HISTORY, SWT Lyceum Theatre
The Historic Gull Lake Lyceum Theatre is a non-profit, community theatre in Southwest Saskatchewan. Though the theatre has burnt down twice, the original theatre in Gull Lake was built in 1911 by F. Schoonmaker, an entrepreneur and investor who had come west during the homestead rush. It wasn’t long before the building burnt down in 1915, but the theatre had already become a staple of the small town, so local Sam R. Tyler was quick to rebuild it, opening again in 1916. Sam Tyler operated the theatre until 1929, when he sold it to Herb Tyler (no relation) and Herb Coney of Tompkins, Saskatchewan, who operated it through the difficult years of the 1930s. They eventually sold it to Herb Partridge and Dr. John Matheson in 1944, the same year the Second World War ended. Partridge then sold his share of the theatre to Johnny Davison in 1952. Matheson and Davison operated the Lyceum together until 1964, when they sold it to Chig and Laura Potter, who operated it as a family business. A few years after Chig passed away, Laura sold the theatre to Fred Turner in 1976, but it wasn’t long until the theatre was set ablaze once again. The locals held benefits for the Lyceum Theatre and Turner family, eventually rebuilding the theatre in 1978, where it has stood ever since. Leading the rebuilding efforts, and operating the theatre today, The non-profit, Gull Lake & District Cultural Co-operative, a 6-person board of directors who overlooks the building with the help of a hired manager and, at first, hired highschool students, and now, a team of volunteers who come every night.
Above: Lyceum Theatre between 1914 and 1915. “Very Latest War News Bulletins”
The First Theatre
Though most theatre records were destroyed in the fires of 1915 and 1976, we do know a few things about the origin of the Lyceum Theatre thanks to shared memories passed down to the present day, stories and advertisements from the Gull Lake Advance and Advocate, and the Gull Lake History Books, which were written in 1989 and 2011. Schoonmaker, an investor and entrepreneur who headed west with the promise of opportunity, built the Gull Lake's first picture theatre, the Lyceum Theatre, in 1911 and owned it until it burned down just four years later.
Schoonmaker also built the Schoonmaker Block in 1914, a two-storey, downtown building on Conrad Avenue. The block consisted of two floors, the bottom floor being filled with Becker’s Grocery, Currie’s Gent’s Furnishings, and the Merchant’s Bank, while the upper floor held a Dressmaking Establishment, the Dominion Land Office, and Schoonmaker’s residence.
The First Fire
A few weeks before Christmas, 1915, Conrad Avenue, between Third Street and Main Street, in downtown Gull Lake was burned to the ground, taking several businesses with it. Among these businesses was the Lyceum Theatre, Gull Lake Hardware, Morrow’s Furniture, and Latour’s Palace Pool Hall.
After the fire, local Sam Tyler immediately began planning for reconstruction, and the next year, in 1916, the Lyceum Theatre was open again, but at a new location. Moving over to the former Morrow’s Furniture lot, this would be the theatre’s permanent home.
The Second Fire
In the Spring of 1978, owner Fred Turner and his mother had just moved into the suite above the Lyceum Theatre when disaster struck. A few weeks after moving into their new home, Mrs. Turner was distracted from her television show by the smell of smoke coming from downstairs in the theatre. Going to investigate the source of the smell, Mrs. Turner spotted fire around the exit door, south of the theatre’s stage. Panicking and running toward another exit, she was flung out the door as she opened it, an explosion forcing her over a nearby, parked car. By the time emergency responders arrived at the scene, it was already too late: the building was past the point of saving. Watching their beloved theatre burn to the ground, several locals, not long after, formed The Gull Lake & District Cultural Co-operative to lead efforts in rebuilding the Lyceum.
The Gull Lake & District Cultural Co-operative and The Third Theatre
After a second fire burned the building to the ground on March 15, 1976, the Gull Lake & District Cultural Co-operative was founded by a group of local citizens who wanted to rebuild the Lyceum Theatre. These local citizens formed a board of directors and decided that the Co-op was to be a non-profit organization. The Founding Members of this board and co-op were Ken Logan, Philip Jensen, Ron Taylor, Emanuel Zubot, Terry Busse, Wayne Buck, and Bernard Kirwan. The plaque, which hangs on the wall commemorating the founders of the board, also thanks Fred Turner, Don Haley, Gull Lake Kinsmen Club, Jerry Perret Sask. Dept. of Co-operation, and Knutson Construction for providing contributing assistance to the rebuilding efforts.
