After starting my job this July as a summer student at the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin, I decided to research the history of Williams Lake’s movie theatres.
My connection to the theatre from working there since 2016 and my interest in local history made this an especially interesting project, and I had a lot of fun working on it. The information in this article is sourced from Williams Lake Tribune articles, other museum archives, and interviews with community members.
In 1921, Arthur Hiller built a car service garage on the corner of Oliver Street and Second Avenue. In 1924 he increased the power of his private light plant to convert the garage into a movie theatre, naming it the Oliver Theatre.
It had a level floor, a player piano at the back, and close to 100 wooden kitchen chairs for seating (enough for about a third of Williams Lake’s population at the time).
The player piano provided the only sound that accompanied the movies. While the film reels were changed, Tissie Sutton would entertain guests on the piano. Art owned the first radio receiving set in town, and would charge 25 cents for people to come and listen.
In 1922, William Sydney Western moved to Williams Lake and became manager of the T.A. Moore General Store.
In 1926, he married Cordelia “Dilly” Moore, and that same year bought the Oliver Theatre because he “just thought it was a good idea.”
Syd had wanted to run a movie theatre for some time, but he had no previous experience in the business. After just two nights of help from Art, he had learned how to run the projectors and started off on his own. Back then, the theatre was used for many functions including amateur plays, the annual Married Men’s ball and Bachelors’ ball, Sunday school, and the Halloween Masquerade. Whist drives (card game tournaments) were hosted there every two weeks by the Social Circle to raise money for the War Memorial Hospital.
The first public meeting on Williams Lake’s incorporation was held there in 1929.
Syd modernized the theatre in 1931 by adding a new front, a 20-foot extension at the back for a stage, and an “all-talkie movie machine” which marked the end of the silent film era. The theatre remained virtually unchanged for the next 20 years, with Syd as manager and projectionist and Dilly as cashier and bookkeeper.
The Westerns lived in a small house next to the theatre with a well-kept front garden and a weeping willow in the backyard. In 1951 Sid built a new theatre on the other side of the house. It was “being called the new Oliver Theatre for want of a better name.” Described by Syd in a 1951 Tribune interview, the new theatre’s lobby had wine-coloured chairs, rich green carpeting, rose coloured walls, and natural woodwork.
The auditorium had a turquoise, silk curtain, 320 wine-coloured upholstered seats, and a “crying room” at the back for the “howling youngsters.” Doug Mallette was the projectionist. Syd didn’t decide on a name for his new theatre until 1956, when he settled on the Alston Theatre.
While Syd was vague in interviews when talking about the origin of the name, often referring to it as someone who was “close to the family,” I believe it was chosen after Syd and Dilly’s youngest son Alston Western who died in 1936. In 1958, the Alston theatre was sold to Ken Thibaudeau.
The old Oliver theatre was bought from Syd by Joe Borkowski in 1966 and torn down to build the new Borkowski block. This building would first house Cunningham’s Drugstore, and is currently home to the Realm of Toys and BFF Fashions. Syd and Dilly moved to Kamloops in 1975, and a few years later moved to Vancouver where Sid died on Dec. 30, 1991 at the age of 94. In his obituary, former Tribune owner Irene Stangoe described Syd as “a slim, neat man, always well-dressed and unfailingly cheerful and courteous.”
Syd was an avid golfer, a member of the Masonic Order, and “an excellent amateur photographer” who donated his photo collection to the museum in 1983.
Kenneth Winston Thibaudeau was born in Alberta and met his wife Daisy while working for the Bank of Montreal in Trail. Ken transferred to the bank’s main branch in Vancouver, but since the company didn’t allow employees to marry until they earned a high enough salary, Ken quit his job and he and Daisy moved to Quesnel in 1939 to get married. Ken bought the Alston in 1958 and moved to Williams Lake in 1959.
Ken and Daisy’s daughters worked at the theatre. Ken owned the Alston for 15 years, during which he was involved with the Masonic Lodge, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Rotary Club. In fact, he became the very first Charter President of the Williams Lake Rotary Club in 1964. In 1973, he sold the Alston to Ron Barkwell and Lyle Moorman. Ken was incredibly involved in Rotary and in the community up until his death in December of 1984.
