for many years. Eventually, it is extensively renovated into an upscale corporate office which further enhances and is reinvigorates our downtown area.
One of the long time owners of the Capitol Theatre, Tommy Maraskos, was quoted in the Intelligencer paper in 1954 as saying,
“People of Belleville are good folk and they like a picture which entertains the whole family. A mixture of religion, comedy, romance, and action helped along with big-name performers.”
In 1935 Famous Players Theatres open the magnificent Belle Theatre at 347 Front Street in downtown Belleville. As the doors swing open we can picture the long line up stretching all the way from Front Street to Station Street. The anticipation is palpable. This grand spectacle of a theatre features all the lavish upgrades in a state of the art movie theatre of its time including a Warren 2 manual 7 ranks theatre pipe organ that is the talk of the town! Picture the heavy fringed red velvet drapes slowly opening to organ music and following with the Belle News Reel, a crowd-pleasing Donald Duck cartoon, and a giant big-screen movie starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien called Angels With Dirty Faces.
George (John) Forhan was the manager of the Griffin Theatre back in 1918 and brought his unique brand of management expertise to the Belle Theatre for 50 years before retiring.
George Forhan Sr. and his wife lived on Alexander Street in Belleville for many years and were a highly regarded community-minded family. I am passing on a lovely story from his grandson that was shared with me.
‘When children’s movies were playing at the Belle, sometimes for Saturday matinees, my grandfather would leave a rear door unlocked and ajar so that some less fortunate kids who might not be able to pay the price of admission could “sneak” into the theatre to see the show.’
The brand new Quinte Mall with 100 stores, large indoor shopping plus a movie theatre opening, proved to be too much competition for the theatre business downtown and sadly, the Belle Theatre shut its doors forever in 1970.
Let’s stop by the McCarthy theatre JC(Mac) McCarthy built just steps away from the Belle Theatre to 329 Front Street and see what’s going on downtown. The splendid McCarthy Theatre is celebrating a brand new opening event. The line is chock full of local dignitaries and a raucous crowd of 800 invited guests gathering to take part in the premier grand opening. The ceremony begins with remarks from the city officials, an official ribbon-cutting ceremony and followed by the debut of Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon starring in The Cowboy and The Lady. The year is 1938 and downtown Belleville now had THREE first-rate fabulous theatres as a venue for both feature films and live performances.
The entertainment industry is indeed booming until the 1950s and television become a very popular form of entertainment. Theatres are losing business because of the rapid rise of television sales and unfortunately, the McCarthy theatre is forced to close in 1962
The badly neglected building sits empty and abandoned until 1974 when Stephen License Hobbies and Sports buy it and turn it into a bicycle and hobby shop.
‘ In 1955 I was lucky enough to attend a really cool event at both the McCarthy and Belle Theatres. The Coca Cola company is located on the corner of West Bridge and Sidney St at the time and they are announcing a brand new marketing campaign that gives a free small coke to every kid under 14 that come to either theatre. I waited impatiently and shivering near the front of the long line up dressed in my lucky white earmuffs and cozy green winter coat. The newspaper reporters were there, I had my picture taken with the Coca Cola mascot and got to watch Tammy and The Bachelor and several cartoons. For free. Best birthday ever!’
– Connie Carson
The Dream Begins at the Empire Theatre
In March of 2002, Royal Lepage ProAlliance broker/ owner Mark Rashotte purchases the old McCarthy Theatre building at 321 Front Street with a dream and a clear focused vision of bringing a state of the art theatre for live performance and cinema to downtown Belleville. Mark is a professional musician and recording artist, who performs and manages theatrical venues all over the country and has developed a unique insight as to what a performing arts center will provide to both the audience and entertainer.
In the fall of the same year, a premier design and construction team begin to transform the McCarthy building into the new Empire Theatre and Centre For Performing Arts while respecting the building’s past and vision for the future. The 700 seat Empire Theatre opened its doors in September 2003 and a true downtown icon was restored. The dream became a reality! Performers and sold-out audiences came from all over the country and after many years of silence our downtown entertainment area is finally coming back to life! The city resonates with great musical acts plus an annual Rockfest and indoor and outdoor concerts at Empire Live often bringing over 10,000 people to downtown Belleville on long weekends.
In celebration of The Empire’s 15th Anniversary in 2018, a spectacular new exterior and interior bring a new experience to a new reality, the least of which is an incredible new make over and sound system. “The Monster” as it is fondly referred to by the crew has taken The Empire sound experience to a whole new level!
At the time of the writing of this we are under COVID restrictions, and as a result, the Empire Theatre has pivoted is now bringing Live Streaming events to the stage and to living rooms all over the country ‘
“I am a fan of music and entertainment. I pinch myself when I see some of the artists who have come here to perform – artists that once upon a time, the only way you were ever going to see them was if you went to Toronto or Montreal or Ottawa. There’s no chance you would ever see them elsewhere.”
Events manager, Andy Forgie
The best days of Downtown Belleville are not in the past but in the present and future.