The new “Cultural Building” would house both the Lyceum Theatre and the Chinook Regional Library, and the building would be funded through donations, grants, and a loan. Opening in 1978, the theatre would be leased out to the former owner, Fred Turner, for a short time, and then to Edwin Trudeau until 1980, when the Cultural Co-operative took control of the day-to-day operations. Walter Leberge was made business manager and projectionist, and retained that position for 32 years until he retired in 2012. After Leberge’s retirement, Belinda Yorke became manager for two years, until 2014, when Wendy Klein became manager. Klein was manager of the theatre until 2019, when she passed away suddenly. Now in need of a manager again, the board of directors hired Cole Girodat as manager in 2019.
High School Employment
The Lyceum Theatre was staffed by Gull Lake High School students for over ten years, but then, due to a downturn in the economy, it was decided that to keep the theatre open, it was necessary to ask for volunteers to run the concession booth, which has helped keep the theatre open for over 30 more years.
With his high school employees, Walter LeBerge was able to have a consistent and reliable stream of help while he ran the business, and served as the projectionist. The students would mostly run the concession while Walter himself ran the Box Office, similar to how it works today, but rather than leaving right as the movie started as the volunteers do now, the students would stay, running the concession throughout the movie, allowing Walter to run the projector upstairs without interruption. The students would then help Leberge clean up after the movie before heading home.
Walter appreciated his high school employees, and they in turn, respected him. Before graduating high school, thus leaving the theatre to find jobs and go to school elsewhere, the graduates would leave LeBerge with a graduation picture to remember them by. Walter had these pictures set up behind his desk, on a shelf, where he displayed them for everyone to see. Walter would also throw celebrations when employees would leave, according to his photo albums found in the theatre. Pictured are all of his employees celebrating, and a cake, reading “Farewell Trina”. A banner is also seen with the same slogan, above the concession, where LeBerge would also decorate every year for his graduates (“Congratulations, Grads of ‘86” reads one, with all of his employees who graduated that year posing underneath).
Speaking to Tara Anderson, who worked at the theatre as a high school student, and whose picture can be found in the many photo albums LeBerge kept, she recalls it being a great place to work. She had fun with the other students, and Walter, making $5 for a half shift, and $10 for a full shift. She recalls working at the Box Office and doing bottle checks, making sure no one was sneaking in anything that they were not supposed to. She remembers walking around the theatre with a flashlight, checking on patrons, making sure they were not being too noisy, and hearing the occasional bottle rolling on the floor, indicating she had missed someone sneaking in their own beverage. One night, she says, a lady came out of the auditorium to complain to her about a man snoring so loudly that no one could not hear the movie. She went out to wake the man up, finding that it was a man from Tompkins who would regularly have naps in the theatre. Waking him up, he claimed he was not snoring, offended at such an accusation. She also remembers that the only movie she had ever seen the theatre fill up to capacity (and more) was for Steven Spielberg’s ET. She recalls seating people on the floor and in the spaces between the seats. After doing this, they still turned people away at the door, telling them to come back the next night.
In the 1990s, as the economy trended downward, the theatre could no longer afford to continue employing students at the theatre. Instead, the Lyceum would now depend on volunteers to come every night to run the concession. There was immediate community support, as no one wanted to lose their community theatre. Community groups such as the Kinettes began volunteering every week, and individuals were able to sign up whenever they wanted. Al & Lina Penner, for example, volunteered every Thursday for 30 years, and just retired in 2021. Today, the Innovation Credit Union, Gull Lake Kinette Club, RBC, and Gull Lake School are just some of the businesses that volunteer on a weekly basis. Norm & Jean White now volunteer every Saturday night, and Doris Rittwage every Friday night with whomever she can find that week. The community support has been consistent over the years, never in short supply.
Moving Into the Digital Age
Three years after new seats were installed in the theatre in 2009, making for a much more comfortable space to view movies, in 2012, the Lyceum Theatre underwent major changes to the way the movies themselves were played. Funded completely by donations, the theatre purchased a brand new screen, a 7.1 Dolby surround sound system, and a new, digital projector with 3D capabilities. This was a huge change, as previously, all movies were still being played off of a movie reel projector, with the projectionist being the only one trained to work them. This new system is completely automated and easy for anyone to use, with capability to schedule movies to play at a set time, and the ability to create playlists, making it simple to choose which previews play before which movies. With less and less movies being produced in reel format, it was time for the theatre to update the system so that it could keep up with the technology of the industry. This new projector has allowed the Lyceum to play movies closer to their release date, so now, rather than waiting months for movies, some are played in just a few weeks after being released in any other theatre. As for the theatre’s old projectors, while one was thrown away upon being lifted out of the theatre by crane, the other is in the Gull Lake Museum, viewable by the public as a relic of the community’s 100-year history.