The future of one of Edmonton’s oldest cinemas is uncertain as the Princess Theatre announced on Wednesday it’s temporarily closing its doors.
The Princess Theatre, which originally opened on Whyte Avenue in 1915, is up for lease as the COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on the film industry. Even after reopening earlier this year, low ticket sales forced the theatre to shut down, said TJ Brar, whose family has owned the theatre since 1997.
Earlier this fall, the Brar family made a similar decision to put the historic Plaza Theatre in Calgary up for lease as well.
“It’s heart-wrenching. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching to see two iconic buildings in the theatre industry and Alberta’s history having to close because of such a nasty virus,” said TJ Brar, who was interviewed on Radio Active on Thursday.
“It truly makes my heart sink, but there’s not much we can do.”
The Princess Theatre, a two-screen arthouse cinema, has a main theatre with a 400-person capacity and a basement theatre with a100-person capacity, under normal conditions.
Brar said his family had been planning to put the Princess up for lease in two to three years, but the plan was accelerated by COVID-19.
The Princess was doing decent business prior to the pandemic, Brar said, but things came to a standstill when COVID-19 hit in March, necessitating the theatre to close. It reopened later at a smaller capacity with measures for physical distancing, but business was still slow before hitting a standstill again.
“People were just still kind of scared of going out to a movie theatre,” Brar said.
But Brar said the Princess Theatre faced financial problems even before the pandemic, as an independent theatre competing against streaming platforms and bigger companies like Cineplex.
The Princess Theatre has long stood out on Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue, memorable for its projecting marquee, marble facade and classic architecture hearkening back to cinemas of the early 1900s. The Princess originally cost $75,000 to build when it was financed by early Edmonton entrepreneur, John W. McKernan.
At the time, it was devoted to showing movies, vaudeville and musical concerts. According to Alberta’s Register of Historic Places, it was one of the most complete and beautiful buildings of its kind in western Canada.
This isn’t the first time the Princess has closed. In 1958, it shut its doors and remained vacant for years before being used for other businesses like a TV and photo studio, pool hall and pawnshop.
It reopened as a cinema on Christmas Day 1971, renamed the Klondike Theatre after being bought by Towne Cinema, who restored the interior and bought a new marquee. It’s changed hands several times in the ensuing decades, eventually getting its original name back. It was briefly a pornographic film theatre and spent nearly 20 years as a repertory theatre playing classic, older films, before it was finally bought by the Brar family in 1997.
The Princess Theatre’s impact on Edmonton’s arts community isn’t just in film. The Edmonton International Fringe Festival, now the largest event of its kind in North America, got its start in the small independent Chinook Theatre that operated out of the basement of the Princess in the early 1980s.
Brar said his family hopes to find someone to take over The Princess who will keep its original function and brand to preserve the cinema, and that anyone who wants to take over the lease with this purpose in mind will get priority. Brar added that the cinema isn’t dead yet, and hopes it will be able to come back after the pandemic.
“This is part of our heritage, this is part of Alberta’s history,” Brar said.
“It’s not dead, it’s just getting its beauty sleep for now.”