Dwain Wacko remembers clearly his father cleaning out the “clinkers”—the parts of the coal that won’t burn—from the old boilers of the original Chaba Theatre.
The memory stretches back 69 years, but it’s there. It was 1953, and Wacko was three-years-old. It’s his first memory of The Chaba Theatre—it’s his first memory period—but an arguably more meaningful memory, Wacko said, from about the same time, is his recollection of his father hauling up the new projectors he’d just purchased for the theatre. In those days, before the Chaba’s first major renovation (there have been two, in 1954 and 1989), there was a steep, narrow staircase that led up to the projection room.
“I remember him rasslin’ those projectors up the staircase,” Wacko said.
Incredibly, those projectors lasted until the The Chaba Theatre converted from film projectors to digital media players in 2011.
“They were rebuilt several times,” Wacko said of the workhorse projectors. “They were modified to accommodate new lens technologies, but they were mechanical and easy to maintain.”
The same can not be said about keeping a small theatre open in a remote town, mid-pandemic, in the Canadian Rockies. On February 24, 2022, after 94 years of bringing entertainment to delighted audiences, Jasper’s Chaba Theatre showed its final film. Wacko was marking the occasion in as celebratory fashion as he could muster, but there was a melancholic air to the evening. Jasperites of all generations, many of them having come-of-age watching feature films, Hollywood blockbusters and independent cinema at the Connaught Drive cornerstone, packed the 300-seat, double-screen theatre for one last show.
As patrons bought their tickets, got an arm around their buckets of popcorn and were ushered down the aisles for the final time, they paid their respect to Wacko and his staff. There were handshakes and hugs, and after the audiences were seated, tears and tributes. Wacko was presented with a thank you gift from Orlanda Tassone, who worked at The Chaba for 17 of her 33 years. The gift was a framed photo of the Chaba’s handsome facade, with a photoshopped marquee. The text read “Dwain Wacko in The Chaba Theatre 1972-2022.”
“That’s very special,” Wacko said, somewhat lost for words.
In his first year of ownership, in 1972, Wacko was a 22-year-old UofA student who had come back to Jasper from a summer working with the Northwest Territories’ Department of Public Works. He had a surveying job on the yet-to-be-built Dempster Highway. The work was invigorating, but his father had just passed; his mother needed help in Jasper.
“My mother was floundering a bit,” Wacko said. “I decided to get involved.”
As a teenager, Wacko had no interest in the theatre business. Now, with his father gone and having committed himself, he had no one to teach it to him. Gradually, however, he familiarized himself with the equipment—not just the projectors, but the carbon-arc lamphouses, which were on their last legs.
“I learned by making mistakes,” he said.
He was figuring out the theatre’s operations, but Wacko was also figuring out that The Chaba was an opportunity. Soon, he realized he could be happy at the theatre.
“Closing up one night, I remember skipping down the aisle, thinking ‘I’m going to make this mine,’” he said.
One of the first films Wacko brought in that summer of ’72 was Deliverance, the controversial, violent, Oscar-winning backwoods-thriller starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. Asked if he ever wrestled with bringing in risqué films, Wacko shrugged.
“I’m in the entertainment business,” he said.
And unlike say, the automobile repair business or the barrister business, generally, Wacko was selling something that his customers genuinely enjoyed. That was gratifying.
“When I see the crowd come in the doors, or I come up the aisle and see everyone focused on that picture, it gives me a lot of pleasure,” he said.
Not that the success of the movie was always guaranteed. When his father operated The Chaba, salesmen from Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers would come to Jasper with a two month, three-titles-per-week program to peddle. As the industry evolved, however, the motion picture agents faded away, and clients such as The Chaba would have to buy a program directly from the film distributors. The problem was, those distributors didn’t travel. The closest offices were in Calgary—too far for Wacko to preview the films he wanted to show.
“I was having to make decisions on films I knew nothing about,” he said. “If something bombed, you were stuck with it.”
In response, he cut out the two month programs and regained significant control over the quality of films he could show. Hitting his stride in the 1980s, Wacko remembers fondly the reception audiences gave The Big Chill and Pretty Woman.
“I really enjoyed L.A. Confidential,” Wacko said. “That is a fabulous mystery.”
Less of a mystery, however, is why a small town theatre is no longer a sustainable business venture. The industry had been weakened by digital streaming services, technological advancements in home theatre systems and the general evolution in the way people watch movies for more than a decade; the pandemic dealt a final death blow to The Chaba.
“Coming to terms with it was very stressful [but] I found I must move on,” Wacko said in November, when he decided to sell.
The new owners—Socrates Korogonas, Brett Ireland and Alex Derksen of Bear Hill Brewing, the parent company of Jasper Brewing Co.—had their change-of-use for the building approved by Parks Canada earlier this year. They have plans to put a food and beverage establishment, augmented by a retail outlet, in the space. Korogonas has said despite the group not being able to find a viable path forward for a cinema, the shareholders want to respect its legacy.
“It’s a landmark in the community,” Korogonas said. “We all grew up with the Chaba.”
No one more so than Wacko himself, of course. On Thursday night, as he swept up stray popcorn from the lobby floor for the final time, a patron rushed from the washroom back into the theatre. Wacko’s broom stopped momentarily. He smiled at the guest from behind his fabric face mask.
“Enjoy,” he said.
Bob Covey // firstname.lastname@example.org