MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 2 - The Capitol Centre

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Barry Burniston - author, artist, photographer, teacher and former Board of Directors member at the Capitol Centre. Burniston shares what inspired him to write his book - 'The Capitol: North Bay's Theatre and Arts Centre' and some interesting pieces of information that he came across during his research. The two also discuss how the Capitol Centre came to be as well as its importance to Downtown North Bay, the arts community and the city as a whole.

MHC Heritage Diary – Episode 2: Capitol Centre

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day. Welcome to ‘Heritage Diary.’ Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee Podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. This time we open the diary of our shared past and take a look at the Capitol Theatre or as known today as the Capital Centre. It opened June 1, 1929 as the Famous Players Theater and became a theater and arts center in 1987. It is only the second building that the Municipal Heritage Committee has recognized twice - first of all as a level one heritage building in 2006 with a glass plaque and then ten years later in 2016 with a Heritage Site Plaque telling the story of the Capitol Centre. To help us tell that story today we have Barry Burniston – author, artist, photographer and teacher. His book, “The Capitol” came out a number of years back now and involved an awful lot of research. He has also written articles on the Capitol Centre. What attracted you to the Capitol Centre as a subject?

Barry Burniston:
What I did first was to find a black and white, small photograph published in the Nugget. I think it was a heritage thing they were producing at the time of things about the past. It had a picture of the Capitol Centre taken back in the early thirties I think 1931 and I decided I'd like to do a painting of that. I contacted some people that I knew had businesses downtown and because of the black and white photo I wondered what the colors were. I got a hold of some old postcards and that sort of thing and got some verbal ideas of what the colors were and I produced a painting. When I did it I noticed on the marquee there was the name of Sylvia Sidney and the name of the movie. I decided long ago to look that up so I could have it as part of the painting in history and what happened then was I thought well here's a little bit of history about her and a movie at the opening of the center… I wonder if there's anything about the Capitol Centre or the Capitol Theatre itself as far as the repair record. So, I looked at it and that's what got me interested initially and doing something about looking into the history of the theater itself.

Peter Handley:
Did you find it easy? I mean for example that does the capital center itself have files or did you have to find them elsewhere?

Barry Burniston:
Okay, there was a number of issues I had to deal with. One, I asked them first of all ‘do we have anything or any record of the Capitol Centre and its history?’ They said the only thing we've got is boxes in the basement and we don't know what kind of condition they're in because they were in a flood a number of years ago. I said ‘well can I have a look at them?’ and they said ‘sure, you're welcome to go and look at them.’ At the time I was on the Board of Directors at the Capitol Center and I dug the boxes out and looked at them. There was quite a bit of a mess, there was nothing correlated as far as time lines are concerned - everything was just all over the place. There were photographs, there were articles… I then went to the library when I found out that they had on microfiche all the old newspaper articles and I started sifting through there as well. Plus when people heard I was doing this they said ‘oh I’ve got some information’ or ‘I’ve got some pictures’ or ‘I’ve got this nice story for you about the history of the theater.’ I did over fifty interviews with people like. I got stories from them that I put in and, originally, it was just going to be something that I would put together that maybe the City, the Centre and the library would like a copy of. I don't know, I considered producing four or five and maybe a copy for myself just hand done myself. However, people started saying ‘when do I get a copy of this?’ because of course I’d done fifty interviews. Now, the community said they were interested in it and hence we started to look at actually having it published.

Peter Handley:
You know, so many projects get started that way. It just sort of grows and quite often they get set aside in somebody's basement whereas this didn’t. You had the book produced and it’s here now, it's done.

Barry Burniston:
I add, this was produced I think in 2006 by the publisher and I spent the four years before that gathering the information before I was ready to do it. I had to do it on my own and when I did go and do it I got a commitment from a number of people so I knew at least I was going to hopefully get money back, so that worked out that way.

Peter Handley:
Now the Capitol Centre was called, when it opened, The finest in Northern Ontario. I can remember when I got here in the late fifties and through the sixties, the things that made it different from other theaters was the long foyer with the red carpet and then of course it had a balcony. On the main floor, you could wait in line for a motion picture and you weren't out in the rain. Whereas at the Bay Theatre, you were out in the rain and the Odeon was the same. But, the Capitol Theatre had this huge foyer.


Barry Burniston:
It was done in a Spanish motif too, it was very very ornate.

