On a warm June afternoon, my sister, Marlene, decided she absolutely had to see the Student Prince a seventh time. Movie goers couldn’t get enough of the heart-wrenching love story, now into its tenth week run. I didn’t miss the fleeting look of shock that crossed mom’s face hearing Marlene’s offer to take me along. Doing big girl things with my sister twelve years my senior, seemed like being released from the playpen and given the keys to my first car.
I called my sister recently to ask her about the night we went to the Student Prince at the Capitol. She had forgotten. I had not. That Saturday night stands singularly as one of my early memories of the darkened mystery of movie palaces. The Capitol, or “the Cap”, was one of the grand movie houses built in Regina in the early twentieth century. Opened in 1921, it welcomed vaudeville, silent, and then full-length motion pictures. The Hollywood-styled theatre, boasted a ten-piece orchestra pit, sloping mezzanine and balcony, with seating for 1500. The Capitol gained international fame when it hosted the world premiere of “Northwest Mounted Police” October 21, 1940, Cecil B DeMille’s first film in technicolour.
“Two please? One child and one adult,” Marlene said checking nervously that I hadn’t been lost in the crowds. I leaned into my sister, gobsmacked by the hundreds of globe lights ringing the semi-circular canopy above us.
“Put your ticket in your pocket and don’t let go of my hand. See that door with the window in it?” Through the sea of people, I followed her finger.
“That’s where we’re going.”
“I won’t let go,” I said boasting a confidence I wasn’t quite sure of myself.
“Jill, you sit here on the couch. I’ll get some popcorn. Don’t move,” Marlene added unnecessarily, I thought considering the situation. Mesmerized, I dared to embrace the spectacle before me.
I shivered as a blast of cold air wrapped itself around me. Must be the conditioning air Marlene warned me about. Glad she forced me to bring a sweater. Goosebumps pebbled my legs, bare but for my white ankle socks. I shyly clicked my shiny black paten dress shoes together to convince myself this was real. Satisfied I truly was in the land of magic, I wriggled further into the sofa. I leaned back and looked up. Spears of light darting from globes of sparkling glass painted the ceiling and walls in sparkling rainbows. My mouth dropped open.
“Come on Jill. What are you gawking at? Looks like you’re catching flies. We need to find our seats,” Marlene said grabbing me with one hand while balancing both a carton of popcorn and purse with the other.
“We go in here.”
Marlene had dressed me. She wasn’t going to be seen dead with a sister who looked like she had just emerged from the sandbox. I had been washed and scrubbed until my skin shone.
“Are we going to church first?” I had asked incredulous that going to the movie theatre demanded such finery.
“Of course not, silly,” Marlene said chuckling.
“We’re going to the Capitol. There’s more velvet and gold inside the theatre than anywhere else in Regina.”
“Oh,” I replied slayed for any further response.
“Don’t worry. You’re going to love the Cap.”
No matter how I tried, though, I couldn’t get the vision of velvet walls, floors and ceilings out of my head.
At Marlene’s side, I navigated the aisle, pin-balling between tall men in dark suits and women in wide skirts. Marlene pulled me aside, stood on tiptoe searching for seats. My face touched the hem of the drapes hanging from a brass rail.
“Yup, velvet. Real velvet,” I said running my pinkie across the fabric.
“Those are loge seats. They cost ten cents extra,” Marlene said impatiently as if I were the village idiot for not knowing such details. I shook off the rebuke and turned my attention to the ceiling. Once again catching flies, I gawked into the soaring vault above me.
“It’s a spider web,” I blurted just loud enough for Marlene to glare me into silence.
Suspended from the centre of the massive sunburst, a chandelier shot rays of streaming gold across the ceiling. Between the gilded spears, white plaster rosettes danced. I thought I was going to faint.
“Come on you’re holding people up,” Marlene said pulling me past the loge seats towards the mezzanine. As we squeezed around the tall post at the end of the expensive seats, my free hand feathered the brass ball. It warmed beneath my touch.
Yup gold, real gold.
“Now what’s the problem? Come on.”
J, I thought, looking at the gold plates of capital letters on each aisle seat. I’d like to sit in row J. Then I saw the balcony and thoughts of row J evaporated.
“Can we go up there? Please?”
“Absolutely not,” Marlene said tugging harder. “That’s where all the couples sit.”
“Oh, the ones who want to kiss, like you and Jimmy on the porch?” I said smiling sweetly at my sister who registered embarrassed shock.
The porch is beside my window. How could I not know? I thought squaring my shoulders and prancing up the steps. Got you that time.
Suddenly a light materialized on the carpet beside my feet at row L.
“Yes, this is fine,” Marlene said nodding to the usher.
My legs didn’t touch the floor, but I didn’t care. I was in the Cap with my sister on Saturday night. I grabbed the wooden arm rests, arched my body up and shimmied my bottom further into the seat. White gloves miming through the dark, the usher led a few late comers to their seats. Then the curtains parted, and the theatre vanished. The cobblestoned streets and timbered rowhouses of Heidelberg filled the screen.
“Is he a real prince,” I whispered into Marlene’s neck.
“Yes, but he’s in disguise,” she replied behind a cupped hand. “Shh. You can’t talk in the theatre.”
“Why is he in disguise?” I persevered.
“Because he wants to live like an ordinary person,” she added curtly as if that was abundantly obvious.
Ninety minutes later, the velvet curtains rolled shut. Heidelberg, lost in the dark.
“Thanks for bringing me, Marlene. It was wonderful,” I said pressing her arm warmly.
Attitudes about old buildings are changing. Structures, that twenty years ago would have been razed with nary a second glance, are granted new life. Boarded up, vacant, derelict buildings, languishing in the downtown cores of towns and cities across the country, are being repurposed rather than demolished. Thus transformed, the hearts of these cities are beating once again, strong and steady. When the Capitol Restaurant and Bar opened in downtown Regina a few years ago, there was little doubt the owners wanted to give a nod to the Capitol, one of many grand theatres built in the city in the early 20th century.
I am thankful that I didn’t witness the carving up of the Regina Capitol Theatre into two big box theatres in the 1970s, or the day in 1992 when the wrecking ball wrenched the bricks and beauty of this magnificent edifice into the architectural waste bin of vanished dreams.
I can close my eyes and feel the brass ball beneath my seven-year-old fingers, grateful that I travelled with my sister to Heidelberg beneath the Capitol’s golden spider web.