Love, Enchantment and Mystery at The Capitol Theatre

Front of the House: The Magnificent Capitol Theatre 1948

Opened in 1920 as Loew’s Windsor Theatre, the Capitol Theatre in downtown Windsor has had many ups and downs. Just out of bankruptcy on Jan. 31st, it is now owned and operated by the city of Windsor until a partner is found to take over operations. Why the city wouldn’t keep on the very capable team of David Asher and Gayle Allen, who had been running the theatre for years, is a mystery. Get this: their love for the Capitol is so intense they actually donate their time to assist the people the city put in their place.

Peter Pan and his Lost Boys build a house for their injured mother Wendy: Capitol Theatre 5/13/11 (photo e.weeks)

Thanks to the hard work of the moms, dads, grand parents, kids and other tireless volunteers from various local theatre groups, the show still goes on.

Currently, the Riverfront Theatre Co., a non-profit youth troupe, is performing Peter Pan – The Musical. I attended opening night and found it enchanting. The 50 kids, aged 5 – 18, were all wonderful though I have to admit I was especially partial to Wendy (played by my daughter Rosalie). There are three more public shows next weekend: click info if you’d like to go.

Here’s a different kind of love story involving the Capitol courtesy of a reader who worked there when the theatre was packing them in for the latest movie craze: talking pictures!

Love at the Talkies

by Al Langford, Windsor

If you were 19 years old and looking for a job during the Depression years, you were very lucky if you found one. If you found your sweetheart at the same time, you were twice blessed.

In September of 1931 (two years into the Great Depression, which lasted until 1939) the Capitol Theater in downtown Windsor on University at Pelissier advertised for a staff of ushers, cashiers, cleaning staff, etc. It had recently been taken over and refurbished by the Famous Players Company.

I was one of the many who gathered on Pelissier Street for interviews. When I say “many” I mean there was a mob scene estimated to be over 150 people (there is an excellent write-up of the gala re-opening in the Border Cities Star, Sept.18, 1931.)

Connie Spencer was the new manager. His wife (I forget her name) was a “looker.” She supervised us guys and designed our spiffy uniforms.

The angels or the tooth fairy must have been looking after me, because I got a job as an usher. I can’t recall what it paid, this many years later, but I know it was under 50¢ an hour (when I worked at Chrysler’s in about 1934, we were paid 65¢ an hour.) As far as I can remember some of the other lucky ones were Jim Hayward, Stewart Love, Art Ducharme and Jack Marcon. Stewart was the ticket taker (he wore a special hat).

We wore short jackets, which had sleeves large enough to conceal the ever-present flashlight. The well-starched dickies had a bad habit of popping out of the jacket at embarrassing times.

That year, all of us posed for a picture to urge people to mail their Christmas parcels early. I remember Archie McPherson as the backstage honcho.

Newly met: May and Al in 1931

The Capitol was a very busy place that fall and winter; we had a full house almost every weekend. There was seating for almost 2,000 people. The movies were quite good too. We ushers heard them so often we could recite the heroes’ lines word for word.

Now for the love angle! The new cashier was May Pfahler, who was formerly the cashier at the Tivoli Theater in Walkerville where she looked like an animated doll in the ticket booth! Her boss had been J.J. “Dapper Joe” Lefaive. Joe always had a fresh flower in the lapel of his jacket.

I had my eyes on her the moment I saw her and man, did I have competition. The assistant manager John Heggie was smitten by her and so was Al Dunwoodie (one of the cleaning staff). I also remember an old geezer who used to come to the Capitol quite often and stand at the wicket to make small talk and moves on my sweetie. I had my work cut out for me because I wasn’t any better looking than they were.

One word best described May: “HUGGABLE.” She was petite, five feet nothing, maybe 105 pounds. Lots of fun, but could be deep and profound. One of her prized possessions was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; she could recite many of its passages. She read “Gone With The Wind” at least four times.

Al and May while he was serving in the air force during WWII: 1943

We had a wonderful life together. Ups and downs? You bet! She and the kids (two girls and a boy) travelled with me all over the training stations in Ontario and Quebec while I was in the R.C.A.F.Our romance blossomed and we dated for quite a while (it was tough trying to get married on an usher’s wages). Finally, on July 6th, 1935 she said yes and we got married.

