EMAIL mj.morris@live.ca


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cecil Smith described as 'Master Showman' by George Tremblay takes over the Regent Theatre in Chapleau in 1940

Reeve B.W. Zufelt, C.W. Collins, C.A.. Smith, pres Board of Trade

When Cecil Smith, and his wife Ruth, first arrived in Chapleau on CPR passenger train Number 3, the Dominion,  "Len the taxi man" picked them up at the station, loaded their luggage, then the taxi "dashed up and around the steep horseshoe bridge that spanned the railway yards" then through the downtown to the YMCA, their first home in the community.

The taxi man was Len Perfetto and Mr. and Mrs. Smith had come to Chapleau on a cold  day in November 1940, to negotiate the purchase of the Regent Theatre. Len's Taxi stand was located in a small building right beside the theatre.

In his wonderful book about the early days of the movies 'Break at Nine' George Tremblay tells the story of Mr. Smith and the theatre, referring to him as 'Master Showman'. Mr. Tremblay worked as the projectionist at the Chapleau theatre.

Mr. Tremblay describes the train ride from Sudbury, where Mr. Smith had been working as a projectionist. "Hour after hour the train weaved its way through the granite rock cuts, countless freezing lakes and the unbounded forests of the Canadian shield. Finally, just after noon it steamed into Chapleau and lurched to a stop in front of the station complex where a team of railway service people rushed forward to carry out their servicing work."

Rotarians F. Leigh, A. Bucciarelli, J. McClellan,  D.O. Payette, C. Smith
Mr. Tremblay also provides an interesting insight into Chapleau as it was in 1940.

After disembarking from the train and making their way through a crowd of people boarding the train, the Smith's spotted the taxi cab and upon spotting them, Len "dashed over to help them carry the heavy luggage."

It may come as a surprise to some, but in 1940 Chapleau had "limited amenities to offer casual travellers" and they had been advised to book a room at 'the Y'. 

Regent Theatre. Photo by Gamma Centre
"The YMCA was a large and well maintained wooden building located in the heart of the community (on Lorne Street near where the LCBO is now). It had a good restaurant, clean comfortable rooms and even had reading room for its guests. It even had a bowling alley in the basement..."

At this point, Mr. Tremblay writes, their plans were flexible. If they could negotiate  successfully with the theatre owner, they would stay in Chapleau: if not they would return to Sudbury where Mr. Smith had  been working as a projectionist. Originally from Medicine Hat, Alberta, Mr. Smith had come east to work for his uncle Charles Mavety, a pioneer in the Canadian movie industry, in 1929.

That night, Mr. Smith worked as projectionist at the theatre, and after the show he and his wife compared notes, agreeing that business would keep on improving, and in the next few days "the finer points of the deal" had been worked out and the theatre license was transferred to Cecil Smith on November 13, 1940.

Having now taken over the theatre, the next challenge facing the Smith's was finding a place to live as apartments were in short supply. 

Cecil Smith, A.J. Grout, Reeve Bubs Zufelt at sewage plant start
Mr. Tremblay explains: "That was not an easy matter as apartments were in short supply because of the growing number of new railroaders in the town. Being war time (World War II had started in September 1939) the railroad was becoming busier by the day and the railroad company had to bring in more men to fill the need and many of them had families thus creating a housing shortage."

Arthur Simpson, the owner of the Chapleau Post came to the rescue. He had space above his shop on Young Street but there was only one problem: it was only semi-furnished. "It had a complete bathroom and something resembling a kitchen but nothing else. There were no other partitions and the resulting space looked like a giant meeting hall."

Nonetheless, the Smith's took it and over time built partitions and lived there until they built their own home on Cherry Street some years later.

Turning his attention to the theatre, Mr. Smith knew that a big benefit movie for the hospital would be an effective way to introduce himself to the community. A movie was selected and Mr. Tremblay noted that that the promotion was effective and the theatre filled to capacity with the entire effort creating a great deal of goodwill. It was a fitting start for the venture.

Over the years Mr. Smith made improvements at the theatre but his efforts to convert the Regent to show Cinemascope movies was made almost impossible because of structural limitations. Also the theatre did not meet new standards so Mr. Smith decided to build a new modern theatre, purchased property adjacent to the Regent at Birch and Lorne Streets and built the "Fox' Theatre in 1955. He also expanded by purchasing the theatres in Thessalon and Espanola.

The old Regent is where the Royal Bank of Canada branch is located. 

On the corner Mr. Smith was responsible for the construction of the building that houses the Chapleau News Depot to this day, and behind it was the first Simpsons order office in Chapleau. 

After getting his theatre business operating successfully, Mr. Smith became active in Chapleau affairs, serving as president of the Chapleau Board of Trade when the sewage system was installed about 1950 when B.W. Zufelt was reeve. He also was a member of the Chapleau Rotary Club and the Masonic Lodge. Mr. and Mrs. Smith were active in St. John's Anglican Church and also played golf.

In the mid 1970s they decided to retire and sold their business interests. Mrs. Smith died in 1980, and her husband in 1987.

Mr. Tremblay summed up the 'Master Showman': "Not only was he a superb showman, he was also a kind and generous man and he has been missed by all who had the privilege of knowing him."

Let me share a personal anecdote about Mr. Smith. After my grandfather Harry Morris died in 1957, Mr. Smith greatly assisted my grandmother Lil (Mulligan) Morris with business affairs that had always been my grandfather's responsibility. Often, when I visited her, she would say that Mr. Smith had been over, or was coming the next day. Indeed, Cecil Smith was a "kind and generous man" and one of Chapleau's most successful entrepreneurs.

I have just shared a glimpse of the Cecil and Ruth story and their theatre in Chapleau as told by George Tremblay in 'Break at Nine', and have not even touched Mr. Tremblay's story of the movie industry. A great read!!  My email is mj.morris@live.ca

Graduate of CHS goes from playing hockey to curling

UPDATE: DOUG HONG IS THE CURLER. Name this Chapleau High School graduate who was a pretty good hockey player as a youth, and has become a very good curler. (John Theriault photo)

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


click on image


Following the American Dream from Chapleau. CLICK ON IMAGE