The Imperial Theatre in Saint John marked its 100th anniversary Thursday — an anniversary that likely never would have happened were it not for Jack McDougall.

In 1982 the theatre was home to the Full Gospel Assembly Church and was scheduled for demolition.

McDougall was unemployed after selling his taxi business and visited the theatre for the first time. He says he fell in love with the theatre, and three days later was meeting with the church's board of directors and offered to buy the church for $1 million with a down payment of $1.

The church leaders decided a day of fasting and praying might provide a sign from God about what they should do.

"I said, 'What does a sign from God look like?'" McDougall recalled. "And they said, 'Well, you'll know it when you see it.'"

Imperial honour

Jack McDougall received an award for his efforts to save the Imperial Theatre as part of its 100th anniversary celebrations this week. (CBC)

McDougall asked if they thought he could raise $1-million in a year. The church leader said they didn't believe so, and it would be a miracle if he could.

"So I said, 'Why don't you take the dollar down, and if I come back and I raised it, then that's a sign from God that you should sell it, and if I don't then that's a sign that you should stay.'"

David Gresh, a friend, was among the people McDougall immediately approached for help.

"I was in my office working and it was Jack on the phone," recalls Gresh. "He told me what he had done, he'd put a dollar down and had to raise another $999,999.

"I was a chartered accountant and he asked me to get involved and I turned him down flat — absolutely not, " said Gresh. "I was not going to get involved in another of his silly projects.

Inside the Imperial

This was how the Imperial Theatre looked thirty years ago when efforts began to buy it from a church and save it from demolition (CBC)

"He twisted my arm, and I did get involved, and it was really hectic, really, really successful and a fun memory."

McDougall went on to dabble in politics, first as a Liberal party executive and leadership candidate, then as the leader of the Green party. He taught school, tutored, and now drives taxi in retirement.

Looking back now, McDougall says if he had put more thought into his Imperial project, he probably never would have done it.

"It was really an inspiration I think just to do it," he said. "I was in a kind of a good space - I had a taxi business and I had sold it.

"I hadn't figured out what I was going to do with my time and my life quite yet, but I was working on that and once I knew I wanted to get this back into the hands of the community, I knew what my job was for the next year. That's what it was going to be."

The initial $1-million endeavour to purchase the theatre was followed by a campaign to raise $13-million over the years to refurbish the Imperial. To honour McDougall's efforts, he was presented with an award with the inscription: "For Breaking the Mold."

"It was great, it was just unbelievable," said McDougall about the campaign 30 years ago. "I can't imagine ever repeating it, but I often ache to go back to that time and say, 'Jeez that was so much fun you know?'

"You really felt like you were part of something. It was a fantasy for me then that grew into a dream that has grown into a reality."

The Imperial Theatre celebrates its 100th anniversary Thursday night with a special concert featuring several local performers.