By Irena Karshenbaum
In October of 2011, then Calgary-Centre MP, Lee Richardson, announced at the Grand Theatre that Calgary would be named the Cultural Capital of Canada for 2012 by Canadian Heritage, a federal government department that promotes the preservation of Canadian culture and heritage. The designation came with a $1.6 million federal grant, matched by $2 million from the City, and the responsibility to, “showcase Calgary’s culture and create legacy projects to encourage future cultural achievements.”
So it came as an unpleasant surprise when only a couple of weeks later the Uptown Theatre, operated by Newel Post Developments, was forced to shut down because the landlord, Strategic Group, refused to provide heat and other essential services to the theatre.
Of course you don’t have to be a Torah scholar to understand it’s a little difficult to hold cultural events in a city that has a shrinking inventory of cultural venues.
The municipal government pays lip service to protecting cultural venues in the Centre City Plan (published in 2007 and available on the City of Calgary website), “The Centre City will provide the physical and creative environment to allow for the growth and development of culture in all its varied forms.”
In actual fact the City does almost nothing.
Scroll down to page 36 of the Plan, “Recognize the opportunities for Entertainment Districts, where appropriate, and that such Districts may relocate over time. Such examples include Stampede Park, Eau Claire Market area, and the Globe/Uptown Theatre area along 8 Avenue SW.”
So, the City has given itself an out. Absolutely, they may relocate over time to Egyptian inspired, Lotus crowned, beetle crawling theatres where we can quench our thirsty souls with Marvel’s The Avengers 14 in 3D.
In Calgary, money and the immediate bottom line trump all other values.
Please don’t argue that Calgary is still a young city. In its first sixty years Calgary was infinitely more culturally mature than in its next sixty years.
Luckily, we’ve had a few brave souls who have given their lives to contribute something bigger than the immediate bottom line. One such maverick was J.B. Barron.
Born in Winnipeg in 1888 to immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia, J. B. Barron came to Calgary in 1912 with his younger brother, Abe, and mother, Elizabeth, after the brothers graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. They set up a law practice, Barron and Barron.
In 1913, Calgary fell into an economic slump that would last 35 years. But this didn’t stop the Barron Boys.
In 1914, they published the Canadian Western Jewish Times, which survived one issue, and were the founding members of B’Nai Brith Calgary Lodge. Abe was a founding member of the Petroleum Club. J.B. was a photographer and an inventor.
J.B. married the luminous Amelia Helman (1888-1959), but it’s the theatre that would eventually capture his heart.
In 1923, he gained control of the Palace Theatre and engaged Jascha Heifitz. At 23, Heifitz was already one of the greatest violinists of the day and demanded $2,250 or 80% of the gross profits for his performance, an astronomical amount in depressed Calgary.
The experience must have been invigorating, as just three months later J.B. brought one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists and composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff.
In 1928, J.B. lost control of the Palace Theatre and would have to wait until 1937 to be reunited with his great love. The opportunity came when the Lougheed family desperately needed cash. J.B. rescued the family by buying the Grand Theatre from them and was back at bringing high culture to Calgary.
Audiences lined up to hear African American contralto, Marion Anderson, sing in 1940. Pianist Artur Rubenstein came twice in 1942 and 1944 and African American spiritual singer, Paul Robeson, sang to thrilled audiences in 1946.
In 1947, Calgary’s fortunes, and with it its ethics, changed forever. Oil was discovered at Leduc. At first, people thought that since the oilfield was closer to Edmonton than to Calgary, the oil industry would settle in the provincial capital. Events were pointing to just such an outcome when on February 13, 1947, Imperial Oil executives invited the Mayor of Edmonton, not Calgary, to officially turn on the taps at Leduc well site #1.
J.B. noticed that oil company workers from Texas and Oklahoma were working in basements and attics as Calgary had a deficit of office space. He hired Calgary architect Jack Cawston (1911-66) and used the architect’s design, which was considered unusual at the time, to obtain two mortgages to build Calgary’s first major development since the boom of 1912.
J.B. convinced Great West Life Assurance Company to grant an $850,000 mortgage, the biggest mortgage loaned by the company to date. The 20 year mortgage had a 4.5% interest rate, an exorbitant rate, reflecting the project’s risky nature. J.B. needed a second mortgage of $250,000, which he obtained from J. Arthur Rank’s Odeon Theatres. The final cost of the building came to $1.25 million. The remaining $150,000 J.B. financed himself, not a small amount for a part-time lawyer, part-time theatre impresario who had never operated in a healthy economy in his life.
Breaking ground in 1949 at 610 – 8 Avenue SW, the Barron Building and Uptown Theatre would be what’s known as “mixed-use” today. It had retail at street level, ten floors of office space and offices and a penthouse on the 11th floor with a rooftop garden for J.B. and his dog, Butch.
J.B.’s huge risk paid a huge dividend to Calgary.
Housing Mobil Oil, Halliburton, Shell, Socony Vacuum Oil, Sun Oil, Trans Canada Pipelines and many others, the building anchored the oil and gas industry in Calgary, and not in Edmonton. It was also home to Smithbilt Hats and other businesses.
The building inspired the term “the oil patch” for all the office buildings that sprung up around it turning Calgary into the oil capital of Canada.
When Petro Fina and Elveden House were built in the vicinity a new architectural period was born, the Mid 20th Century Modern.
