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A century-old movie theatre in northern Manitoba is no more, ravaged by flames on suspicion of arson, leaving behind fond memories of snacks for a quarter but also the pain and humiliation of racist rules.

Police say a preliminary investigation indicates the fire that devastated the Lido Theatre in The Pas on Monday was deliberately set, and the town’s mayor says it appears to be the last act for the former cinema that dates back to 1929.

“It looks like the building is a total loss and will have to be taken down,” Andre Murphy said Tuesday.

“What I was hearing from the fire crews is that they were having a tough time entering the building because of the heat.”

Firefighters from the town and the nearby Opaskwayak Cree Nation put out the fire within a few hours.

In its glory, the 600-seat theatre came complete with an orchestra pit and was among the earlier theatres built specifically for movies with sound.

The theatre was designed by Max Zev Blankstein, a Russia-born architect who moved to Canada in the early 1900s. He also designed other theatres and buildings in Winnipeg.

At the legislature Tuesday, Amanda Lathlin, the NDP legislature member for The Pas-Kameesak, shared childhood memories of her time at the theatre, what she considered the “beating heart of our community.”

“It was a place for us to gather in celebration of our rich environment, arts and culture,” said Lathlin.

“As a kid, I would often gaze up at the Juliet balconies that adorned the theatre’s interior, and I thought about what it might be like to sit in them to look down at the crowd below and the performers on stage. For us kids, it was a magical space.”

But Lathlin said the theatre wasn’t without its dark side.

For many decades, Indigenous families were forced to sit in the back, while white families were allowed to sit in the front, she said.

“It was a great triumph when these racist laws and practices were repealed, and we could finally claim the Lido as our own space.”

Murphy recalled some of his own memories, including when 25 cents could score him a drink, a bag of popcorn and a chocolate bar.

The theatre played a role in many stages of his life, he said. There were Saturday matinees as a kid and evening double features as a teen.

“I know there’s a lot of great memories that I encourage people to hold on to,” he said.

Before the fire, the theatre was fighting to stay open.

Murphy said the Lido was shuttered some time in late 2019 or early 2020. The town, 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, acquired the building late last year through a taxation sale.

“It was not fit for occupancy at the time,” said Murphy.

Town council put forward $50,000 for an initial cleanup and was in the process of deciding what to do with the building.

Murphy added that council was expecting to hear later this month from some outside parties who had expressed interest in the building.

“Culture and arts are one of the key pillars of the community. And if there was something that we could do there, then we would entertain it,” he said.

– with files from Steve Lambert

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