You Should Know That Gastown Was Home to Canada’s First Movie Theatre

View of Cordova St., looking west from Carrall St., ca. 1901. The arrow points to the 3 storey building that housed the Edison Electric Theatre. Photo: CoV Archives, LGN 692

In an old warehouse store on Cordova Street in 1898, John A. Schuberg introduced the motion pictures to Vancouver. Four years later, Schuberg, known professionally as Johnny Nash, opened the Edison Electric Theatre on the same street. It was Canada’s first movie theatre.

Swedish-born Schuberg (1874-1953) immigrated to Minnesota with his parents as a young child. Already helping the family finances by working odd jobs since age 10, he entered the world of entertainment at 13, getting his start working the “lung tester” machine in the local Dime Museum (a late 19th C working-class entertainment institution similar to carnival sideshows).

After learning some sleight of hand tricks and operating a Punch & Judy Show, Schuberg joined the John T. Robinson circus. He toured for several years as a travelling showman until 1894, when he made his way to Winnipeg. There he worked with Fred Burrows, “Winnipeg’s first showman”, playing fairs and races. He married Burrows’ youngest daughter, Nettie Burrows, four years later.

The newlyweds traveled to Vancouver for their honeymoon just when Edison’s Kinetograph – the first movie machine – came on the market. Schuberg bought a machine and some short subject films of the Spanish-American War for $250 and set up a temporary shop on Cordova Street. Attendance for his silent films was low until he decided to add “sound” to his films:

“I got behind the screen with some tin to make thunder and a couple of guns to add some realism.” he recalled. “After that we had trouble emptying the place for the next show.” – Vancouver Sun, December 15, 1953.

After a sold-out two-week run (and lacking new films to screen), Schuberg decided to take his picture show on the road. He fashioned a black canvas tent as a portable movie house and toured summer fairs and carnivals. According to a Parks Canada History article, the 20 by 60-foot tent seated about 200 people and “was made of black canvas with an inner tent of black canton flannel to keep out the sunlight when it was windy”. It also had a “sidewall” that could be raised “at the end of each show to cool off the patrons”. The exterior of the tent was festooned with banners that advertised the movie inside. This newspaper photo shows Schuberg’s black tent theatre at a 1900 street fair.

Schuberg’s black tent theatre ca. 1900. Photo: Vancouver Sun, Feb. 7, 1953

The Schubergs toured Canada and the U.S. for the next four summers until the fall of 1902 when they returned to Vancouver and opened a permanent film venue on Cordova Street called the Edison Electric Theatre. It was the first movie theatre in Canada and the second in North America, the first having opened in Los Angeles a few months earlier.

After renovations, which converted the old Central Hotel into a movie house with a seating capacity of about 200, the Electric Theatre opened for business on November 20, 1902. Admission to the “moral and refined” show suitable for ladies and children was 10 cents. The first screening was the 1902 short film, ‘The Eruption of Mt. Pelee’, directed by Georges Méliès.

While several contemporary newspaper ads and a 1903 theatre program (below) show the Electric Theatre located at 38 (West) Cordova, a Fire Insurance Plan from 1903 and the city directory indicate the address was next door at 42 (West) Cordova. It’s possible the official address changed at some point as the city grew.

The Province, November 20, 1902, p.2 & The Province, December 15, 1902, p.2

The second film to screen at the Electric Theatre was the Méliès film classic “A Trip to the Moon”. Imagine the magic the audiences felt sitting in the Electric Theatre seeing this film for the first time! Due to the limited catalogue of films available for screening, Schuberg had to supplement his program with vaudeville acts, but the real draw was the moving pictures.

 

Insurance plan of the city of Vancouver, BC, July 1897, revised 1903 (see “Electric Theatre”, lower left of center). Library & Archives Canada

Schuberg sold his interest in the Electric Theatre to Fred Lincoln in 1903 and moved back to Winnipeg. From there he operated a circuit of theatres for several years that booked acts such as Al Jolson and Charlie Chaplin. It was also in Winnipeg that Schuberg built his first exclusive motion picture house from the ground up called ‘The Province’ (1910). The Schubergs moved back to Vancouver in 1914. After selling out his interests in his theatre businesses, Schuberg tried ranching for a few years before returning to the movies in 1921. He also ventured into the dramatic theatre business and was associated with the operation of the Rex, Globe and Strand theatres in Vancouver. Schuberg retired in 1943.

In 1952, on the occasion of the “Golden Anniversary of the Silver Screen”, the Canadian Motion Picture Pioneers honoured John Schuberg for his role in the birth of the Canadian movie industry in a Toronto ceremony. A year later, Schuberg died on December 13, 1953 at the age of 78.

More recently, Vancouver-based media artist Alex MacKenzie honoured Schuberg and his first movie theatre by naming his first underground cinema, on Commercial Drive, the ‘Edison Electric Gallery of Moving Images’ (1995-1997). He later followed-up that cinema with ‘The Blinding Light!! Cinema’ in Gastown which existed as North America’s only full-time underground cinema, operating 6 nights a week for five years from 1998 to 2003.

 

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