In 2003, the Alberta Association of Architects named the Barron Building as Significant Alberta Architecture.
In 2009, the City of Calgary added it to the Inventory of Evaluated Historic Resources list stating it is, “the finest example of Art Moderne architecture in the city and among the best examples of its type in Western Canada; it is also historically and symbolically significant for solidifying Calgary’s position in becoming the centre of the oil industry... its theatre, the Uptown, has been celebrated as one of the city’s foremost entertainment venues.... Jacob B. Barron, an important Calgary impresario, theatre manager, lawyer, businessman and leader in Calgary’s Jewish community is a person of city-wide significance.”
The City states the building’s architectural significance is, “Distinguished by its stepped massing and restrained detail is clad with buff-coloured brick, Tyndall limestone and polished black granite. A vertically emphasised central bay, ribbon windows, rooftop penthouse and theatre marquee serve to further characterize the building.” The “stepped massing” and “emphasised central bay” are the same architectural features as the Rockefeller Center and Chrysler Building in New York. The penthouse design was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Whether J.B. knew it but by building so far away from City Hall, the development had the added benefit of preserving the early 20th century buildings along 8th Avenue. Their eventual restoration would lead to the evolution of Stephen Avenue Walk, today recognized as a National Historic Site.
Lou Pomerance, 81, remembers going with his family, all dressed up, to the opening of the Uptown in 1951 to see Mudlark with Irene Dunn. “It was a beautiful theatre in its day. It was immaculate.” He also remembers the entire building was “a showcase.”
Dick Barron, 91, J.B.’s youngest son, remembers Picassos hung in the plush oil company offices of the Barron Building and fish swam in the pond of the Morris Lapidus inspired Miami Beach lobby of the Uptown. Dick remembers his mother brought Molly Picon, the legendary Yiddish actress who played Yente in Fiddler on the Roof, to the Uptown.
In its early days, the Uptown showed the biggest first release movies such as A Star is Born and Lawrence of Arabia. J.B.’s contracts with the movie studios are held at the Glenbow Museum Archives.
Lou recalls, “Over the years we’ve gone to a lot of movies there and they’ve had great movies there. I guess you’d call them independent movies. We enjoyed going there.”
I’ve also seen a lot of independent movies at the Uptown, attended WordFest literary events and sang along to the Fiddler on the Roof sing-along musical. On what would have been J.B.’s 120th birthday, my then boyfriend, J.B.’s youngest grandson, and I had a cocktail to remember him by at the cool Marquee Lounge in the Uptown. Attending a Silent Movie Monday event, I remember glancing over at 7 year old Elizabeth, one of J.B.’s great granddaughters, and seeing her drowning in her theatre chair but reading the title cards faster than I could.
J.B. passed away in 1965. In 1981, his sons, William (1915-1991) and Robert (1916-2008), sold the building, which had then been recently renovated. According to John Barron, J.B.’s oldest grandson, at the time of sale the building was “fully leased.”
The end of the Barron ownership era ushered in the era of the building’s, and eventually the theatre’s, steady and misguided decline.
Today, the Barron Building and Uptown Theatre is owned by Strategic Group, which lists its details on its website. Strategic states on this website, “[It] shares and appreciates J.B. Barron’s vision and creativity. In Mr. Barron’s tradition we have embarked on a redevelopment program that will see the Barron Building restored as a historically significant building... and aesthetically some the finest in the City.”
This remains to be seen as Strategic is saying one thing but is doing another.
In October of 2011 and April of 2012, Strategic filed two successive demolition applications with the City to remove the theatre marquee, a key feature of the building. The applications were denied, after a considerable public outcry. I have walked by the building many times and have found the side walk dirty, strewn with cigarette butts and the building in a neglected state.
In May of 2012, I wrote a submission to the Heritage Canada Foundation and on the morning of June 27th woke up to a CBC radio report the building was included on the Top Ten List of Endangered Places List for 2012.
On August 1, 2012, just as I was giving a noon hour talk for Historic Calgary Week on the importance of the Barron Building, emails were coming on my blackberry announcing that Newel Post had permanently ceased operation of the Uptown. The CEO of Strategic, Riaz Mamdani, was in the audience, a friend told me later. Mamdani came in late, sat at the back of the church and rushed away, without saying hello.
According to the Strategic website, it holds a real estate portfolio of $1 billion and bills itself as a “fully integrated property owner, manager and developer of real estate as well as an investment company.” A senior real estate professional, who asked not to be named, has observed that Strategic is the biggest private real estate investor in Calgary’s history, outside of a REIT or a pension fund.
On the morning of August 22, 2012, Newel Post announced a last minute “pick and pull.” A few dozen people trickled in to take Uptown souvenirs that included 1950s and 60s furniture, art house movie posters, toilettes and a dozen buckets filled with broken chunks of Terrazzo floors.
It was a sad scene at the once most dazzling and important of Calgary’s cultural venues. The 2012 Cultural Capital of Canada has yet to put its money where its venues are.
The curtain has closed, but a sequel is coming to the Uptown Theatre and Barron Building. Stay tuned.
Irena Karshenbaum is a writer and heritage advocate who led a project to gift a historic synagogue to Heritage Park. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in the September 21, 2012 issue of Calgary's Jewish Free Press and reposted on this site by the author.