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Renaissance man Leo Mascioli brings culture to rugged Timmins mining camp says PHD candidate Jessica Whitehead

Jessica Whitehead enthralled a Thursday night museum audience with tales of how Leo Mascioli started a northern movie theatre empire during the Porcupine-Timmins gold rush of 1910. Whitehead, a PHD candidate in communication and cultural studies at York

Jessica Whitehead enthralled a Thursday night museum audience with tales of how Leo Mascioli started a northern movie theatre empire during the Porcupine-Timmins gold rush of 1910.

Whitehead, a PHD candidate in communication and cultural studies at York University and Ryerson University, is researching film exhibition in remote and rural areas.

Many in the audience where interviewed by Whitehead and contributed to her research; Including Ross Clausi, former history teacher at Timmins High and Vocational School; Greg Reynolds former editor of the Timmins Daily Press; Paula Mascioli Leo’s granddaughter.

“Timmins has such an amazing history of cinema that spanned throughout the region”, Whitehead said.

Growing up Whitehead also heard stories from her grandfather Valerio Bellini construct the first Mascioli movie theatre in Sudbury, Ontario,

“The early films and vaudeville acts traveled the railway lines to reach once remote communities,” Whitehead said.

Permanent movies came to Timmins either in 1910 or 1912. The year 1910 is carved into the cornice of the original Empire Theatre, but the Porcupine Advance notes that the first movie theatre opened in 1912.

The first Empire Theatre at the back of Mascioli’s general store.  By 1915 the Empire theatre was a fixture and ads were placed weekly in the Porcupine Advance.

Leo Mascioli was also a pioneer in building Timmins itself explained Whitehead.

“Mascioli still has his name on the sidewalks of Timmins,” Whitehead told the audience. “He also built the first waterworks system and hotels for Timmins.”

Antonio Mascioli, Leo’s brother had Timmins Garage GM auto dealership, noted Whitehead.

“These accomplishments were all detailed in Roy Thompson’s Timmins Daily Press in 1937 on the 25th anniversary celebration,” noted Whitehead.

“Most of the pioneers of movies in Timmins were of Italian heritage, “noted Whitehead

“In addition to Mascioli the others involved with movies in Timmins were Pete Bardessono, Joe Gentile and Gene Palumbo.”

Mascioli as the labour agent for Hollinger mines was responsible for attracting workers from Italy to work the gold mines.

The Timmins Theatre Company and the Northern Empire Theatres were formed to run all of the Mascioli theatres in and out of Timmins.

Mascioli had theatres in Cochrane, Schumacher, South Porcupine Iroquois Falls, Kirkland Lake, Haileybury, Cobalt, North Bay and Sudbury.

Famous Players Chain tried to takeover the Empire Theatre Chain and monopolize theatres in Canada. The Peter White Commission in 1931 found that Famous Players was indeed engaged in monopolistic practices.

A contract was signed between the Mascioli Theatres and Famous Players in 1937, making the Mascioli theatres the place for seeing Paramount Studio produced movies.

In exchange Mascioli gave Famous Players the rights to the Quintland Theatre in North Bay.

Despite all Mascioli had done to help build Timmins, on June 10 1940 he and 30,000 Italian men were rounded up by the RCMP as a result of Mussolini’s declaration of war against the British empire.

Most were released, but six hundred were interned at Camp Petawawa. Among them Leo and Antonio Mascioli.

“One elderly Italian I interviewed,” said Whitehead, “believes Mascioli was interned as a warning to all the other Italian-Canadians:  stay in line or you will be interned like him.”

The federal government seized the assets of internees and took over Mascioli holdings. Mascioli was eventually exonerated and released.

Whitehead’s also showed movie clips shown at the Mascioli theatres The Empire, Goldfields, Palace, Cartier, Broadway and the Victory.

The structures still exist. The Empire Theatre is the Seniors Centre on Third and Spruce with parts of its beautiful interior preserved.

The Goldfields on Third and Balsam showed the first talkie in Timmins in 1929. It showed cowboys and westerns. Today the Goldfields is a condominium building.

The Palace Theatre built in 1936, was one of the most exquisite theatres in the north.

“The Palace was the jewel in the Mascioli Theatre chain,” said Whitehead. “It truly was the Palace of the North.”

“It would be amazing if the Palace were restored,” mused Whitehead.

The Cartier Theater opened in 1938. It played westerns.

Whitehead noted the Van Trapp family on which the Sound of Music was based, played at the Cartier. Today it is Osaka Sushi on Mount Joy St. S.

The Broadway Theatre is now the Broadway Restaurant. It opened during WWII and sold war bonds. It was a kid friendly theatre where they showed kid serials.

The Victory Theatre built in 1947 had 800 seats and a large balcony. It played many romantic comedies during its hey day.

By 1973 only the Palace and the Victory were left.

Mascioli died in 1951

Some of the great movies shown in Timmins included S.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1917), the first talkie (1929), Gone with The Wind (1937), Wizard of Oz (1939), Sound of Music (1965).


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Frank Giorno

About the Author: Frank Giorno

Frank Giorno worked as a city hall reporter for the Brandon Sun; freelanced for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. He is the past editor of and the newsletter of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers.
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