From cinema onward: A history of Sanderson Centre

– Jillian Courtney, Features Editor

The Sanderson Centre has always been a pivotal part of the Brantford downtown core. It’s the hotspot for live entertainment in town, and has hosted many different types of live shows. The theatre has seen everything from comedy shows to rock concerts to dance competitions, and everything in between. The one thing that the Sanderson Centre doesn’t do is film, at least not anymore.

While film is not a major selling point for the theatre now, when it was first built in 1919 that’s exactly what it was used for. When the theatre first opened in 1919, it was one of four theaters in Brantford at the time. At that time it was used for Vaudeville and silent movies, and was one of the hubs for entertainment in the community at that time, and remains that to this day.

Glenn Brown, the manager of the Sanderson Centre, has been involved with the theatre since the city took it over in 1986. “There was a very rich live performance history in Brantford,” he explains.

The most popular form of entertainment at that time was vaudeville, a type of variety show that runs for a week putting on three or more shows a day. Opening week at the Sanderson Centre consisted of mainly variety shows, music and silent film, and continued to run that way until the 1930s when vaudeville began to fall apart. After that, the theater decided to shift over to only showing films.

After some time, Famous Players the very popular movie theatre chain took over the theatre and used it much like the movie theaters you see today. While they only had one screen, it was still used for other kinds of entertainment besides movies. The Brantford Symphony, which was started up sometime in the 1940s, still performed on that stage four times a year. The screen would be rolled out of the way to make room for the musicians, and they would perform on the stage in front of it.

In 1986, Famous Players decided to move over into Market Square in order to expand and move over to a three-screen movie theatre, so the Sanderson Centre went up for sale. A campaign began to save the theatre and restore it back to the way it was back in 1919. After fundraising and council meetings, the city decided that it was time that the theatre was restored back to its original glory and began the restoration project.
“[The city] realized that it was a huge cultural treasure for the downtown, and it really was historic theatre,” says Brown.

The way the theatre looks now is almost identical to the way it looked when it first opened just under a century ago. Being hired on just after the city decided to undertake the theater project, Brown saw what the theatre looked like after being owned by Famous Players. “I helped tear down the screen from when it was a movie theatre,” laughs Brown.
The building itself didn’t need that much work, explains Brown. In fact, most of the theatre was in pretty good condition. A lot of the renovation was getting the color scheme back on track, and covering up the paint job Famous Players did on the place.

“You’d be surprised at how much of it was just painting,” says Brown.

Besides having to paint over the bold primary colors from when it was a movie theatre, the mural on the ceiling in the auditorium area had to be repainted. What is seen there now is almost identical to what would have been there when the theatre first opened. There are a few differences since a different artist painted it, but for the most part it is the same. The carpet, wall colors and stage however, are identical to how it looked when the theatre first opened.
Some of the theatre had to be modernized for fairly obvious reasons. The lighting wasn’t up to standard, so some of the stage needed to be reconstructed in order to accommodate the upgrades. Also, when the theatre was first constructed there were 1,600 seats and next to no legroom. When it was reconstructed they removed 500 seats in order to make sitting more comfortable for the audience.

Another major area of renovation was the lobby, which resembles what it would have looked like in the early 1900s, but with a few modernized changes. Today the lobby is lined with posters for upcoming events, but back when it first opened everything was done by hand.

“They used to have beautifully painted displays about upcoming shows in the lobby area back then,” Brown explains.

On top of being an important part of Brantford’s entertainment history, it helps contribute to the local economy. About 35 per cent of the audience brought in by the Sanderson Centre is from outside of Brant County. Brown hopes that this is helping other local vendors by bringing in some out of town business.

While it is important to bring in some revenue for the city, the Sanderson Centre does a lot for the community as well. It offers a chance for local groups to perform and utilize a top notch performance space to host their shows, fundraisers and other events right in their own community.

Almost a century later, the Sanderson Centre offers a unique theatre going experience. The building has undergone many changes since its days as a vaudeville and silent movie house, and is a deeply cherished part of the Brantford community. It helps keep the history of entertainment in Brant alive and thriving.

“I think seeing a show in that kind of environment, that is a beautiful place but also a warm and welcoming place, is very rare. I think it’s a great opportunity for people to really immerse themselves in an evening of entertainment,” says Brown.

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