Ron Barkwell grew up in Northern Saskatchewan and moved to Williams Lake in 1970 when he was recruited by Lyle Moorman to play for the Williams Lake Stampeders. He got a job at Williams Lake Motors, and in 1973 he and Lyle bought the Alston together.
They gave the Alston a new lobby, concession, seats, sound system, and screen. Ron recalled how Lyle preferred to stay behind the scenes, telling me “I don’t even know if he ever went to a show.”
Ron’s fondest memories of the Alston were of his amazing staff, which included Britta Titford, Doug Mallette, Dave Hothi, Clayton and Karen Myers, and Ron’s wife Marilyn.
The team was “like a family,” a sentiment echoed by Dave and Jas Hothi. In 1977, Ron and Lyle sold the Alston to Dave, Dave’s parents, Clayton, and Karen. Dave was just 26 years old. Ron and Marilyn went on to own several different businesses, including the Jack of Clubs in Wells, the Langley Hotel, and the Squires Four Pub in Vernon. He and Marilyn are now retired, but they keep busy running a small hobby farm in Vernon. Lyle was involved in business in Williams Lake until his retirement and now lives in Armstrong.
THE HISTORY OF PARADISE CINEMAS
Since 1984, the Paradise Cinemas has been under the sole ownership of Dave and Jas Hothi. Dave spent many childhood weekends at the Alston’s matinee showings. At the age of 13 he began showing Punjabi films to the public in the Glendale auditorium with the support of principal Hazel Huckvale.
The money raised went towards English language courses for Punjabi-speaking residents of Williams Lake. This was just the beginning of a lifelong career in the movie business. After graduating from Columneetza, Dave went to UBC to obtain a degree in real estate and urban development, while also showing Punjabi films in Vancouver.
After a while, his parents asked him to move back home because they were worried that he had, in his words, “gone astray.” He moved back to Williams Lake in 1974 and began working at the Alston Theatre for Ron Barkwell and was trained by Doug Mallette to run the projectors.
After running the Alston for three years, the Hothis and the Myers began building a new movie theatre on Third Avenue South. The Paradise Twin Theatres opened its doors on June 25, 1981. The project cost over $1 million dollars, and with 28 per cent interest on payments paired with the release of VHS in the late 70s, Dave says the theatre was hit with a “double whammy.” For the first eight years, the theatre made almost no profit.
Dave’s mother did the janitor work, and Dave and Jas both worked second jobs to provide for their three young children. They even opened a restaurant in the lobby and began serving alcohol at the concession. Dave recalled spending every evening at the theatre just to keep it open, with his children often sleeping in the box office while their parents both worked late into the night.
In the early 1980s, they opened the first video store in Williams Lake, Plus Video.
Once the new theatre was financially stable, Dave sold the Alston in 1996 to two brothers with plans for a billiard hall, Tier’s Classic Billiards. The building has changed hands many times since, and is now called The Limelight. Two years later, Dave and Jas began developing an expansion of the Paradise Twin Theatres. The new Paradise Cinemas was more modern, and with four screens a greater variety of movies could be shown.
The expansion allowed for the theatre to accommodate for the growing population, also deterring any corporate theatre chains from coming to town. The theatre has had many upgrades since then, including replacing the seats, screens, and sound system, as well as going entirely digital in 2010, the first independent theatre in Canada to do so.
Ever since the Oliver Theatre was built almost a century ago, the movie theatre has been an integral part of our town’s entertainment scene. It has provided Williams Lake with entertainment for several generations, and each owner has brought something new and valuable to the business and to the community.
Some of my favourite memories have been made at the theatre: lining up early with friends and family to see Star Wars, working the hectic opening night of Avengers Endgame, going up onto the roof to look out at the plumes of wildfire smoke, and hearing countless stories from Dave and Gord about how things were “back then.”
I always love hearing old stories about our town, and I’d like to thank everyone who helped me by sharing theirs: Ron Barkwell, David Gosman, Dave Hothi, Shuster Johnston, Gord Moon, Lyle Moorman, Janet Prosser, and Sheila Wyse. I would like to give a special thank you to the late Irene Stangoe, whose column “Looking Back” gave me a great deal of help and inspiration.