Updated: Sep 11, 2021
Did you ever see a movie — or perform — at the Premiere Theatre in Fruitvale? If so, you’re part of an elite group, for it only operated from late 1956 until 1960. Incredibly, the building is still standing on Main Street, although you’d never guess.
The first indication the theatre was in the works was a story in the Vancouver Province of April 6, 1955 (seen here), which noted Fruitvale’s village commission had received plans for $90,000 worth of construction projects. “Largest project was for a theatre which will cost an estimated $70,000,” the paper reported, without elaborating. That’s the equivalent of over $680,000 today.
The two-storey building was made of concrete blocks and was one of several small to mid-size cinemas constructed in BC around the same time. Others were built in Kamloops, Kitimat, Penticton, Taylor, and Fort St. John.
The theatre held its grand opening on Dec. 10, 1956. Its first screening was The Benny Goodman Story.
Ad from the Trail Daily Times, Dec. 8, 1956
Ad from the Trail Daily Times, Dec. 11, 1956
A picture of the theatre interior appeared in the Trail Daily Times on Dec. 13, 1956.
And this story from Dec. 8 provided us with the names of the theatre’s proprietors, dimensions, and seating capacity.
Elmer Erickson was born in North Dakota in 1889 and moved to Star City, Sask. in 1921, where he taught school and later farmed. He and wife Rena had six children before her early death in 1938 at age 43. Two of those children, Milton and Virgil, also died tragically young — they were just 19 when they passed away in 1940 and 1943 respectively, although I don’t know the circumstances.
Erickson’s entry into the theatre business was a retirement project. I’m not sure exactly when he came to BC, but it was 1946 or later.
The Premiere (as it was called in ads, although news stories referred to it as the Premier) was built in partnership with Elmer’s electrician son Wesley and Mel E. Winfield, who was married to Elmer’s daughter Dorothy. Winfield had been involved in mining promotion in the area, including the Glanville claim at Paulson. After one year, he left the Premiere partnership and moved to Vancouver. More about him later.
The Premiere’s opening coincided almost exactly with the fire that destroyed Trail’s Strand Theatre in December 1956. That still left Trail with the Odeon (today known as the Royal) as well as the Auto-Vue Drive-In. But Beaver Valley residents no longer had to travel as far to see a show.
The Premiere advertised regularly in the Trail Daily Times. The ad seen here, dated May 13, 1957, noted: “For your added enjoyment [see] live local talent on stage.”
I wish we knew who the local talent was. In those days, a theatre group existed known as the Fruitvale Community Players. They were active from at least 1957 to 1961 and in the latter year hosted the West Kootenay Drama Festival. However, the venue was Fruitvale Junior High, not the Premiere.
The only other newspaper mentions of the Premiere I have found followed an October 1957 break-in, in which a thief stole $78 in change. A local youth was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two months in prison. Most of the money was recovered.
The last ad I can find for the theatre in the Trail Daily Times is March 4, 1960, for a screening of Gidget. The Premiere closed shortly thereafter. I don’t know why the theatre’s life was so brief. Its location gave it a competitive advantage, but perhaps the Beaver Valley, although growing rapidly, was just too small to support its own theatre.
Elmer Erickson left Fruitvale sometime after 1962, but his son Wes continued to live there. Elmer died in 1965, age 76, either in Burnaby or in his former home of Star City (his obituary is ambiguous). In addition to Wes, he was survived by three daughters.
The Premiere was at what is now 1932 Main. A few pictures of it survive from the time it was operating or shortly after it went out of business. The one seen below appeared in History of Beaver Valley and Pend d’Oreille District, a booklet published by the Fruitvale Women’s Institute in 1958.
We can see the theatre had a vertical marquee with its name on it, plus a two-sided projecting sign with the latest attractions. At the time, the theatre was playing No Down Payment, a 1957 film starring Joanne Woodward and Sheree North. I can’t read it all, although I can just barely make out the word “Cinemascope.”
In a later picture held by the Beaver Valley and Pend d’Oreille Historical Society and published in Tracks of the Beaver Valley and Pend Oreille, the marquee has been removed, but the sign board says: “Fruitvale Fall Fair Sept. 5.” Another historical society photo shows that sign also removed, but I can’t read the one that replaced it.
In the late 1960s, Ellis Anderson photographed Main Street, which revealed the former theatre was now home to a restaurant and the Fruitvale Rec Centre.
In a photo I took in August 2001, the building was Fruitvale Grocery and Seafood (also known as Don’s Fruitvale Grocery). A grocery had operated there since at least 1983.
The building was upgraded in 2003 with a new roof and improved facade. The last businesses to operate there were TKO Cafe and Convenience and Beaver Valley Circuit Fitness. Below is at it appears now.
Craig Horsland of the Beaver Valley and Pend d’Oreille Historical Society recalls:
Eighteen years ago during some renovations to the upper floor of the theatre building an unused book of children’s tickets was found. That is in our collection. Around the same time Dale Miller inquired as to the possibility that some theatre seats were still mounted to the original sloping floor and could be found under the replacement level floor. But, that was not the case.
A for sale ad on Facebook early in 2015 indicated the building has four separate units: a 2,400 square foot fitness centre and 1,200 square foot restaurant on the ground floor, plus a 2,200 square foot suite and 600 square foot office space on the upper floor. But it has been vacant ever since.
Nothing from the outside betrays the building’s origin as a theatre, which seems to have been all but erased from local memory.
Front and rear views of the former Premiere Theatre in July 2020.
Anna Reeves’ book Tracks of the Beaver Valley and Pend Oreille, published in 2002, did a good job of describing the history of Fruitvale’s businesses, but didn’t mention the Premiere.
However, when Wesley Erickson died in 1999 at 72, his obituary in the Trail Daily Times noted he “was a long-time Fruitvale resident and built a theatre there with his father in the early ‘60s [sic].”
Also, co-proprietor Mel Winfield’s online autobiography states he “built and operated an indoor motion picture theatre near Trail. After one year of operation the management of this theatre was turned over to an associate, at which time [he] returned to Vancouver …”
Winfield (pictured) was a very unusual guy, to put it charitably. Although he had no training in physics, he claimed to have discovered what he called “the theory of nucleonic energy.” Also known as the Hutchison effect, this alleged phenomenon supposedly causes objects to levitate.
Winfield, who died in 2010, was fascinated with the notion of anti-gravity, a longtime staple of science fiction. He wrote a baffling book called The Science of Actuality, which I won’t attempt to summarize, but you can find parts of it here.
Fruitvale wasn’t the only local town to lose its lone dedicated movie theatre. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Musicland (Kaslo), Rosscana (formerly the Capitol, Rossland), and Jewel (Greenwood) also went out of business.
Add to that list several theatres that folded but weren’t the only show in town: the aforementioned Strand in Trail, the Rio in East Trail, the Roxy in Grand Forks, and the Arcade, Gem, and Empire/Starland in Nelson. Additionally, the Capitol opened in Nelson in 1927 as a moviehouse, but is now a live venue.
Towns that still have cinemas are Nelson (Civic), Trail (Royal), Castlegar (Kootenay Centre Cinemas and Old Castle Theatre), Grand Forks (Gem, previously the Empress and Grenada), and Nakusp (Arrow Lakes Theatre).
Updated on Sept. 4, 2020 to add the interior photo, news story, and ad from the grand opening in 1956. Updated on Sept. 25, 2020 to clarify the date the theatre closed.