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Downtown memories: Remembering the glorious Regent Theatre, Sudbury’s first movie palace

Bruce Bell is back for another virtual tour of historic downtown Sudbury. This month, he takes us back inside Sudbury’s first, and arguably the most opulent, movie palace, long since vanished

Some of my earliest and best memories of growing up in Sudbury in the late 1950s and 1960s involve going to the movies.

Considering its small population, Sudbury had an abundance of movie theatres back then, and not just your average run-of-the-mill movie houses — we had some of the most lavish and opulent movie palaces in all of Ontario.

Dating back to a time when a large bed sheet would be thrown up against the back wall of a tavern on Borgia Street, movies have been shown in Sudbury from the very beginning of the 20th century.

It’s often believed the first movie shown in Sudbury was “The Kiss” (1896), which featured Broadway performers May Irwin and John Rice acting out a rather frivolous kissing scene from the popular farce “The Widow Jones”.

“The Kiss” is no more than a few minutes long and was considered extremely risqué and thus became an instant hit among early motion picture audiences, especially among hardened miners and railway workers. You can watch the short film (the actual film is less than 20 seconds long) below.

The first real purpose-built movie house in Sudbury was the Regent Theatre built in 1918 by Robert (Bob) Stevens, located where the Silverman's Building (now Querney's Office Plus) on Elm now stands.

In 1926, Stevens moved his enterprise into more spacious premises on Elm just east of Durham. In 1936, he renovated the theatre and that renovated building is the Regent most of us remember.

This was one lavish theatre with a seating capacity for 1,152 people.

I remember you would enter this once-magnificent theatre off Elm and walk into a long foyer where the candy and popcorn counter was located alongside sofas and little tables with lamps.

I seem to remember the lounges (just a fancy word for washrooms then) were at the back of the foyer, as was the staircase leading to the balcony where one could smoke while watching a film.

Next to the stairs was the entrance to the main floor theatre auditorium itself, and what an auditorium it was. 

To this day, when I think of a movie theatre, I think of the Regent.

Sudbury seemed to embrace the art deco designs of the 1920s and 1930s with restaurants, stores, banks and theatres all decked out in that incredible decorative arts period.

The Regent was the first movie house I ever attended. As I recall, the first film I saw there was a Jerry Lewis flick, “The Bellboy” (1960), with my older brother John.

I remember walking into the Regent lobby for the first time with that wonderful smell of popcorn wafting through. After purchasing that first bag of freshly popped kernels, I entered the darkened theatre itself.

The massive main auditorium was dominated by two enormous carved winged horses, coloured white, embedded into the wall and flanking the movie screen.

I also remember as soon as you entered the auditorium a colossal circular light fixture set into the ceiling.

The auditorium was filled with whimsical art deco designs implanted into the walls. These stunning art deco friezes doubled as illumination fixtures, so as soon as the lights would dim, these incredibly beautiful wall sconces would seem to fade away, only to reappear when the lights came up at the end of the movie.

The entrances and lobbies to most theatres at this time were in one smaller building, while the auditorium was in another larger building away from the main street.

These two separate buildings were connected by a corridor usually doubling as the lobby.

This was done to save money on taxes, as the taxes were paid on the much-smaller lobby address, not the larger auditorium building.

There's a theatre in Toronto — the Pantages (now the Ed Mirvish) — where the main door is on Yonge Street and the auditorium is on Victoria Street, a block and a half apart connected by a bridge that spans the back alleyway.

I remember the Regent as home to the annual INCO children's party held every December, usually the Saturday before Christmas.

My dad worked underground at Creighton most of his life, so my brothers and I got to attend this annual event.

I remember every kid got a bag of candies, including those colourful hard ribbon candies that my mom never wanted any of us to have (cavities ran big in our family), so this was a real treat.

The afternoon party began with cartoons — sometimes up to 10 short Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse films, followed by two feature films like “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and “The Three Stooges in Outer Space”.

Sadly, the Regent closed in 1969 around the same time the City Centre shopping mall and the ultra-modern Odeon Theatre on Elm at Frood opened.

Gone were the days of the art deco movie palaces with their wonderful mood-lighting filtered through winged horses.

All over North America these grand movie palaces were being demolished and replaced with less grand, less brilliant, but more modern, theatres.

Our beloved Regent was turned into a shopping mall, a precursor to the massive City Centre being built across the street.

I remember the Elm Mall (I believe it was called) as it transformed the former luxurious lobby of the Regent into a two-floor shopping experience.

This mall was not big at all, just a handful of stores taking up the previous main lobby and upper lobby of the former theatre.

What I remember most was a candle store on the upper level where I bought a pair of giant three-foot candles, a rarity for its time. 

This mall didn't last long and was eventually torn down and replaced with another mall called Elm Town Square, now home to CBC Radio, eliminating the traces of Sudbury's most lavish movie palace.

Next time we will visit the lost magnificence that was the Capitol Theatre, once Sudbury's largest and most iconic movie palace.

For nearly the past year, Bell has written a series of columns for, sharing his memories of downtown Sudbury in the late 1960s. Bell’s reminiscences include Christmas in downtown Sudbury back in the 1960s and 1970s back in December 2020. You can read that story here. Back in January, he reminisced about SS Kresge’s, which you can read here, while in February, Bell took a stroll through the old Sudbury Woolworth's location. In March, he took us on a tour through the old Zellers store and last month he led us on a wander through the old Nickel Range Hotel. In May, Bell brought readers on a wander through the historic Borgia Street neighbourhood. In June, Bell walked us down Durham Street on a Friday night in the late 1960s. In July, he took us back onto Durham just as the hippy invasion began. And he finished his three-part series on the turbulent late 1960s in downtown Sudbury.