Uncovering a Brief History of the Uptown Theatre

Uncovering a Brief History of the Uptown Theatre

Barrie’s history of entertainment venues and theatres stretches back almost a century. Now that the curtain has fallen on the city’s last independent movie theatre we take a look back at the history of the Uptown Theatre. 

Originally called the Imperial, the 500 seat theatre was opened in 1937, by Richard F. Garrett. Garret was a fixture in the Barrie theatre district. He had opened the Capitol theatre on the same block in April 1923. The tract of land purchased by Garret came from the Wilkinson family in the early 20s. It included most of the properties on the south side of Dunlop Street West (in those days known as Elizabeth street). It was the third theatre to emerge downtown. There was also the Capitol Theatre next door, and the Roxy across the street.

Competition between the Imperial, Capitol and Roxy was fierce. Allegedly so intense that customers were being promised photos, free plates and other souvenirs to attend screenings. Newspapers of the day proclaimed Barrie was “the only town of its size in the district to have three theatres which are placed within a hundred square yards of each other.

Besides the Imperial, the buildings at 55 Dunlop were home to the well known Roy Lem Restaurant, which cropped up in 1954. There was also a hardware store and a tea shop before that.

And the building was not without a sense of mystery. There have been reports of eerie encounters and strange phenomena in the hallways of the theatre for years. Patrons and staff have heard doors opening and closing, ghostly whispers and footsteps. There was also one terrifying incident in which the manager witnessed a bulb from a projector launch itself across the room, smashing into a wall. As though someone… or something had thrown it.

The Barrie Film Festival

Perhaps the Uptown’s most significant partnership of the modern era was with the Barrie Film Festival. The BFF’s Screen One monthly screenings of films, originally presented through the MacLaren Art Centre, arrived at Uptown in 1995. The festival screened Smoke, with Harvey Keitel, in November of 1995. Eventually the Festival screened the majority of their programming, including the annual festival at Uptown. 

The last screening at Uptown Theatre was Ordinary Love starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville, in March of 2020.

The theatre block makes room for a large scale condo development, expected in 2025.

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Stu Lynam

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