Friday, January 25, 2013

Fox Theatre Memories: Eleanor Mackenzie (nee Fox)

Photos courtesy of the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village archives

Chris Davis, Pincher Creek Voice

The Fox Theatre has been part of the social fabric of Pincher Creek life for more than 64 years now, opening December 23, 1948.  We will be running several installments of "Fox Theatre Memories" over the next several months, and we encourage you, gentle reader, to contribute your own favourite memories and tales of this venerable institution.  We begin with some of the remembrances of Eleanor Mackenzie (nee Fox), who was there the day it was opened by her parents Delmar C. ("Del") and Katie Fox.

"My Grandmother Tillie Fox bought the Opera House," explained Mrs. Mackenzie. "She also owned the theatre in Grand Forks. She was quite the business woman. She had my dad run the Opera House in Pincher, and that was in the days of the silent movies. Mrs. Agnes Freebairn used to play the piano."

"My dad decided that the old Opera House was pretty much falling apart, and movies had improved, so he built the Fox Theatre where it is today, in 1948."

Del Fox receives congratulations and the keys to the new Theatre from contractor George Murphy.
Left to right are Mrs. Fox, Del Fox, George Murphy, and Mrs. Murphy

Pincher Creek Mayor Henry Hammond and Mrs.
Hammond buy the first tickets to the opening of
the new Fox Theatre from Mrs. Fox
The Opera House was demolished.

The Thornton store went where the Opera House was, to the east of the Fox Theatre location on Main Street, and was later destroyed in a fire.

"We lived upstairs in the theatre," continued Mrs. Mackenzie.  "It was a very cozy home.  Mom and Dad's bedroom was a normal sized bedroom, but my sister and I were pretty young then and had bunk beds that were pretty much shoved into a little closet until my dad built the garage attached to the theatre. Then he put our bedroom over the garage."

The garage was eventually converted into a storefront, and presently houses a hair salon.

"There was always a sign there, 'No Parking', because when the theatre was running people were parking all up Main Street."

The man she eventually married ran into a little trouble because of that sign.

"I remember one time my boyfriend, on our first date, he couldn't find a place to park to pick me up," she said.  "I was upstairs watching out the big window there.  I saw him drive up, and said to Mom 'I'm going now', and I looked, and there was my Dad, running out of the theatre, shaking his finger (shouting) 'Can't you read that sign?'.  So, the poor guy hopped back in the car again, and drove around the town."

"It was a good life growing up there.  Any time my sister or I had a birthday party, he would order an hour of cartoons, Bugs Bunny, and Donald Duck and all those.   We'd all invite our friends, watch an hour of cartoons, and go upstairs and have our cake and ice cream.  This was before I think I even went to school," she said somewhat wistfully.   "We used to ride our bikes up and down the aisle. There as a stage at the time and we used to, with our friends get on the stage, and dress up, acting, dancing and singing songs.  It was a lot of fun."

It was also apparently quite conducive to romance.

"When we were younger my sister and I were very lucky, we always had lots of boyfriends, because they got a free movie.  It was the only place to date in Pincher in those days."

"I had graduated from school, and I had gone to take my business course in Calgary.  I came back, and worked at the BA Plant at the time.  This fellow asked me if I would like to go to a movie in Blairmore, and I said it 'Sure, that would be really nice'.  I even remember the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany's.  I told my dad 'I'm going to a movie in Blairmore'.  Well.  He didn't have much hair, but it stood straight up.  'Why would you go to Blairmore when you could have a free movie here?'  To make a long story short, we did go to the movie, but I think my mother probably cornered him and said 'Look, this isn't the only place in the world to date'."

Mrs. Mackenzie also has an obvious love for music, and taught piano for many years.

"I loved the musicals.  The first movie I remember, and it was before the Theatre was being built, was Bambi.  I remember my dad putting me in the front of the theatre, and as soon as Bambi's mother died I just started to bawl.  He had to take me out, and call my grandmother to take me home."

"My dad was the president of the Alberta Theatre Association for many years.  He went down to California quite a few times to conventions."

A 12 minute film 'Canadian Roughriders' was filmed on the Peigan Reserve (Brocket) by David Oliver for RKO Pathe Pictures in 1946, the highlight of which was a wild horse roundup.  Members of the Peigan tribe also featured prominently in the film, which was apparently a big hit in New York City at the time. In 1948 Del Fox arranged for the Fox Theatre to be the site of the Canadian Roughriders premiere.  RKO's Calgary Manager Art Elliot agreed to attend the premiere, and made the trip to Pincher Creek, which was a considerable trek in those days.

