The first moving pictures in Wingham were shown in the opera house in the late 1890s. Flickering images of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the Spanish American War in 1899 brought the magic of movies to enthralled area audiences. As the new medium’s popularity grew, Wingham eagerly anticipated its own movie house.
Sometime in 1908, William Britton, a local undertaker, opened the Wonderland picture house just north of the town hall on Josephine Street in the former Massey-Harris dealership building. It was known as the Wonderland until George Corbett bought the theatre in March 1909 and changed its name to the more classically named Lyceum. For 10 cents admission, Corbett’s Lyceum theatre not only showcased “first class films” but live musical concerts. But like most early small town movie houses, they were stuffy, cramped and, without proper carbon lighting, the movie images were difficult to see.
In August 1912, Lachlan Kennedy purchased the Lyceum theatre from Corbett. The Wingham Advance reported that the Lyceum was now “under good management” and that “the pictures will be of an interesting and instructive nature.” Lyceum manager Kennedy promised that “nothing objectionable will be allowed, and cheap, trashy stuff will be eliminated, so that parents need not be afraid to come and bring their children.”
Indeed, the opening film was footage of the Titanic disaster.
Yet, it was not instructional films that drew audiences to the theatre. Local newspapers reported “packed” houses for Charlie Chaplin comedies or the latest movie from Toronto-born Mary Pickford, dubbed “America’s Sweetheart”, who dominated the Lyceum’s screen in the silent movie era.
In November 1914, the Lyceum was enlarged and re-decorated. A new “electric player piano” was installed and, best of all, the Advance noted it was no longer “necessary to sit at the back of the hall” as the new projector did not flicker. With new oscillating electric fans, ventilation in the Lyceum was “now perfect.”
Not everyone in Wingham approved of a picture house in their community. For some, movies and the theatre represented modern decadence.
A First World War Canadian Army medical pamphlet warned soldiers that sitting for long periods of time in a dark, damp theatre could cause venereal disease.
And in 1924, Dr. J Middleton of the Provincial Board of Health told the Brussels Post that “the moving film is injurious to the eyesight of the young, and the time spent sitting in a stuffy, ill-ventilated picture house” could be better used by outdoor exercise.
Fearing Hollywood Babylon in Wingham, in 1915, the town council proposed levying a crippling $100 license on the Lyceum. Kennedy deftly argued to council that since he had purchased the Lyceum, he had paid the town $1,200 for electricity; and he had paid a business tax and had “employed four people and occupied a good store.”
Reeve Mitchell conceded that “the picture house was a very good place for young people,” at least, “better than in pool rooms or hotels.”
Council relented somewhat and assessed only a $60 license fee.
Kennedy sold the Lyceum to Hyde Parker of Stratford in 1923. Parker, in turn, sold it in 1925 to Capt. William Adams, formerly the skipper of the famed Great Lakes passenger ship Greyhound.
Under Capt. Adams’ management, the Lyceum entered the age of “talking pictures.”
In June 1930, the old Lyceum was demolished. In its place, the current rough red brick structure was built. According to the Advance-Times, Capt. Adams had installed a new glass bead screen and state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment. With smoking allowed in movie theatres, it was particularly noted that the Lyceum’s fireproofing and ventilation system exceeded provincial standards.
When the 300-seat new movie theatre opened on Aug. 18, 1930, the mayor welcomed the standing room only crowd to watch the technicolour musical Sally, Wingham’s first talking picture.
The Advance Times lauded Capt. Adams for the “service” rendered to the public in erecting such a fine theatre. Further, the newspaper declared that “the opening is an event of more than passing interest as it marks the entrance of Wingham into the growing list of towns with talking pictures.” A local movie house represented a milestone in the town’s development.
When Captain Adams handed over the management of the Lyceum to his son, Alton, in 1942, movie theatres were at their peak of popularity. It was Hollywood’s Golden Age as people turned to the movies to escape the cares of the Great Depression and Second World War. The Lyceum featured such epic films as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. A typical Friday night showing at the Lyceum included cartoons, a Foxtone News reel and the feature movie. Saturday matinees entertained children with the latest adventure serials.
Until the advent of television in the early 1950’s, movie attendance at the Lyceum remained strong. As television gained in popularity, box office receipts across North America plummeted. In 1954, a new wide CinemaScope screen installed at the Lyceum attempted to lure people back into the theatre. In January 1963, the Lucknow Sentinel reported that “a lack of patronage” had forced the Lyceum to open on Saturday and Sunday evenings only. In October 1963, W. T. ‘Doc’ Cruickshank, owner of CKNX-TV and radio, purchased the Lyceum.
Operating only a couple of nights a week and lacking a snack bar, the Lyceum continued to operate into the 1970s.
In 1981, Ward Robertson, a CKNX-TV cameraman, and his wife, Patti, purchased the Lyceum from John Schedler. The Robertsons had worked at the Lyceum for Schedler for seven years when they purchased the theatre.
Ward Robertson recalls upgrading the Lyceum to include a snack bar while his wife, Patti, an interior decorator, rejuvenated the theatre’s decor and “kept it looking good.”
The Lyceum’s capacity was reduced to 177 seats in order to make the theatre more comfortable.
The changes brought the theatre into the modern era. Blockbuster films like Jaws and Star Wars kept the Lyceum going. However, obtaining films could be an interesting challenge. Robertson remembers travelling near and far to pick up featured films from other theatres. On one occasion, in 1982, Robertson rode a motorcycle to Hawkesbury near Ottawa to pick up the movie E.T.
Undoubtedly, the VHS home entertainment revolution of the 1980s hurt small-town theatres like the Lyceum but Robertson said it was not the only factor. He believes that local youth, who were the mainstay of the Lyceum’s patronage, became more mobile: they could drive to Goderich or Hanover to see a first-run movie before it played at the Lyceum.
Despite the challenges to small town theatres, the Lyceum outlasted most movie houses. Its longevity can be partly explained by Robertson’s concept of creating a memorable movie experience for local theatre-goers.
In April 1993, Dale Edgar purchased the Lyceum and continued to operate it as a movie theatre for the next 12 Years.
When it closed in 2005, the Lyceum Theatre was Huron County’s longest continuous running movie house. The building still stands but the excitement of a night at the Lyceum now belongs to a nostalgic memory.