Peter Handley:
Yeah and wall boxes inside. They’re still there aren’t they?

Barry Burniston:
Yeah, they’re still there.

Peter Handley:
They’re just false now and it looked like it had some sort of a celestial theme?

Barry Burniston:
Yes, what you said. The sun, the moon, the stars.

Peter Handley:
You're not from here right?

Barry Burniston:
No, I’m from the west end of Toronto.

Peter Handley:
Do you recall any theaters down when we're you grew up that were similar to the Capitol Theatre?

Barry Burniston:
No. I moved up here when I was twenty three. My family weren’t great movie goers except on a Saturday afternoon when I’d go with the kids to watch cowboy movies. As a family we would go to a show and out for dinner maybe once or twice a year at the most. We were also out in the west end of Toronto in Etobicoke which has only one small little theater - any of the big ones were downtown.

Peter Handley:
The Capitol Theatre had almost fifteen hundred seats when it opened. Did you do any research on whether they had silents? When it opened were there still silents or were they all talkies?

Barry Burniston:
No, but I think the very first movie that was shown there – Old Arizona I think it was called. This was the first talkie out at the time that was 1929.

Peter Handley:
Okay all right. Well. The CFCH opened there just two years after the theater itself opened in 1931. It was Roy Thompson’s first radio station and there's a picture in the book of the stage show that went on at that time.

Barry Burniston:
It was interesting to the the the reason that he actually started a radio station is kind of ironic. He had no intention of starting a radio station, but what he did was he bought something like 2000 radios. He found out that there was no radio signal up here, so how do you sell radios with nothing to pick up? So, that’s how he got started on this. He had something in the basement and then something on the second floor. I know one of them was completely padded with mattresses for silencing and what they had to do to communicate from one floor to the other was bang on a water pipe. This was not one of his first adventures, but was the thing that took off to give him his media empire.

Peter Handley:
His media guy and first employee was Jack Barnaby. I worked with Jack when I first got here. He cobbled things together his whole life. I remember the auxiliary transmitter when the radio station was at First and Fraser. He had an auxiliary transmitter for when you went off the air that he had built in there and of course to get it started you needed an engineering degree. Jack was his first employee and I think he basically spent the rest of his life there working for Roy Thompson. There were other things in the Capitol Centre, weren’t there?

Barry Burniston.
Yes, it was the first offices of the Northern Ontario RCMP, there was a Dentist’s Office in there, and there was a bowling alley downstairs. Different things happened at different times. Famous Players in the 1980s decided that it wasn’t viable to keep it open as a theatre. There were two options, the first was to chop it up into maybe two or three theatres and the second was to sell it off to another enterprise and lose the theatre all together. That was when Betty Spears, the Chair of TACC - Theatre & Arts Community Centre, decided to gather individuals together and see if we could raise enough money as a community to buy the theatre and turn it into an arts center. Lucien Delean, a well-known architect in North Bay got on board as the chairman of the committee to seek the funds. In 1985, they purchased the theatre. They shut it down for renovations for two years and during this time, they took out 4000 of the 1455 seats so they could put in a reception area and the W.K.P. Art Gallery. It was opened in 1987 as the Art Centre. There was a controversy for a number of years as people didn’t know where the Art Centre was – it had no name recognition. So ten years later, they changed the name to the Capitol Centre. An interesting fact is that the Dionne Quints would often come to the show, however, they only ever came three at a time and were always accompanied by their older brother. Another interesting fact is that the Lyn Johnson characters that used to sit in the Parkette by the CIBC were stored in the Capitol Centre Lobby. Soon, the Capitol Centre needed the space for something else and the characters were moved to the basement. I saw the characters down there when I went to look for information for my book and it seemed like a waste, so I contacted Lyn Johnson and Lucien Delean and told them I was concerned that they were going to get damaged or forgotten and that they were important to the community. So, we decided that a great place to put them would be in the Children’s Floor at the new hospital and that’s where they remain today.

Peter Handley:
I’d just like to go back because I think you have something in the book about WWII and fundraising at Saturday matinees.

Barry Burniston:
Yes, if you brought in some metal, like a spoon or fork, you could get in for free. This metal went towards the war effort for bullets or machines – I don’t really know. People couldn’t afford to go to the show at that time, but they could bring in something like that.

Peter Handley:
I recall Betty Spears and she was the spearhead.