Catherine (Fox) Clarke photo

According to a Lethbridge Herald story dated April 22, 1949, nearly 3,000 people filled the streets of Pincher Creek, participating in celebrations staged to mark the opening, at a time when Pincher Creek had an actual population of about 1000 souls.  "When Mr. Elliot was about to enter the limits of the town, his car was ambushed by eight chiefs and Indian warriors."

They were apparently upset that the film was called "Canadian Roughriders" instead of "Pincher Creek Roughriders".

A colorful parade down Main Street Pincher Creek included Royal Canadian Mounties, a chuck wagon, an old time orchestra, and citizens dressed in frontier attire.

"My dad had this all planned," said Mrs. Mackenzie.  "They took the guy off the train, tied him up,  they brought him into Pincher Creek and let him out of the car.  The Indians all on horses, with feathers and everything, marched down Main Street to the theatre.  They had a rope around the guy, pulling him to the theatre.  There was a teepee set up."

There he was tried, and apparently he mounted a solid defence, because the Chiefs decided to make him a Chief of their tribe.  "Mr. Elliot was presented with full head-dress and made Chief Running Wolf of the Peigan Tribe," said the Lethbridge Herald account.  Boxoffice magazine said the whole promotion cost $12 in prizes to parade entrants and some tobacco for the Peigan participants.

Mayor Hammond and Indian Agent Tony MacMillan
putting their footprints in cement to commemorate the occasion.
Photo: Lorne Burkell, Calgary Albertan
"After, they went to the King Edward Hotel to have dinner and there is a picture of them all sitting there, with the VIPs and everything. White table cloth, salt, pepper and HP sauce sitting there."

Mr. Fox was given a bonus by Boxoffice "for outstanding success in promoting national publicity in connection with the premiere of short subject.  Highlights of the campaign were picked up by newspapers throughout Canada."

Canadian Pacific comes to town
In June of 1949, Mr. Fox placed two full sized railroad crossing signs in front of the theatre saying "Stop, Look, Listen, Canadian Pacific" as a promotion for the Randolph Scott film Canadian Pacific.
"At last! After 50 years! Canadian Pacific comes to town!" was the advertising slogan.

Calgary Herald, 1969
Effective October 1, 1969 an era came to an end when Mr. and Mrs. Fox sold the theatre to the partnership of Mr. W. Terry of Edmonton and Mr. Lowell Hartley of Cardston, who also operated theatres in Cardston and Raymond.  Shortly after they retired to Victoria, BC.

The current owner of the Fox Theatre is Edith Becker. "She had bought it just before the 50th anniversary," said Mrs. Mackenzie, "and she invited my mother and sister and I.  My dad had already passed away.  There was a big celebration, and there was a cake, and she had a picture, a sketch made of the theatre, how it used to look  with the marquee on the front.  Dad used to put a Christmas tree up there."

"He used to love music, and he built a hi-fi himself.  He put the speakers out through the windows, and he'd play Christmas carols all through December, and you could hear it all over town."

"I thought that came from the United Church!" exclaimed Eileen McGlynn, who was present for this interview.

I asked Mrs. Mackenzie about the famed loveseats that used to grace the theatre when it was one big room.  "When my dad brought those in, those were THE.  That's where we always sat with our boyfriends.  It was a fight for them.  In those days they had ushers, to tell you to put your feet down and..."

"No canoodling!" I suggested.  She laughed, and I do believe both ladies present might have blushed just a little.

Source material and photographs for this article came from the archives of Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, largely comprised of a scrapbook donated to the museum by Mrs. Mackenzie in the year 2000.  Thank you to Curator Farley S. Wuth for assisting me.  Some of the source material included period articles from the Pincher Creek Echo, the Lethbridge Herald, the Calgary Albertan, Boxoffice, and  other publications.  Photos are credited where known.

* Updated with corrections supplied by readers, February 23, 2013.


  1. Anonymous29/7/14

    I grew up in PC and went to the Fox every Saturday matinee when younger, and then Friday nights when older. It was packed...everyone went to "the show". As a very young child I thought that the movie studio "20th Century Fox" had something to do with our very own Fox Theatre!

  2. Jim Tustian29/7/14

    It was exciting growing up as a Kid... I could always Get into the Fox Theatre FREE - Whoopie... My Uncle Del and Aunt Kate owned it.... We Tustian Kids were SPECIAL.....


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