It was 1914 when local man, Bert Soper, opened the Rideau Theatre on Chambers Street, at the corner of Beckwith, in Smiths Falls. Stanley McNeill was the first manager. He was a local lad, son of Harry McNeill and Alice Butler, and he ran the theatre like a well-oiled machine.
Photo: Steven Maddock of Hyfund Studio
In the 1930s, the theater was renamed ‘The Capitol’, and people drove for miles around to come and see ‘Gone With the Wind’, ‘King Kong’, and “The Wizard of Oz”.
A new theater was built in 1949, at 15 Main Street in Smiths Falls. The new Soper Theatre boasted 964 seats, making it the largest movie theater in Eastern Ontario.
The Soper was managed by Walter Lackenbauer, a man who took his job very seriously. It was said that Walter was so punctual that you could set your watch when you saw him walking across the bridge, on his way to work each day.
When Walter Lackenbauer retired in 1976, Art White became the Manager of the Soper, and worked in that capacity until 1992, and then Jan Stepniak took over the position.
Walter Lackenbauer and his wife Bernadette ‘Bernie’
Another familiar face at the Soper Theatre was Violet Gariepy, a native of Scotland, she worked at the candy counter along with Norma Willoughby, and Jessie Loucks.
This is the clock that hung on the wall in the concession counter at the Soper. *
Some of the early films shown at the Soper, were ‘tame’ compared to the movies produced today. Films like ‘Snow White’, and ‘Old Yellar’ were suitable for the whole family.
One of the most popular movies in the 1950s was “The One That Got Away”, – the story of a German prisoner of war, Franz von Werra, who escaped from a moving train, as it passed through the town of Smiths Falls.
By the time I was old enough to attend a movie, the Soper Theatre was the only place in the area where we could go to see the newest Hollywood films. The Soper was just around the corner from the Sweet Shop – talk about a great location!
The Ushers who worked at the Soper Theatre might have been the original ‘multi-taskers’, who had a variety of jobs. These were the ‘boys’ who helped young children to their seats at the Saturday matinees, who shone their flashlights on young lovers in the back row, and did their best to keep the smoking and drinking from getting out of hand.
The same ushers had to walk back to the green seats, and remind smokers that their policy was cigarettes only, no cigars. They also had to police the drinkers, the kids who liked to sneak in mickey bottles in their jackets and have a few drinks on a Friday night.
The mickey, invented in Perth, by John McLaren, was just the right size to sneak into the movies!
Some of the ushers who worked at The Soper, over the years: Gordon Evoy, Scott Irvine, Ralph Scott, Grant Dopson, Rob Knapp, Donnie Lackey, Ricky Laming, Tommy Martin, Bert Stranberg, Joe Gallipeau, John Marks, Brian McDougall, and Hugh Finlayson.
The big blockbuster movies in those days were some that we’ll never forget. According to many of the former staff members at the Soper, these movies were among the ones that brought in the biggest crowds in Smiths Falls:
James Bond: Goldfinger
No one wanted to swim the year that this one came out
On the opening day of Jurassic Park, staff members, like Tammy DeSalvo, dressed up as dinosaurs, much to the delight of local children!
Sometimes we forget that it’s the people we don’t see at the theater, the ones who work behind the scenes, who play some of the most important roles. Rae Murphy was Projectionist at the Soper Theatre when the building was brand new, in 1949. The back-up Projectionist was Widge Williams, son of Bill Williams, owner of the Port Elmsley Drive-In Theatre.
Everyone’s favourite place at the Soper Theatre was the candy counter, and along with Violet Gariepy, you could find Gail Preece, along with brother and sister team – Christine and Stephen Harper, and twins David Morris and Stephanie Morris. David later became a police officer for the Town of Smiths Falls.
Many of us will never forget our very first movie, and for those of us who grew up in the area, the Soper Theatre was our first experience in a real movie theater.
The very first staff-member we encountered might have been Phyllis Evoy, at the ticket booth, or Violet Gariepy at the candy counter. We may have noticed a very serious man, Walter Lackenbauer, the Manager, walking around the lobby, making sure that everything was running smoothly. Maybe we’d catch a glimpse of Rea Murphy, on his way to the projection booth, or one of the helpful Ushers escorting a child, or an elderly person, safely to their seat.
Although most of us have been to more modern, slick, new theaters since our nights at the Soper Theatre, those special, magical nights of our youth will remain forever in our hearts.
Photo: of Soper Theatre – Steven Maddock of Hyfund Studio