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Guelph's connection to Canada's first moving picture shows

Magician John C. Green brought his act to town as manager of local theatres

The next time you sit back to enjoy a movie in one of the Galaxy Cinema theatres or in the Bookshelf Cinema, spare a moment for silent tribute to the memory of motion picture pioneer John C. Green.

He claimed the distinction of showing the first moving picture in Canada. That claim wasn’t exactly accurate, but it was close. Green also was involved in the early history of the movies in Guelph.

Not much is known about John C. Green’s early years. An article about him that appeared in the Guelph Mercury in 1946 says he was a native of nearby Galt (now part of Cambridge). However, another biographical account says he was born in Boston on March 26, 1866.

Young Green seems to have had an adventurous life. He ran away from home at the age of 12 and got a job on a railway. He soon found show business to be his true calling.

Green worked for circuses, freak shows and touring theatrical troupes. He was especially interested in magic. He learned the tricks of the trade from professional magicians and eventually developed his own act. Green initially billed himself as The Merry Wizard, but finally settled on the name Belzac.

As Belzac the Magician, Green followed the vaudeville and Chautauqua circuits, performing in saloons, community halls and tents. He travelled all over the United States and Canada. He considered himself a master showman and was always on the lookout for new gimmicks that would add variety to his act.

In 1896, Green was in Ottawa when entrepreneurial brothers Andrew and George Holland introduced him to the wonders of Vitascope, a new type of motion picture projector whose invention was credited (perhaps incorrectly) to Thomas Edison. Whoever the actual inventor might have been, the Holland brothers purchased the exclusive right to present Vitascope shows in Canada.

On the evening of July 21, in West End Park – which was managed by the Ottawa Street Railway – Green performed an outdoor magic show and then astonished his audience with their first experience of “the New Marvel – Moving Pictures.”

The films were nothing like what we see today – nor even like the films that would become popular during the age of silent movies. They were less than a minute long, had no sound or subtitles, and did not tell a story. The audience at West End Park that evening saw film of a train pulling into a station, a group of boys eating watermelon, a scene of the beach at Atlantic City, and a film called The Kiss in which Broadway stars John C. Rice and (Canadian-born) May Irwin engage in a lengthy kiss.

The latter film was widely condemned as being vulgar, but was the audience favourite.

Green’s job was to stand on stage and introduce the films and then provide commentary – with a good dose of humour.

For a long time, Canadian film histories pointed to that Ottawa event as the first showing of a motion picture in Canada. However, there actually had been an exhibit of motion pictures in Montreal a few weeks earlier.

Still, Green had been part of an historic event.

Green the showman knew a good thing when he saw it. He bought a projector of his own and made the Vitascope part of his act. His combination of magic and movies was a hit as he toured Canada and the United States. But when permanent movie theatres started opening in towns and cities everywhere, the novelty of Green’s act was lost. He decided to give up life on the road and begin a career in management.

In 1913, Green opened the Temple Theatre in Galt. Then about 1918 he took over management of the Regent Theatre on Macdonell St. in Guelph. According to the 1946 Mercury article, Green would appear on stage to lecture on the movie and introduce the songs. This wasn’t unusual in an age in which movie reviews in the newspapers actually told readers almost the entire story, with no spoiler alerts.

Green would add a few magic tricks to his lectures to be sure the audience got their money’s worth.

Green thrilled his Guelph audiences with films that featured the big stars of the silent screen: comedies with the likes of Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin; romances and adventure epics starring America’s Canadian-born Sweetheart, Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks; and westerns starring cowboy heroes Tom Mix and William S. Hart.

There were even films that starred every magic fan’s hero, Harry Hoidini.

With his trademark cigar always clamped in one corner of his mouth, Green was a familiar man-about-town in the Royal City. In addition to managing the Regent, he also became the district manager for Famous Players Theatres.

However, John C. Green was never really contented to be tied down to one place, and evidently, he wasn’t very happy working for Famous Players. He complained that their treatment of him “leads me to believe I am serving a life sentence with them.”

In 1925 Green quit his managerial position and went back to his first love, magic. He went on the road again, performing for audiences across Canada and the United States.

At the time of the 1946 Mercury article he was living in Mundare, Alberta.

In his final days, Green was probably the oldest active professional magician in North America. He died on August 26, 1951, just after doing a show in Vegreville, Alberta. He was buried in Mundare after a life of wandering that saw him brush with motion picture history in Ottawa and Guelph.