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Macleod gears up to mark first 100 years of Empress

Fort Macleod’s cultural hub is gearing up for a year-long centennial celebration.
The Empress Theatre’s 100th anniversary celebration kicks off June 29, with 100 days of programming planned.
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like here 100 years ago,” Empress Theatre Society president Debbie Sutley said. “There would have been workmen sawing, hammering, putting mortar on bricks.”
Sutley said the idea of a centennial anniversary likely never crossed the minds of the men who built the theatre.
“They wouldn’t even have imagined it lasting 100 years,” Sutley said. “But we’re going to celebrate it.”
Built in 1912, the Empress Theatre lays claim to being the oldest continually operating theatre in Alberta.
From Vaudeville shows to silent movies, to “talkies” and concerts featuring the world’s top performers, the Empress Theatre has always been an entertainment hub.
Now a designated Alberta historic resource, the theatre was under private ownership until the Town of Fort Macleod took over, now leasing the building for $1 a year to the non-profit Empress Theatre Society.
“We are very proud of everyone who kept the theatre going,” Sutley said.
The Empress Theatre Society held a news conference last week in the Green Room to introduce plans for the centennial celebration.
“We love our Empress, and all the benefits it brings to Fort Macleod,” Sutley said.
The centennial celebration will kick off June 29 — 100 years to the day that the first public event was held at the Empress Theatre.
The play commissioned for the centennial, “The Stage That Made Us,” will make its debut. The play was written by University of Lethbridge professor Ron Chambers.
The Empress Theatre Society is publishing the book “The Reign of the Empress” by Peter Scott to mark the centennial.
“We are excited to have our history come to life,” Empress Theatre executive director Brent Hutchinson said of the book.
Fort Macleod Mayor Shawn Patience noted the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump interpretive centre makes its 25th anniversary this year, and the Musical Ride at the Fort Museum turns 40.
“In a community of firsts, it’s certainly going to be a year to celebrate,” Patience said.
Patience reflected on the Town of Fort Macleod’s ownership of the theatre since the 1980s.
“It’s been a very innovative and creative partnership,” Patience said, referring to the involvement of the municipality, volunteers and corporate sponsors in keeping the theatre going. “We take great pride in the facility and what it does for the community, what it does for southern Alberta.”
Patience noted the municipality gives the Empress Theatre Society an operating grant and recently gave $75,000 toward a new heating system.
Although the building is owned by the Town of Fort Macleod, there is no doubt about to whom the building belongs.
“It really belongs to the people of the community,” Patience said. “It belongs to the people who come and use the facility and enjoy it. It really belongs to all of southern Alberta.”
That is reflected in the support the theatre receives from the MD of Willow Creek council, as well as people from the rural area and City of Lethbridge who volunteer or buy tickets to events.
“It doesn’t just operate — it excels,” Patience said of the Empress Theatre. “We really are very lucky having this facility. The history that goes along with it is really part of the fiber of Fort Macleod. It’s part of what makes this community just that much more special.”
Patience praised the ongoing work of the Empress Theatre Society and its volunteer board members.
“The first 100 years were great, but the next 100 years are going to be even better,” Patience said.
MD of Willow Creek Reeve Henry Van Hierden said his council is pleased to support the Empress.
Van Hierden recalled his first visit to the Empress when he was a student in Grade 5 or 6 at G.R. Davis school, to see the movie “Tarzan.”
“Growing up in a home without a TV, this was not only my first time at the Empress, but my first movie,” Van Hierden said with a laugh. “It scared the living you know what out of me.”
Mary Oordt of Lethbridge, who is in charge of marketing and promotions for the centennial celebration, said she is typical of city residents who patronize the Empress.
“I really always value the wonderful drive out that then ends with a great show,” Oordt said.
Oordt said the Empress has been home to a variety of events, including film and music festivals, concert series, youth recitals, public meetings and movies.
“There is an ambience in this theatre that is really unique,” Oordt said. “We notice it as a member of the audience and we are told by people who actually are on stage that they find it an exceptional place to play.”

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