“Definitely the Wales Theatre has been a big part of my reality in this town forever and that’s why I still love it to this day and go all the time.” – Jill Henheffer
The Wales Theatre is truly a remarkable place in High River that holds great significance for local residents. Built in 1927, the theatre gained its name in 1933, thanks to the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to High River. Between 1946 and 1976, the Lewis family owned the Wales Theatre. Jim Lewis, son of the long-time owner, commented on the famous name change:
“I believe that it was built, if I recall, in the late ‘20s, and that was the Princes of Wales’ visit—Prince of Wales Hotel down in Waterton and, you know, things like that were happening at that time, so I believe that that’s where that name came from.”
There are several reminders of Prince Edward’s visit to High River at the theatre, but the Prince was only one of several high-profile visitors to High River. As Jackie Nelson shared with an interviewer:
“When you go in there next time,” she said, “you look for a picture in there of a little girl handing a bouquet to John Diefenbaker,” and she said, “That is me!”
There is a timelessness about the Wales Theatre. Many High Riverites were able to recall the minute details of the theatre that made it such a special place for them. While some of the memories were slightly scattered, residents were able to paint a wonderful picture of what the theatre looked like and meant to them. As Jim Lewis remembered:
“Well I think that—I mean when I was young, there was nice theatre seats in there. It was built in the ‘30s and you know probably when I was in the late ‘50s it was probably pretty much as it was built so it had, most of the seats were sort of a cushion, cushioned seats, a few in the front were kind of leather type seats. Originally it had—the front of it looked quite different than it does now—it had two doors that came in on either side of a center thing that we used to put our little advertising things on. You came into an outdoor foyer and where you sold the tickets was sort of in the middle of that. And then you’d buy a ticket, come through, and go through another set of doors, and that was the nice foyer, and then you’d go back into the theatre part. And then there was an upstairs—I assume that’s still there—I haven’t seen the theatre since the flood, but there was a balcony upstairs that, you know—as the bottom filled, we’d open up the balcony.”
High River residents have so many memories of their beloved theatre. Many stated that this is where they spent a good portion of their teen years. Whether it was Friday nights or Saturday afternoons at the theatre, you would always find people taking in the latest film. As High River resident Bill Holmes remembered:
“On Saturday matinee they also had what they’d call serials, and these would be adventure stories—either westerns or science fictions or something—and they’d just show you a little bit of the stories, and then they’d get to the exciting parts and they’d quit, and you’d have to come back the next week to see the next part of the story.”
The Wales Theatre was also quite the dating spot. Many interview participants were quick to add that it was just the place to take a girl or a boy on weekend nights. As Eldon Couey remarked:
“Yeah, that was the dating spot you bet. [Laughter] Yeah, it was.”
Locals also remember trying to sit up in the balcony as a rite of passage.
“That was kind of for older young people, where they’d take their dates, sort of up to the darkest corner of the balcony. And they even had a few seats there that were double wide for the dating couples. Or married couples I guess would sit there too.” – Bill Holmes
“And the thing about the Wales is everybody wanted to go up to the balcony. But you had to be over 14. It might have even been 16 but every once in a while, you try to push the envelope and see if you can get away with getting up there and—but it was always the big thing to try and sneak up into the balcony and watch the movie from there just cause you weren’t allowed, right?” – Cathy Couey
Although going to the theatre was a weekly tradition, it also was connected to annual traditions. Many residents have stories of the Wales Theatre at Christmastime. Instead of flocking to the malls in Calgary, High Riverites looked forward to the evening that Santa would come to town and visit with the children. Afterwards, everyone would flock to the theatre to watch a special Christmas movie.
“What I also remember from childhood, which was a big thing and I actually talked about it today—the Santa Claus Parade was huge because they used to do one, which was next to the museum, across from the New Look Café, in that open area, which is now parking. Santa would come in with the sleigh and everybody would get a bag—a white bag—with a few mandarin oranges and some candies and we would all head over to the Wales Theatre!” – Charles King
“First of all, when Santa Claus would come to town in December, he would show up in front of the museum. We would all line up and sit on his knee and get a candy bag and then you would go to Wales Theatre for a movie. And if you were an older kid, you got to go to the balcony and we always threw pieces of oranges or candy down on the little kids.” – Cathy Couey
The Wales Theatre clearly holds a special place in the heart of High River. While interview participants had a variety of memories, they all contributed to the collective memory of laughter, fun, and good times at the Wales Theatre.