It was rather odd that May and I hadn’t met while we went to school. May lived on Hall Avenue and I lived on Moy Avenue, the next street over. She had to walk a long way south to John Campbell while I had to walk east to King Edward. She was a top student at the Windsor Business College (so she knew how to keep my spending habits to a minimum). As I said, we have three wonderful children, 12 grand ones, and 13 great grand ones.

With regret, I have to add a very sad note to this story. My beloved passed away in December 2002, leaving a monstrous void in my life. I’d like to recite to her the last two lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

“For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings, that then I scorn to change my place with Kings.”

Al’s story is from our Feb. 2004 edition of The Times Magazine. For more photos and info on history of The Capitol Theatre go here and go here to read more about Windsor in its heyday. We are almost sold out of our book, “Best of The Times”, which is based on our local history publications, The Walkerville Times and The Times Magazine. Click here to learn how you can get one – before it’s history!

About Elaine Weeks

How history was taught in my day: memorize lots of boring dates and facts, watch corny old black & white history films. There was one bright spot, however. Grade 9 history at Walkerville Collegiate with Miss Falls (Georgina) when she taught a section on local history and took us on a field trip to explore some of Windsor's built heritage. Due to a series of peculiar events, celebrating local history became part of my business. My company, Walkerville Publishing Inc., (partner is Chris Edwards) launched "The Walkerville Times" in 1999 and we produced 61 issues - the last in 2016. In 2004, we began producing local history books; that year we released "Best of The Times Magazine". Our current titles include 5000 Ways You Know You're From Detroit, 500 Ways You Know You're From Windsor, Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire, and Windsor Then - A Pictorial Essay of Windsor's Glorious Past. I also wrote a novel, Time Trespasser, that blends time travel with local history. I am working on a sequel. I am a writer, editor, blogger, photographer, mother, wife, sister, activist, traveller, gardener, knitter, glass is nearly full person.
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2 Responses to Love, Enchantment and Mystery at The Capitol Theatre

  1. barney says:

    Dear Elaine….. Thank you for this goldmine of Windsor history…
    One thing I would like to mention about streetcars…..
    General Motors….who make all of the diesel engines for all of the buses in N. America, came up with a plan to drive up the company stock….. They decided to buy up all of the street railway companies in Canada and the U.S.A…….. and gently close them down….phase them out, as they say….. It certainly worked for them…..get rid of these cheap, non-polluting, pleasant conveyances, and replace them with profit producing ,….( for the stockholders), massive oil consuming….( for the stockholders), stinking diesel buses. It only took 7 years to complete the plan.
    GM was convicted in 1972 of conspiracy to monopolize a public asset….the fine was $13 million dollars….big deal parking meter change for the biggest corp. on the planet……and it could not possibly undo the damage done. My only way of protest is to remind my friends and family of these facts before they go shopping for a car….GM means….”built for the dealers and the stockholders….they will need attention very soon…guaranteed , you could never even dream of fixing it yourself.
    Your Father will always be one of my heroes ! ….A Champion of common sense…..

    And about the folks who took over his biz on Park St…. Sweethearts !
    Peace and Love, Barney Gloster

    • selainew says:

      Thanks for the info Barney. I found this link which provides more background:
      The commonly believed “official” explanation about what happened to the street cars and tracks here in Windsor is that there was a shortage of steel during WWII. Some of us have long believed they were lost so the auto industry would benefit from replacing the system with buses since Windsor is and was an auto town. I can see how the city fathers of yore would have been tempted to follow through with the phasing out of street cars (esp. since GM was one of the Big 3 here until recently) and, given the propensity of our local leaders to regard anything older than forty or fifty years as antiquated and in dire need of replacing it with something “new”, there was likely little resistance. Any fiscally responsible city councillor at that time would have been far outnumbered (and they apparently still are).
      Thanks for the kind words about my father. He too was one of my heroes.
      Harry and his wife are wonderful people.
      All the best, Elaine

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