By Sue Bryant
For nearly 50 years, the Cloverdale Opera House and Athletic Hall was the heart and soul of Cloverdale.
Built in 1904, the Opera House was a grand building situated near the intersection of King and Melrose Street (which today would be the southwest corner of 57 Avenue and 176A Street).
Local businessmen Henry Parr, Abe Currie and Charlie Hamre initiated the project in the hopes of providing a place for the community to meet for dances and other entertainment that might expect a larger attendance than the nearby churches could hold.
The name is slightly misleading, as no operas were actually performed. It was called the Opera House as the term “opera” invoked the impression of a high-society, big-city venue.
From the start, it was a busy place. Everything from political meetings, including speeches from the suffragette movement, to community dances with music played by local fiddlers, vaudeville shows and silent movies starring the film stars of the day such as Charlie Chaplin and Norma Talmadge were held within its walls. There were lantern slide shows showcasing far away lands and lectures from residents sharing their travels. Each weekend welcomed some sort of event that brought the community together with attendance in the hundreds.
By the mid 1920s, it was becoming clear the Opera House wasn’t large enough to hold the amount of people that were attending its events. In 1926, the Surrey Amateur Athletic Association gained approval for a sister building, the Athletic Hall, to be built beside the Opera House.
Built in 1927, the Athletic Hall was constructed with a balcony around the floor, which meant attendees could stand looking down at the crowd while the space was utilized to its fullest.
As Cloverdale began to grow, so did the size and variety of the events held at the Opera House and Athletic Hall.
Community shows such as Miss Marie Lavoie’s “Cute Kiddies Review” were always highly attended events, with her young dancers performing a range of dances.
Musical performers from Vancouver, such as Percy Baird and the New Senators, Dick Gardener and the Criterions, and the Melody Makers played to crowds dancing the fox-trot, the Charleston, and various waltzes. Admission for the dances was 50 cents and attendance was nearing 800 people each weekend.
In January 1939, the excitement in the town was at a fever pitch. The Harlem Globetrotters, the famous basketball team, were making their debut appearance in the Athletic Hall. They were advertised as the “Famous Coloured Basketball Wizards from New York” in the Surrey Leader and promised to amaze spectators with gameplay that was nothing short of miraculous. The game was so well attended that it turned into an annual event for many years.
Years later, a very different game of basketball would draw the community’s attention.
In 1948, Captain Jack Bartlett and his team of trained donkeys arrived from South Carolina to perform their rendition of donkey basketball.
Bartlett was a famous U.S. radio and motion picture star who had trained his donkeys to respond only to his voice using Spanish commands. His show had travelled throughout the U.S. and overseas, entertaining the troops. The two-hour event consisted of two parts – the first half was circus-themed stunts including musical chairs, and the last half was a modified basketball / polo game called La Bola.
Another community favourite started up after the Second World War, when local dentist Dr. Joe Rife teamed up with newspaperman Neville Curtis to present a two-hour variety show called the Jaycee Follies. The “Jaycees” were the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and were always eager to join in any venture that promoted the town. A 50-voice choir of local talent was assembled and several skits were written and performed. The show sold out almost immediately and was reviewed in the newspaper as a “swell job,” so it became a yearly event.
End of an era
In the early morning hours of March 15, 1952, tragedy struck. Around 4:45 am, Mrs. W.B. Nielsen rose to start the fires in her home for the day and saw a glow coming from the hall across the street. She sounded the alarm but within minutes the flames had already broken through the roof and walls.
Firemen poured water on the buildings, but the flames had the upper hand. Assistance from other fire departments was quickly called in, including a fire truck that arrived hastily from Blaine. Sadly, by that point, the main focus was saving the town itself, as the Opera House and Athletic Hall were a total loss.
The heat from the blaze was so strong, it blew out the windows of the nearby Bank of Montreal and even the stores on the main street. Several buildings were visibly smoking, and the Fire Chief had no option but to order all available trucks in town to be rounded up to begin moving the stock and records out of the stores and offices to save everything possible. It was truly believed the whole town would be lost that night.
Subsequent investigations showed that the chimney in the Opera House had begin to rot and subsequent fires to heat the hall had resulted in charring behind the chimney. Eventually, the build up had become so severe it burst into flames. It was ruled an accident and insurance covered the losses.
At the time of its demise, the venue was in use six nights a week and was rarely without some activity. Half a century of events at Cloverdale’s first entertainment centre had come to an abrupt and dramatic end, but the memories of those who remember it keep it alive to this day.