Enjoyable entertainment and sombre ceremonies at early theatres

The Good Old Days column by Jennifer Houghton.

April 1915 performance of the Gay Bohemia musical at the Empress Theatre in Grand Forks.

The days prior to the First World War in Grand Forks were heady times of growth, money and transition.

In the early 1900s, being driven by copper and railways, industry was booming in the Boundary. Grand Forks was growing to keep pace with men arriving from all over to exploit the wealth of timber and minerals in the surrounding mountains.

In the beginning, entertainment ran more along the lines of saloons, card games and red light activities.

Rumour has it that in 1903, when Martin Burrell was elected mayor, he shut down all but the most respectable hotels and town life became more welcoming for decent folk and families.

In 1913, the Granby Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company was driving close to $40,000 per month in wages into the area’s economy (equivalent to approximately $1 million in today’s dollars according to an “inflation calculator” on the Internet).

As money flooded the area, the number of venues that provided entertainment grew to include Davis Hall, the opera house, and the Empress Theatre. These places also provided a space for socialization and meeting potential marriage partners. Grand Forks turned into a social and cultural hub.

One early newspaper article described a ball at the opera house that was attended by 75 couples.  Ladies gracefully twirled the dance floor in “water green silk trimmed in ecru lace, black velvet over cerise silk, diamonds and emeralds, white taffeta silk with green velvet” and many more in petticoats and pearls.

With the advent of the Great War and its high demand for metals, the fortunes of Grand Forks continued to grow. As the war progressed, the Empress Theatre was put to use for the war effort.

In April 1915, the Grand Forks Sun declared that the Friday night performance of Gay Bohemia was a “social, artistic, and financial triumph.”  The Empress Theatre was packed for the performance given entirely by locals.

The night opened with a one-act comedy. The main show was a two-act musical farce written and produced by theatre manager E.F. Laws.  Nine local men and 16 ladies starred in the show which was accompanied by piano, violin and clarinet.

During the interval, records were played on the gramaphone—musical selections included songs from the opera Carmen, the William Tell Overture, and the 1812 Overture. All proceeds from the performance went to Daughters of the Empire, a charitable organization that contributed to the war effort.

In 1915, children were giving performances and recitations at the Empress for donations to war relief. Church choirs of the city came together to give performances. Evangelists gave bible readings and sermons to keep people hopeful and in good spirits.

In 1918, the Empress hosted a standing-room-only ceremony for soldiers who had been at the front. Mayor Acres presented diplomas of honour to the men and to families of soldiers who had fallen.

After the war, the Empress Theatre continued to be used for performances, lectures, plays, and later in the 1930s, movies were shown there.