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Once a furniture store then a dance hall, this century-old theatre in St. John's returns to its roots

The Majestic Theatre was built in 1919 as the first talking movie theatre in St. John’s. It has a distinctive flatiron construction style and was built by boat builders. Hallett credits that type of construction for the building's long life. (Credit Terra Bruce Productions) The Majestic Theatre was built in 1919 as the first talking movie theatre in St. John’s. It has a distinctive flatiron construction style and was built by boat builders. Hallett credits that type of construction for the building's long life. (Credit Terra Bruce Productions)
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It’s been a furniture store, an appliance warehouse, a dance hall — even an all-you-can-drink nightclub.

But now the Majestic Theatre in downtown St. John’s is back to its original purpose: an arts venue that hopes to be a cultural hub in the city.

“This was the centre of the entertainment industry in Newfoundland for a very long time,” said Bob Hallett, the ex-Great Big Sea singer who is now part of the group that’s leading the theatre’s revival.

It was the first talking movie theatre in the city, said Hallett.

“In its day it held over 600 people, it had ads on the front pages of every newspaper saying ‘come see the pictures, come to see vaudeville, come to see speakers’,” he said.

As the city expanded, the venue lost its prominence, and Hallett said his group — Terra Bruce Productions — is returning it to its rightful state.

“This place fell on hard times, and it went through some very strange iterations,” he said.

Now, it has a theatre that holds about 320 people, and a newly renovated downstairs café that’s open to the general public.

“This is a transformative experience,” he said. “You’re not sitting in the lobby of a stinky bar with a guy standing there smoking. This is a much more interesting space.”

Bob Hallett was a voice of Great Big Sea when the band was still active. He said he brought his many touring experiences into consideration when helping renovate the Majestic Theatre. (CTV News)

The building held its first productions in the fall, and will see eight more shows throughout the holiday season. Hallett said the group’s goal is to have it operate nearly every night by the time next summer comes.

The Majestic Theatre — and Terra Bruce Productions — is financially backed by Canadian millionaire Walter Schroeder. Hallett said a lot of money went into the renovations, but the group's goal is to have the theatre be self-sustaining going forward.

At around 300 seats, the theatre fills a niche in St. John’s, according to Kelly-Ann Evans, who is a musical director with Terra Bruce Productions.

There’s only one other venue around that size, she said, and the next ones are about 1,000 seats.

“We’ve really had the need for it, and now we finally have one,” she said.

Because it already has lights, sound technicians and dressing rooms, Evans said it’s an easy theatre for small acts and artists to rent and use.

The building is most famous as being the birthplace of Newfoundland’s biggest political riot — one credited with hastening its downfall as an independent dominion.

Hundreds marched from the Majestic Theatre in downtown St. John’s towards Newfoundland’s legislature on April 5, 1932. The protest turned violent, police clashed with protesters, and then-Newfoundland prime minister Richard Squires resigned amidst the chaos. (Courtesy: The Rooms Provincial Archive)

In 1932, frustrated by allegations of corruption by then-prime minister Richard Squires, hundreds gathered at the Majestic Theatre for a planned march up the hill towards the Colonial Building.

Newspaper reports at the time called it a “mass of moiling humanity.” They made their way towards the Colonial Building, which was the legislature at the time, with the goal of delivering a petition to politicians.

But after getting no immediate answer, some protesters began attempting to break into the legislative chambers. When some were struck by police, the anger grew worse, and the crowd began to break windows and throw stones into the building.

The prime minister resigned mid-riot, and when he tried to leave the legislature for the day, he was recognized by the crowd and was forced into a nearby house — eventually escaping through the back door.

The election that followed was the last in the Dominion of Newfoundland.  In December of 1933, the House of Assembly voted itself out of existence to accept a financial and political bailout by British officials.

“I don’t know if that was a high point or a low point,” said Hallett of the theatre’s role in the riot.

“Certainly amongst our many plans for this building, insurrection is not high on the list.”

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