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‘Reign of the Empress’ chronicles first 100 years

peter scott views book cover

Author Peter Scott looks at the cover of his new book, "Reign of he Empress," which he wrote for the theatre's centennial.

Peter Scott was sold on the unique treasure that is the Empress Theatre long before he was commissioned to write a book on its history for the building’s centennial.
The Lethbridge writer experienced the special thrill that accompanies a visit to the 100-year-old building many times as a fan taking in a performance.
“When you walk into the Empress there is a feeling of specialness,” Scott said. “It creates an excitement right from the minute you’re in the line outside.”
Scott has captured that special excitement in “Reign of the Empress,” the book he was commissioned by the Empress Theatre Society to write for the centennial year.
Scott will read from the 88-page book he spent 1 1/2 years researching and writing at the centennial gala on Friday, June 29.
The author strove to make his words bring the theatre to life on the written page, just as the Empress comes to life when there is a performance.
“It’s an experience in itself, not just the show you’re going to see,” Scott said of the theatre known as “The Jewel of Main Street.”
Doors open at 6:45 p.m. Friday for the gala, which begins at 7 p.m. with a ceremony that includes Scott reading from the book and a live auction of a leather-bound copy donated by Warwick Printing
Fort Macleod singer-songwriter John Wort Hannam will perform a song he wrote about the Empress Theatre.
Following the ceremony a play commissioned for the centennial, “The Stage That Made Us,” premieres at 8 p.m.
The play about the Empress Theatre was written by University of Lethbridge professor Ron Chambers.
Centennial celebrations continue on Saturday, June 30 with the premiere of “Boys Own Jedi Handbook” at 3:30 p.m.
The play is followed by a free street party from 4-6:30 p.m. featuring vendors, music, the spoken word, children’s activities and a barbecue. A birthday cake will be cut at 6 p.m.
At 7 p.m. Saturday the second performance of “The Stage That Made Us” will be presented.
Peter Scott said it is clear right from the start that the Empress Theatre was going to be special, beginning with the original owner, T.B. Martin, the architect Williams and the contractor, James Lambert.
“These guys all had interesting stories to tell,” Scott said, pointing out Lambert was a Mountie, a Klondyke gold prospector and fought in the Boer War long before he became a contractor in Macleod.
Scott tapped numerous sources to research “Reign of the Empress,” including a university thesis written in 1990 by Marselee Jobs Thompson, who had performed at the theatre with Great West Theatre.
Scott also got input from Fort Macleod residents such as Darryl Fraser, Louise Heric and Sharon Monical, as well as former Main Street Program co-ordinator Jim Mountain.
“The people who did come forward were wonderful,” Scott said.
The Empress Theatre Society gave Scott plenty of freedom to write a book that was more than just a dry recitation of the facts.
“They wanted it to be a history book, obviously, but when it came to the actual writing process they were very free rein about it. As long as I told the story of the theatre I could tell it any way I wanted to.”
Scott said it took some time to figure out how he would write a book that brought the theatre to life.
“The fact that it was a theatre certainly helped out. If it had been a drug store or a bank I’m not sure I would have taken it on. But because it was the Empress Theatre I thought there’s got to be a way to make this come alive for people.”
Scott found that themes emerged in almost every decade on the theatre’s existence, beginning with the early 1900s when Fort Macleod was a going concern determined to be the next Winnipeg.
“My goodness, what a little gem of a community,” said Scott, who was far from an expert on the history of Fort Macleod before he started the book. “The Empress was one of those gems.”
The building stands out from other old theatres for its longevity, quality of the acts, and the fact it is so community-oriented.
The history stretches from Vaudeville and silent movies to “talkies.” There have been all kinds of community events, including weddings, dance and music recitals and even wrestling matches.
“Each era it went through, it had a role to play,” Scott said by way of explaining the theatre’s longevity.
For example, in the 1930s the Empress Theatre served as an escape for people from the gloom of the Depression. In the 1940s the theatre became a hub for airmen training in Fort Macleod.
From its refurbishment in the 1980s when the Fort Macleod Main Street Program was going strong, to the theatre’s purchase by the Town of Fort Macleod, to its present-day spot as a cultural hub, the Empress Theatre has been a huge part of Fort Macleod.
The author of the centennial book has some advice for the Empress Theatre Society.
“They should start looking around now for someone to write the 200th anniversary book,” Scott said. “I have no doubt the theatre will be there for another 100 years. It’s still a place of community pride and live performance, and I don’t think that’s going to go out of fashion.”

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