New Life for the Majestic Theatre

By Nicola Ryan

When the Majestic Theatre in downtown St. John’s, NL, first threw open its doors on March 3, 1919, a crowd of 1,600 had gathered on Duckworth Street to check out the finest, most up-to-date venue in all of Newfoundland. It’s been many years since the theatre’s original heyday, but the Majestic has come roaring back to life thanks to the incredible team at Terra Bruce productions.
This musical theatre company, led by chief operating officer Bob Hallett, is headquartered in both St. John’s and Toronto. Its ambition is to hire within the incredible talent pool of local artists, writers and musicians to develop and build a repertoire of world-class shows.
“Terra Bruce was started in 2018 by Walter Schroeder, who’s a financier and credit specialist,” Bob explains. “He owned a company called the Dominion Bond Rating Service; they were the biggest independent rating company in the world. He sold that in 2018 and decided to devote the rest of his working life to philanthropy. So you know, he’s done all kinds of things in Ontario and Winnipeg, where he lives. One of his ambitions was to start a musical theatre company, and he also wanted to do something specifically in Newfoundland, and that’s where it all started.”
Bob, formerly a founding member of Great Big Sea, had been working as a creative consultant with Junkyard Dog, the company that produced Come From Away. More recently he was the musical director of the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario. That’s when the Schroeders reached out to him.
“Initially it was a very small part-time consultant role because I was doing a bunch of other things,” Bob laughs. “But about six months in, I was able to clear enough space in my schedule to start working full time with the company, and I’ve been there ever since.”
Aiming to become a cultural hub of creativity on the Canadian musical theatre scene, Terra Bruce Productions currently employs more than 50 people. The resident artists and production crew are sought-after professionals. From their rehearsal space and recording studio – Mansion on the Hill Recordings – on Mayor Avenue, they’ve already developed a number of productions including Woman of Labrador, No Change in the Weather and Newfoundland Blessing. Nevertheless, to really get going, Terra Bruce needed a theatre space to present their work. The scarcity of available venues underscored the high demand for mid-size performance spaces in town.
“Effectively, there are two large public theatres in St. John’s – Holy Heart and the Arts and Culture Centre – but they’re both very large, they’re both 1,000 seats plus, and the reality is very few locally produced shows can fill all those seats. And if they can fill all those seats, they can only do it for one or two evenings, which is really not enough to justify the time and expense of creating large scale musical theatre,” Bob explains.
“For a show to get to any stage of quality you need to perform it at least 10 or 15 times, and it improves dramatically each time. But renting a theatre like Holy Heart for 15 nights, that means you have to sell almost 20,000 tickets! So it’s just not realistic. If you can’t produce economically, you certainly can’t produce work in a way that you can export it and kind of take it on to a national or an international stage. We knew we needed a space that fit the goals of the company: a place we could operate economically and that we could use to work with other producers and presenters and entertainers in Newfoundland and Labrador. And we wanted to create a stage that was big enough and functional enough on a technical level, you know, that could produce large scale theatre but wasn’t so big that the cost of presenting in there was prohibitive.”

Enter the Majestic
By 2023, after a series of unsuccessful ventures, the former Majestic Theatre had been standing empty for six years.
“The Majestic was built to be a good theatre,” Bob says. “And even though it has gone through multiple phases, you know – some good, some bad – the skeleton of the theatre was still in there. Functionally, we knew that the shape of the building lent itself to creating a theatre. So the challenge for us was to buy the building and turn it back into what it was designed to be. The Majestic, when it opened, was a landmark in the centre of St John’s. We knew that if we did it right, it could be that again.”
Built in an unusual flat-iron style on the corner of Duckworth Street and Queen’s Road, in its day the Majestic was the best and most modern movie theatre east of Montreal. It was designed by architect W.F. Butler and built by the Harbour Grace Shipping Co. at a cost of $60,000 – the equivalent of more than $1 million today. Comfortable and luxurious, it was steam-heated and lit with electric lights by Reid Electrical. Automatically operated stage curtains whisked aside to reveal a 13-foot silver screen specially finished in gold-fibre aluminum. The state-of-the-art projector used a bright and steady Metz lamp to guarantee a brilliantly clear picture. It was a downtown destination – the streetcar stopped at Theatre Hill just steps from the door – and Terra Bruce kept all this in mind when they got to work.
Under the direction of designer and project coordinator Sara Hodder, the renovated space is now fully accessible, with 300 seats, an extended stage, flexible seating options and state-of-the-art lighting and sound technology.
“We built the Majestic to appeal to a wide demographic,” Bob explains. “It’s a beautiful space to come in and see a show. We have all kinds of hospitality and food available, and the actual theatre experience itself is amazing. We have the best sound and lights in Atlantic Canada. So it’s a really great place to enjoy a night out.”
On September 22, 2023, Terra Bruce officially opened the newly renovated Majestic Theatre and premiered The Wild Rovers – a new musical inspired by the music and magic of the Irish Rovers, the legendary band that formed in Toronto in 1964. From the bright lights of the marquee sign to the signature cocktails served up in the cosy Theatre Hill bar and café on the first floor, the energy and excitement were palpable as the Majestic once again returned to its full glory.
“People want to enjoy the downtown,” Bob says, noting that Terra Bruce are determined to be there for the long haul. “One of the great amenities in living in an urban space like St. John’s is that you have a functioning downtown. You have a place that has that kind of life to it, that kind of energy to it. There’s nowhere else in Newfoundland that has that. So that energy is a big part of the reason that we stay there.
“The faith the Schroeders have shown in myself and our collaborators and all the team at Terra Bruce Productions has been amazing,” he continues. “They could spend their money anywhere, they’re not from Newfoundland, they don’t live here. But they’ve chosen to give us this gift and give us a chance to rebuild this building and really inject some serious life into downtown St. John’s; it’s been an enormous privilege. It’s a chance to do something really different and really amazing. And we’re so lucky to be there.”

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