New Brunswick

The 'unemployed taxi driver' who bought a $1M theatre

When Jack MacDougall, flipping through the paper in 1982, caught sight of an ad for a used Wurlitzer organ, he had no idea his life had changed forever.

New book by former Saint Johner details rehabilitation of Imperial Theatre

Jack MacDougall, then in his 20s, stands in front of the Imperial Theatre. He and group of concerned citizens bought the historic theatre in a dilapidated condition for one dollar down. In 2017, after extensive renovations, the theatre is a pillar of the Saint John arts community. (Submitted by Jack MacDougall)

When Jack MacDougall, flipping through the Evening Times Globe in 1982, caught sight of an ad for a used Wurlitzer organ, he had no idea his life was about to change forever.

"It was an accident, I can assure you," said MacDougall, of the circumstances that would eventually lead him to buy the then-dilapidated Imperial Theatre for a dollar down, putting into motion a grand scale restoration project that in 1994 transformed the face of King Square south.

The adventure is the subject of MacDougall's new book, The Unemployed Taxi Driver.

"In the course of seeing the organ I saw the interior of the Imperial Theatre and I was blown away," he said.

The theatre, pictured here in the 1960s, changed hands numerous times after it was built in 1912-13. The Famous Players chain bought it in 1929, changed the name to the Capitol and converted it into a cinema. Later, the Pentecostal Full Gospel Assembly used it as a house of worship for decades. (Submitted by David Goss)

The theatre, a four storey neoclassical revival building with a grand, segmented arch on its front facade, had changed hands numerous times in the years after it was built in 1912-13. The Famous Players chain bought it in 1929 and changed the name to the Capitol, converting it into a cinema. Later, the Pentecostal congregation Full Gospel Assembly used it for decades as a house of worship.

Capitol Theatre, 24-28 King Square in Saint John. (Imperial Theatre)

Although the building had been condemned "from the balcony up" in 1982, MacDougall said, his first impression was of its grandeur. Although there was "water streaming down the walls, the roof was leaking, and the plaster was lifting, which was horrifying," he said, his eyes focused on place where a chandelier should hang, on the plaster and marble cherubs, and the English porcelain electrical fixtures.

"I could see it then as I see it today," MacDougall said. "In that sense, it doesn't look a single bit different to me."

Instead of a Wurtlizer organ, MacDougall walked away with a dream to purchase and restore the whole theatre.

Saint John's Imperial Theatre back in 1915. (Imperial Theatre)

Kicked out of meeting

The title of the book comes from a misunderstanding. When MacDougall approached the Full Gospel Assembly to buy the building, he said, he told the board of directors he had just sold his taxi company, Courtesy Cab.

"They asked me what I did, and I said I was unemployed," he said. "They asked me what I did before I was unemployed and I said I was in the taxi business. They took that to mean that I was an unemployed taxi driver.Then they kicked me out of the meeting."

The renovations were completed in 1994. In 2017, the Imperial Theatre is a pillar of the arts scene in Saint John. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Unemployed taxi driver or not, it certainly seemed improbable, MacDougall said, the project would succeed. Fortunately, he didn't undertake it alone.

"We had a group of believers like Dr. Thomas J. Condon, Bob Boyce, Susan Bate and Rod Stears," said MacDougall. "There were other guys who said we didn't know what we were doing every step of the way."

MacDougall said Condon, who died in 2012, helped seal the success of the project.

The late Dr. Thomas J. Condon, here being inducted into the Order of Canada by former governor general Adrienne Clarkson (right), was instrumental in the success of the Imperial Theatre project, said Jack MacDougall. MacDougall has self-published a new book on the theatre's restoration. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

"He saved it," MacDougall said. "Up to that point we were optimistic, youthful, stupid. [Dr.Condon] was a leader. He came in and he could bond with our youthfulness and add credibility, credence, a vision. He never quit, he never, ever left, right to the end."

Started with a prayer

The book, which MacDougall self-published this year with Chapel Street Editions and is available at local bookstores, is described as a lively story of "how a band of intrepid friends, who loved their city, rallied the support required to save a hidden gem of its heritage."

"A lot of people say it started with a dollar," said MacDougall, "but it started with a prayer."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a born and raised Saint Johner, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

With files from Information Morning Saint John