What do Sarah Bernhardt, Fred Astaire, Ethel Barrymore, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Arthur Rubinstein, Nellie McClung, and Calgary have in common? The Grand Theatre.
Built and opened in 1912, the same year as Calgary’s first Stampede, the theatre, then known as the Sherman Grand Theatre, initially hosted vaudeville acts and touring performances — including the above names.
The Grand quickly evolved into the most renowned and prestigious theatre in the Pacific Northwest — which includes much bigger cities like Vancouver and Seattle — as the sought-after venue topped the list for theatre, speeches, and political rallies.
The original building was a progressive mix of what we now call mixed-use. Designed by L. R. Wardrop, the theatre was located in the Lougheed block owned by Sir James Lougheed and his business partner.
The space hosted retail stores, offices, and living quarters in addition to the 1,300 seat, two-floor theatre.
Digging into the rich history of The Grand
With 810 main floor seats and 540 in the gallery, 15 dressing rooms furnished with hot and cold running water, electric lighting, and a theatre equipped with a futuristic automatic sprinkler, The Grand was a cutting-edge performance and presentation space that competed easily with other much more celebrated theatres in Toronto and as far east as New York.
The Grand’s fortunes shifted substantially with the opening of the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. Located out of the downtown core and offering a much larger audience space, the Jube took audiences and bookings from The Grand, which operated for the next 50 years as a movie house.
In 1969, Odeon took over management of the theatre and performance spaces in the Barron building around the same time. Odeon renovated the space to create two movie theatres each with 625 seats.
Only 20 years later, the theatres were modernized to create up-and-down theatre, which is a theatre space with one above another. The space was rebranded as The Showcase Grand. Odeon did not renew its lease in 1999 and the theatres closed in November that year.
Efforts to save an iconic space
A year earlier, the Calgary Herald ran an article stating The Grand was slated for demolition. This promoted The Alberta Historical Preservation and rebuilding society to form the Save the Grand Lougheed committee.
A university student, Cara Fast, and a nurse, Alison Roberson collected 4,000 signatures to petition the Alberta Government to protect the building. Despite significant mechanical, architectural, electrical, and structural issues, the Forseth Report concluded the Lougheed building and The Grand were worthy of preservation.
However, when the building officially closed in November 1999, the then minister of community development declined to apply for a historical designation.
The following year in November 2000, the city’s planning commission green-lit demolition to make way for an office tower. Hoping to stall the demolition, the building’s owners leased the building to the Players Grand Golf Centre.
Then, in 2003, Neil Richardson bought the building intending to restore and rehabilitate it and the theatres. Recognizing an opportunity in Calgary’s burgeoning commercial real estate, Richardson also bought the Lorraine building on 12th Avenue.
The Lorraine building was fire-damaged, structurally unsound, and infested with pigeons, but Richardson knew with restoration, he would return it to its former glory. He applied this same determination to the Toronto Dominion Bank building on Stephen Avenue and then to The Grand Theatres.
Digging into its more recent history and its future
Between 2003 and 2021, The Grand had significant growing pains, disruptions, disputes, and a variety of owners. In 2004, city council recommended the theatre continue to provide performance space. That same year, the general manager Carol Armes and artistic director Mark Lawes of the resident theatre company Theatre Junction made a spectacular play.
Armes and Lawes purchased the theatre thanks to a large donation from Calgary philanthropist, Jackie Flanagan, and $11 million acquired through significant fundraising.
The theatre was renamed Theatre Junction Grand and renamed again in 2018 to The Calgary GRAND Theatre Society, following an acrimonious split from Theatre Junction. The theatre was sold again in 2021 to Allied Properties, with The Grand Theatre Society remaining a tenant.
Despite its many trials over these 110 years, The Grand continues as a premier live theatre and culture house space, and features a variety of events from art shows to theatre and more.
Josh Traptow of Heritage Calgary says the building has been undergoing significant renovation and restoration since it was acquired by Allied REIT.
“The Lougheed Building is designated (as a historical site) both municipally and provincially,” he says, noting that designation gives The Grand a very sound future.
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