SWANTON — Nearly 40 people packed the Swanton Public Library Sunday to remember a local theater with the capacity to seat 10 times that.
The Champlain Theatre showed its last movie decades ago, sometime in the 1960s. The advent of television and local competition like the St. Albans Drive-In drove the theater out of business.
Swanton historians Jason Barney and Ron Kilburn, of the Swanton Historical Society, told the theater’s story Sunday afternoon.
They began with a clip from the Douglas Fairbanks motion picture His Majesty the American, a silent film beginning with an extravagantly staged fire rescue, Fairbanks swinging from balcony to balcony, saving a woman and her child, and then her cat.
The intertitle — which took the place of dialogue in silent pictures — reads, “Nine lives saved on that last trip!”
The Champlain Theatre played that movie 100 years ago.
“Where any of you there for the premiere, 100 years ago?” Kilburn asked the audience.
No one was. Which is why Barney and Kilburn scoured the Swanton Historical Society’s archives to trace the theater’s development, rifling through old issues of the Swanton Courier and scanning downtown photographs for hints of the theater’s location.
Because it wasn’t always in that building on the corner of Canada Street, the structure adjacent to the Prouty Building until that building’s demolition in 2018.
But that is, it seems, where Swanton’s history of motion pictures began. Major Edgar Bullard built the structure in 1877 after a fire demolished its predecessor. He called it Bullard’s Hall.
Bullard’s Hall regularly hosted the local school graduations. Barney found an advert for a June 15, 1893 graduation there, almost precisely 100 years before his graduation from Missisquoi Valley Union on June 13, 1993.
Bullard’s Hall also hosted live shows, like a performance from Jos Billings, advertised as the “greatest living button-bursting, side-splitting, corset-disarranging, laugh-producing humorist.” Only Billings didn’t show, causing a riot among his show’s would-be attendees, according to The History of Swanton, by Rodney R. Ledoux.
More successful Bullard’s Hall shows included Rebecca’s Triumph, a play performed “for the benefit of the Woman’s Relief Corps” in 1890, and a mock court trial in 1893.
“I had a few of those,” Kilburn — a retired judge — quipped.
Bullard’s Hall introduced Swanton to motion pictures in March 1900, showing Thomas Edison’s “moving pictures,” pictures “highly endorsed by the Messenger.”
Later, Bullard’s Hall showed the collision of two 60-ton locomotives, crashing into each other at 60 mph at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., footage captured by traveling film exhibitor Edwin J. Hadley.
A 1909 map of Swanton Village shows a Merchants Row building labeled “moving pictures.”
Then Homer Lemieux opened a moving picture theater on the Allen block in 1910. He called it “Pastime.”
Lemieux came from Lynn, Mass., according to the Courier, “where he has been running a similar place.”
But the Rosenburg Theatre and Amusement Company opened a competing theater on Jan. 23, 1911, in Bullard’s Hall — the “Dreamland Theatre,” showing different pictures each day at a cost of 10 cents.
C. H. Prouty managed the Dreamland.
“The class of pictures that are presented are of a nature that please, and are first class, clean and steady,” the Courier said. “Get the Dreamland habit. Why? Ask Prouty.”
Scanning the historical society’s photos, Kilburn and Barney discovered a 1913 photograph showing a group of men driving First Street with the “Pastime” sign on a building behind them, apparently on the corner of Grand Avenue.
Barney and Kilburn determined the Pastime was either where Sunday’s audience sat or several feet to their right.
A fire gutted the Pastime on March 26, 1917. The owner planned to rebuild it as a “modern fireproof theatre,” seating up to 400 people, according to the Courier.
Instead, Bullard’s Hall became a modern motion picture theater — the Champlain Theatre, opening Sept. 1, 1917.
Hulda from Holland, starring Mary Pickford, and The Butcher Boy, written and directed by and starring Fatty Arbuckle, were the Champlain’s opening showings.
A Swanton Courier editorial declared, “Swanton is Looking Up.”
Kilburn said the theater “really was the key part of our downtown at that particular location on Canada Street.”
Talking pictures didn’t come to Swanton until 1930, according to Ledoux’s History of Swanton. The pictures’ sound was on vinyl records, which had to be synchronized with the picture — often to what Ledoux called “disastrous” results.
Here is where firsthand memory provided more local color, captured by Ledoux.
“Old man O’Brien” was the Champlain’s custodian, ticket taker and usher for years.
Mahlon Gilbert and son ran the popcorn concession, highlighting popcorn balls called “Crispets.”
Bill Lucier was the theater’s projectionist until 1953, when he retired to focus on radio and television set sales.
Joe and Paul Langevin took over the theater when Lucier left.
Ron and Jerry Reynolds were projectionists under the Langevins. The Reynolds brothers were teenagers at the time.
Jerry remembered the risqué pictures decorating the projection booth, in an email Bruce Spaulding read aloud.
Joe called Jerry in a panic one day on learning a local priest was coming to talk to talk to the Reynolds boys about trying out for the basketball team.
Joe told the brothers to cover those photographs, quick.
When the priest arrived, he found the projection booth covered in the theater’s programs.
He lifted one. He said two words when he saw the photograph underneath.
Jerry remembered the Langevins dropping a fake lobster on an audience member during a movie featuring a lobster-like creature, sending the unfortunate moviegoer into a panic.
And he remembered the Langevins coming on stage in makeup to introduce a ghoulish showing, and sending a dozen kids running for the exits.
Ron was on hand Sunday to share his own memories.
The projectionist, Ron said, was “the heart of the whole theater.”
It wasn’t too complicated a job. Two 35-millimeter projectors alternated running 20-minute film reels, delivered each week by Greyhound Bus. The projectionist had to make sure those projectors alternated without disturbing the movie’s rhythm.
Ron said the projectionist could fall asleep, or read a book, but they could not miss the reel-switching signal.
And then, suddenly, in the 1960s, the theater closed.
“Nobody wanted to go to the movies any more,” Ron said. “It was much easier to sit in the chair at home,” watching television.
Several of Sunday’s attendees shared their own memories of the theater. How serials, which showed an episode each week, inspired good behavior. Otherwise kids couldn’t get the allowance necessary to see the story develop the next Friday night.
They remembered the Hopalong Cassidy westerns, whom audience members picked as their favorite western hero — seemingly mainly because he wore a black hat, while other cowboys wore white.
Ed Daniel remembered a rumor that Gene Autry was in town, stopping off on his way to Montreal for a show.
Daniel and his fellow kids found a horse trail advertising “Champion the Wonder Horse” at a local boarding house, inspiring chants of “We want Gene.”
The kids’ chant drew a man in a cowboy hat, who told the kids to go to the Champlain Theatre, that Autry would show up there that night.
The kids discovered, of course, that the theater was just showing a Gene Autry picture.
“That night, every seat in that theater was filled,” Daniel remembered, “but Gene Autry never showed.”
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