What We’ve Lost #1 – Gem Theatre

Note: This is the first in a series of photo essays concerning built heritage lost to neglect, fire, or redevelopment in and around the city of Edmonton.

The Gem awaits its fate stoically on its last day

Marquee already removed, the Gem stoically awaits its fate on the chilly, foggy morning of February 20, 2010, its last day

Developed by James Goodridge and his son Leonard whom owned most of the land in this block (and also developed the Goodridge Block (1912) and the Jasper House/Hub Hotel (1882) right next door) the Gem Theatre at 9682 Jasper Avenue opened in 1914. The two men contracted the services of architects Herbert Magoon and George MacDonald who were responsible for many famous structures in Edmonton including the Beuna Vista Building, the H V Shaw Building, and Schwermann Hall at Concordia College. The Gem was designed in a utilitarian style with classical revival flourishes.

Jules and Jay Allan, the ‘Allan Brothers’, who made a name for themselves building theatres across Canada performed the construction work. The Gem opened with 490 seats and an orchestra pit nestled in front of the screen for accompaniment of the silent films of the day.  It featured elaborate plaster relief work in both the lobby and the theatre itself.  Even though the Gem was described as ‘stylish’ and ‘modern’ upon opening it was a relatively modest structure when compared with the Allan’s namesake 900 seat Allan Theatre constructed in Calgary in 1911.

Along with the Dreamland (1912) and Portola (1914) theatres, both just a block down Jasper Avenue, the Gem anchored what was then known as Edmonton’s theatre district. Though the Gem changed hands a few times over the years, both in ownership and operation (and a later renovation which added some moderne touches around the entrance and a new marquee), by all accounts it was a successful business and was in continuous operation from 1914 until the early 1970s when the large, suburban multi-screen cineplexes arrived on the scene.

The Gem Theatre's marquee from street level, added during a moderne renovation

The Gem Theatre’s marquee from street level, added during a later moderne renovation

The Gem was reborn as a live music venue in the late 1970s, though this did not last long. Another incarnation in the early 1980s saw the building re-christened as the Star Theatre, featuring  screenings of Cantonese language films. This venture quickly failed as well. From the time of the Star Theatre’s closing, the structure sat vacant and neglected. As early as 1996 there was a City report published which stated the building ‘was in peril’, though still somewhat structurally sound. The report recommended mothballing the theatre until such time as funds could be found to rehabilitate the aging building. Sadly, even after municipal heritage designation in 2000 this was not to be. The City of Edmonton sold the theatre to Oliver O’Connor for $77,500 contingent on restoration of the building. The work was not completed, and this resulted in Mr O’Connor and the City of Edmonton suing each other, for misrepresenting the scope of work needed, and for not performing the work, respectively. By early 2010 the roof was near a total loss, a victim of its own neglect. The interior was covered in inches of pigeon feces, and was being used as a makeshift shelter by the homeless. After some complaints by nearby residents, City of Edmonton inspectors arrived on the scene and quickly ordered the Gem Theatre razed for health and safety reasons.

The marquee is removed, February 2010

The marquee is removed, February 2010

Demolition reveals the elaborate plaster relief work

Demolition reveals the elaborate plaster relief work

Demolition continues in earnest

Demolition continues in earnest

As seems to be the case much too often, we knew something had to be done quickly to save the Gem, and yet still nothing was done. This building, its history, and its connection to the past now only live on in photographs and memories. A sad ironic note from Kathryn Ivany’s Historic Walks of Edmonton, published in 2004:

It is hoped that the Star will benefit from the Downtown Development program and reemerge in a new incarnation soon.

Unfortunately this was not to be. The theatre only lasted another 6 years until that chilly and foggy day in February 2010.

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— Written by Darren Kirby

Pictures courtesy of Hugh Lee

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