Barry Burniston:
Yes, she was.

Peter Handley:
She was a hardnosed lady. She was a public relations person, because I remember her telling me that she organized Paul Robeson’s tour when he travelled Australia. Of course, he was a controversial figure at the time and a tremendous talent which meant that she came with credentials to North Bay. When she dug her heels in, there was no dislodging her. I often wonder if she wasn’t there to step in, if there would still be a Capitol Centre today.

Barry Burniston:
I doubt it. I mean you can’t obviously know if there would have been, but she was definitely a driving force and she wouldn’t let up. She was also the one who got Lucien Delean involved and he was an avid proponent of the arts as well. The two of them together was an unstoppable thing. They both had a way of getting others involved too. The first event they planned was called the Glitter Gulch where they brought in all the gambling equipment and it was a great success. Over the years, it sustained itself with the Wine Gala as well.

Peter Handley:
They also had an art festival where they brought in talent. I remember the first one, they brought in Amazing Randy. It was a series of shows within three days.

Barry Burniston:
Yes, the Festival of the Arts.

Peter Handley:
That’s right. So, the Kennedy Art Gallery, is one of the most important parts of the building now isn’t it?

Barry Burniston:
Yes and it had a few parts to it. The first isn’t working right now because there wasn’t enough manpower to take care of it was a small art shop. Artists would bring in their work to be sold and a portion would go to the theatre. The other portion is the outer gallery as you walk in which is for people who only have a selective amount of work to show – still quality though. There is also the main gallery which is for more grandiose works and they get into multimedia, presentations and happenings in there. They also use it for small theatre presentations in there. It doesn’t happen often but sometimes local artists will want a smaller audience or intimate environment.

Peter Handley:
I mentioned earlier that in 2006, the Capitol Centre was awarded a glass plaque. When the Municipal Heritage Committee evaluated the building, I remember there being a room in the back of the original building that was for crying babies. If someone had a crying baby in the theatre they could take it up there and it was all shut off. It was a really unique concept. They have live performances and films in there still?

Barry Burniston:
Yes, they do.

Peter Handley:
So it’s almost back to its original use. They also redid most of the basement didn’t they?

Barry Burniston:
Yes, Arlie Hoffman used one of the rooms down there as a studio before he moved to the hospital and began painting there. The Capitol Centre also has summer camps for children and they use the basement for that.

Peter Handley:
One of the good things about the Capitol Centre is that is has the support of the City. I know when I was on Council; we gave a portion every year to Capitol endeavors. That is very valuable as it is expensive to keep of building of that vintage up and running.

Barry Burniston:
Absolutely.

Peter Handley:
Overall, are you happy with the book you have put together – ‘The Capitol: North Bay’s Theatre and Arts Centre’?

Barry Burniston:
Yes, I am quite happy with it. I enjoyed doing it and the people I got involved with. I am happy with it because it is something that adds to the history of the city and something that people can look back on and say ‘well that’s an interesting building’ but ‘where did it come from, who was involved in it and what happened here.’ I think it’s important that we keep a record of that and overall, I’m glad the book had a positive response. In fact, I just sat down the other day and looked through it and I think there is over 180 pictures. I did some of them in there including the cover and some pen and ink drawings. I enjoyed doing that very much. Lee Kools, who worked at the Capitol Centre at the time was the one who helped me put it together for publishing. I owe her a big debt of gratitude for getting it to that point because, at that time, I didn’t have the ability to insert pictures. So, what I would do at the time was bring the photos to her and she would insert them for me.

Peter Handley:
Just off the top of your head, what is the value of the Capitol Centre to the downtown, the arts community and the city?

Barry Burniston:
I don’t think you can measure it. I don’t think this would be the same city without it. I think it is a core element to keeping this city alive, bringing people into the community and the development of the downtown-waterfront area.

Peter Handley:
Barry, thank you so much for coming to talk with us about the Capitol Theatre and Capitol Centre. The book is called ‘The Capitol’ and Barry has also written numerous articles on the Capitol Centre. Thank you again.

Barry Burniston:
Thank you very much for having me.

Peter Handley:
We thank you for spending some time with us today. Our productions are put together not only to retell old tales but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community as we have proven again today and we shouldn’t let it go unremarked or unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at peter.carello@cityofnorthbay.ca

Pete Handley speaking.