Builder of original Toby Theatre passes away, but legacy still lives on in downtown Invermere



CLASSICS The Toby Theatre in Invermere has operated for almost 60 years and is still an amazing experience. Photo by Samantha Stokell

Before Charles Morley Hogan and his sister Eileen Billie Morgan built the Toby Theatre in 1952, residents of the Columbia Valley traveled to Golden or Cranbrook to watch the moving pictures.

Sadly, while the theatre still stands as a monument to a bygone era, Morley Hogan passed away peacefully at the Nanaimo Regional Hospital on Vancouver Island on January 25th, 2011 at the age of 90.

In the pre-television days of the early 50s, Morley and his brother-in-law Clint Morgan decided Invermere deserved its own movie theatre and set about designing and building one based on the Yoho Theatre in Golden.

Unfortunately, Clint died in a drowning accident before their dream could become realized; but his wife (Morleys sister Billie) decided to follow through with their dream and in 1952 the Toby opened its doors for the first time. Billie and Morley named it after the Toby Creek and because they thought the name looked good in neon lights.

After the first year Morley operated the projector and every second night a new movie was shown, with two shows every night and a 10 to 15 minute intermission. Movies started with cartoons, news reels and previews.

Saturdays had matinees at 1 p.m., where children could sit anywhere in the theatre. Usually children had to sit in the first two front rows of the theatre during the evening films.

Prices for admission in those days were 60 cents for adults, 35 for students and 25 for children. Popcorn was just 10 cents and no drinks were allowed.

Heat for the theatre came from a Kirks automatic coal stoker; the coal was brought into Athalmer by rail then hauled by truck to the theatre.

In Morleys days, the employees were his sister, Irene Hemmelgarn (his future wife, who still lives in Parksville, B.C.), Annie Reid, Marge Reid and Maxine Merrilies.

In 1966, Morley sold the theatre to Steve and Kay Kapowski of Radium, who owned the Radium Drive-In Theatre. They built an addition to the theatre in 1970 and sold it to current owners Ron and Elizabeth Peters in 1971.

The Peters have spent the past 40 years putting everything and then some into the upkeep and running of this small-town, independent movie theatre. They live in an apartment over the theatre and raised two daughters there, with bedrooms built beneath the auditorium stage. Theres even a brick toy chest in the main lobby, which still has PlayMobil toys inside.

Today, the theatre defies description. While the outside is white-washed with the lower-third layered in brick by Ron and Elizabeth for easier maintenance, the inside is a fantasy for cinephiles or connoisseurs of retro-design.

The lobby walls are decorated with posters, promotional items and VHS cassettes from when the Peters expanded the business to include rentals.

Steer horns and glass pistols purchased at the Calgary Stampede decorate the walls to make the Albertan visitors feel more at home. Brown shag carpet stars accent the acoustic tile lobby ceiling and Elizabeth and Ron repaired some water damage from years past with a mirror and chandelier.

That chandelier in the lobby however, pales in comparison to the one hanging above the entrance to the theatre auditorium. The chandelier would make any dining room jealous of its grandeur and was the couples first major purchase for their new business venture. Once inside the theatre, the retro continues. Wood-backed chairs with red carpet and vinyl seats from when the Peters purchased the theatre await movie-goers and love-seats are available, too, for couples on a date night.

A model airplane collection donated by Earl Hanson of Invermere flies over the heads of people waiting for the film to start and the stars make a re-appearance in the auditorium.

In the fall of 2000, Ron and Elizabeth spent three months repainting the walls and ceiling of the theatre auditorium, using adjustable scaffolding they built themselves to accommodate the slanted floor.

In the current state of big-box, carbon-copy theatres, the Toby stands out not only as a relic, but an experience.

In the last 10 to 12 years theres been a real appreciation for the Toby, Elizabeth said. Its like stepping back in time and people find it comforting. They love the atmosphere and that even after 40 years its still recognizable.

A special surprise for first-time visitors is the intermission halfway through the films. Due to the lack of a film platter system, Ron has to reload the second reel on to the projector. The snack bar opens up again so everyone can re-stock on popcorn and candy and the intermission is as long as the line up.

The Peters purchased the theatre six months into their marriage and from time to time have had to hold down part-time and full-time jobs to keep the theatre open.

They now feel they run it as a service to the community and try to keep films as PG as possible.

We choose not to have 18A and dont put up posters that arent in good taste, Elizabeth said. We want to have a family-oriented theatre in the valley, but dont know how long well keep up. At 59 and 63 years of age, it gets harder every year.

Without the busy months of July and August when the movies run six days a week, the theatre would not be able to cover its annual operating costs. In the off season its open Wednesday to Saturday, one show only, and doesnt turn over a big profit.

Theres not a lot of small-town theatres left and we wouldnt be here if it wasnt for the tourists and second-home owners, Elizabeth said. A lot of the locals go to Cranbrook for the movie options that the five-plex offers.

Elizabeth believes she and Ron will be the last owners of the Toby Theatre. Its unlikely that someone could purchase it and continue to run it as a theatre, she concluded. Its located in a prime, downtown location in Invermere and current property values in addition to changes in projection technology make it highly improbable that it will remain a theatre.

With ailing health affecting both the Peters, they know their time at the Toby will soon come to an end. When the doors close on the Toby for the last time, whenever that may be, it really will be the end of an era.

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