Solomon Family Keeping Movie Tradition Alive in Blind River Since 1928
By Kris Svela
There’s been a movie theatre operating in Blind River since 1928 and for almost 100 years the Solomon name has been attached to movies in the town.
Today Alex Solomon and his wife Debra operate the Palace II Theatre in an auditorium at the École Secondaire Jeunesse Nord.
“My grandfather Alex came from what was then considered Syria I’m sure it’s Lebanon today. They came in about 1895—him and his brother Albert.”
The brothers came eventually to Espanola and Spanish before moving to Blind River where they established a grocery store; Solomon and Company and eventually the Palace (movie) Theatre.
“They had a falling out and my grandfather started the theatre,” Alex said of the family’s early history. “They kind of parted ways. I’m not sure what happened and he (Alex’s grandfather) went over and built the theatre in 1928.”
Alex isn’t certain why his grandfather decided to build and operate a movie theatre. He believes his grandfather may have become interested in movies after going to a theatre that was operating in Espanola. During that time there were several small movie theatres operating along the north shore, including Blind River, Thessalon and one in Spanish.
It was the fledgling heyday of movies and in those early days they were silent movies. Alex said his aunt Mary played piano to accompany the movies at the original Palace Theatre. He believes the first movie shown was a western.
He recalls working at the original Palace, carrying heavy film canisters up from storage to the projector room.
“I carried film up and down the stairs for 20 years. I swear my arms are an inch longer than what they should be,” he joked. “I spent a lot of days in that theatre. It was my second home.”
The original Palace Theatre also played host to school graduations, boxing matches and concerts.
It had an ornate interior with heavy, plaster-moulded wall hangings which Alex removed when the building was torn down in the late 90s.
“The inside of our theatre was more ornate. There were four friezes on the wall.”
“I did a lot of work in there taking things down before they tore it down,” he recalled.
As far as family history with the theatre, Alex said, “My grandfather ran it until he passed in 1955 and my father Norman ran it until he passed in 1973, and then I took over in 1977 and I ran it until the mid-90s. I was both teaching and running the theatre.”
“We got out of it and sold the building to an investor which was really nice. We knew it was going to be a building on the property and not just a parking lot,” Alex said of the sale and eventual dismantling of the theatre building that was replaced by the Children’s Aid Society building today.
“It was a happy, sad sort of thing.”
From the former theatre another theatre was considered for Blind River in the early part of the new century. Coincidentally, Alex was on council at the time where he served 17 years in municipal politics.
“The French board was looking for some land and our mayor at the time had seen other theatres that were jointly used,” Alex said. “So, he said in lieu of the land we’ll throw that into an auditorium. We (town council) ponied up $85,000.”
The investment prepared the auditorium with all the wiring, projector space, stage and seating needed to run a theatre. The agreement with the school board gave the town the right to use the theatre and use the space.
“In 2011 we decided it was time and the town purchased the equipment. We got into the endeavour with the town and the school board, so we’ve been in there since March 18, 2011,” he added.
The space was aptly named Palace Theatre II.
The operation of the movie theatre fell into the hands of the Solomon family once again on a proposal made by Alex and Debra. It was, according to him, a natural fit.
“Who else would do it—the Solomon family have been doing it since 1928.”
Today, it’s an auditorium theatre. The floor is slanted with beautiful seats with capacity for 240 people.
“The screen is retractable because the school has to use the space as well.”
At around 2015, Cameco put forward most of the money for a digital camera to meet the new technology in film production. With the release of the popular movie Avatar, the new equipment allowed for a better viewing utilizing the technology.
“We are the only theatre between Sudbury and the Sault,” Alex said of the dwindling movie theatres that once dotted the north shore.
Showings are on Friday, Saturday and Monday with the doors opening at 6:30 and films starting at 7 p.m. The facility has a concession booth that also sells the movie favourite – popcorn. Tickets sell for $6 for children three to 13, $8 for general seating, and seniors 60+ tickets sell for $6 each. Monday showing tickets sell for $5 for all seats.
“People thoroughly enjoy coming to the theatre,” he said. “We’ve increased our numbers almost every year.”
He estimates that some 10,000 people attended the theatre last year.
“Films are paid on a percentage of the gross. The more money you make the more we’ve got to pay. It’s a sliding scale. Before if they said 35 percent, it was 35 percent. Now if the movie does well, we pay more,” Alex said of the operations.
Universal, Paramount, and Disney are the largest movie producers and distributors.
“I can usually get movies within three weeks of release.”
An incident in the family’s history could maybe itself have been made into a movie.
It involved Alex’s father and his brother David who was four-and-half-years old on Oct. 9, 1957 when it occurred. The father and son had driven to downtown Blind River to pick up the mail early on the day. What they didn’t know was that an armed bank robbery was taking place at the Royal Bank, across the street at the same time.
Eventually it resulted in the murder of the bank manager J.J. Walter Bridges, an incident that was almost unheard of in those days and certainly never anticipated in a small northern Ontario community like Blind River.
The robbers, a father and son team, attempted to flee in the Solomon’s car with David in the back seat. Mr. Solomon managed to stop the pair, along with another man, and Alex’s brother was handed over and the car taken by the bank robbers.
According to Alex, the robbers fired several shots when they were driving off, one which just missed his father.
“My dad could have been shot very easily. The bullet just missed him.”
Norman Solomon was approached to appear on the popular, television current affair program Front Page Challenge, but declined the invitation.
Alex laughs at the suggestion that the event could have been made into a movie and adds he has never considered writing a script for it. He said his brother doesn’t recall much of what happened that day.
Keeping the movie tradition alive and giving back to the community has been a centre point in the family’s long history.
“People have blood running through their veins—I have film,” he said.