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The Man Who Sold the Stars
Bill Trudell's career spanned the silents to the multiplexes

by Christopher Doty

bill trudell and friend If London ever had a P.T. Barnum, it's movie man Bill Trudell, pictured here on the left.

His 47-year career spanned the evolution of Hollywood from silent films to modern movie plexes. They called him The Popcorn Man for winning 10 straight concession stand sales prizes. But to most Londoners, the combination of Trudell and the Capitol Theatre just meant a great show.

"He had a presence," says Bill Clarke, an usher at the Capitol in the 1950s. "When he came in the front door . . . you knew that was Mr. Trudell. He was always Mr. Trudell to us. Even some of the doormen who had been in the theatre for years still referred to him as Mr. Trudell."

Trudell was born in London, Ontario in 1911. The Capitol, originally named The Allen, was born in 1920. With 1,200 seats, it was one of Western Ontario's largest cinemas, rivalled only by the 1,700-seat Loew's five doors down. The man and the theatre came together in 1928 when Trudell learned the Capitol was hiring extra ushers to handle overflow crowds for two big hits, Wings and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Trudell, who had experience as a ticket taker at area dance halls, was hired.

He later quit school that fall to become a full-time usher, though he continued to take courses at a local business college. In 1935, at age 24, he became Famous Players' youngest theatre manager. The next two years saw his managerial mettle tested at smaller screens in Brantford, Guelph, Galt (now Cambridge) and Sarnia.

But Trudell wouldn't be on the road for long. He was going steady with Jean Stewart, a young woman as shy and private as he was outgoing and public. They married in 1938. In a sense, it was Trudell's second marriage. He'd become manager of the Capitol, a job he'd hold on and off for five decades, the summer before. Men like Trudell were responsible for selling movies locally. A film's success depended on the theatre managers' ability to dream up promotions on a shoestring.

"They would send out what they called a press book in advance and you would look over it for ideas. Sometimes you would get your own," he says. "When you got an idea, you would build it up."

And no one could build up an idea like Trudell. He visited The Free Press so often that younger employees mistook him for a staffer. The paper's late columnist, Del Bell, once called him "a madman for publicity."

He had his first certified blockbuster with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in March 1938. He gave the first 100 patrons a box of candy from what he dubbed McCormick's "Snow White" plant in east London. Londoners, primed by a steady stream of publicity, swarmed the theatre. Crowds spilling on to Dundas Street forced Trudell to add extra shows. Over the next 20 years, London witnessed one mob scene after another outside the Capitol. City council had to declare the sidewalk outside the theatre a no-standing zone.

For the 1949 release of Father was a Fullback, Trudell engineered a premiere more memorable than the film itself. Capitalizing on the popularity of University of Western Ontario Mustangs coach Johnny Metras, Trudell staged a night in his honour, complete with a parade of students, drum majorettes and ushers in football gear.

"If originality of effort and showmanship in selling count, I have every reason to believe that you will be out in front again," wrote co-star Rudy Vallee.

Trudell's marquee for The Greatest Show on Earth so impressed a Famous Players' president that he mailed a picture of it to director Cecil B. deMille. "It takes me back to the days when all theatre managers used to consider themselves salesmen, " deMille replied. "It is easy to see why The Greatest Show on Earth did such excellent business in London."

Though the Capitol was part of a U.S. theatre chain distributing American movies, Trudell always made the most of Canadian content. Newsreels featuring London or Londoners were advertised on the theatre's sandwich boards. He and a squad of amateur cameramen made London's first documentary, about the 1939 Royal tour. In April 1941, the Capitol scored another coup by holding The Sea Wolf's Canadian premiere with actors Alexander Knox and Gene Lockhart and studio head Jack Warner, all born or raised in London.

Trudell rarely passed on an innovation. The Capitol was one of the first Ontario theatres with a concession stand, though patrons weren't allowed to eat in the auditorium. In 1947, Trudell placed the first colour ad in a local paper. He embraced gimmicks like 3D, Electronovision and Sunday shows, anything to fill seats.

Not all Trudell's efforts went to packing the Capitol. He was instrumental in the Sixth Victory Loan Campaign in the months before D-Day, organizing a slogan contest that helped London top Ontario cities with an $800,000 contribution -- roughly $10 per citizen -- to the war effort.

A long-serving member of the Knights of Columbus and the board of St. Peter's Cemetery, Trudell helped organize Western Ontario's first communion breakfast for Catholics in the media and entertainment. He volunteered his theatre for the first Rosary Crusade by Father Patrick Peyton. He ran free screenings for orphans and talked other businesses into supplying entertainment and transportation.

In 1953, after 25 years with Famous Players, Trudell was named district supervisor for Western Ontario. But there was nowhere for his career to go but down.

"I got the job just as CFPL(-TV) was coming on the air," says Trudell. "Everybody stayed home, bought their television sets, paid them off every week (with) money that used to go into the theatres. It just killed everything."

Famous Players could see where the business was going. By decade's end, it was investing in cable TV at the expense of theatres. Promotional budgets were cut and district offices closed. In London, smaller theatres like the Patricia and the Rex became parking lots; larger ones had to refit or die.

The Capitol fared better. In September 1961, Mayor Gordon Stronach unveiled a $50,000 facelift featuring a 750-bulb marquee and box office clad in imported black granite. Baton-twirlers amused crowds waiting to see the year's big hit, The Guns of Navarone.

"That was a blockbuster show . . . a big social event that probably wouldn't draw flies today," recalls Dick Williams, who was host of a radio show from the Capitol's lobby that night. "(Bill Trudell) was more than just a person who put on a show . . . When he left the Capitol, the whole theatre scene became so faceless."

Film marketing was changing. The old two-films-a-week system was giving way to ever-longer runs. In 1970, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid set a record at the Capitol with a seven-month stay. Longer runs meant fewer films and less call for the publicity stunts Trudell was so good at.

"With The Godfather, we had them lined all the way down Dundas, down Clarence and up Queens," says Trudell. " I (would) go down the line and tell people which show they were going to see because a lot of them thought they were going to get into the next show."

Long line-ups were little consolation to Trudell. The campaigner for clean family entertainment was dismayed by the fall of Hollywood's production code in the mid-'60s and the torrent of adult material that ensued. Running The Exorcist didn't offer the same satisfaction as screening Going My Way for a group of cloistered nuns. The end came one November evening in 1975 when Trudell locked up his theatre and went home for good.

"When I retired, people said I would be down (at the Capitol) every week telling people how to run this place," he says. "I said, 'Just watch me.' "I've only been down there to see two or three (movies) since. We went down to see something and when the language and the sex started up, we walked out of the damn place."

With retirement came new opportunities. Trudell joined the Western Fair board representing the Knights of Columbus, eventually serving as president in 1989. Seven years later, he was the obvious choice to snip the ribbon of motion picture film to open London's IMAX theatre.

Like the old Capitol, Trudell is a survivor of a lost age. Once, a new movie at the Capitol was an event. Film stars like Gene Autry, Sabu and Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White, came to town. Promotions tied to local celebrities and events linked London to Hollywood glamour. And the Capitol wasn't called a theatre -- it was a movie palace. Like the movie industry, all this promo was as light as popcorn. But as long as people wanted to believe in it, Bill Trudell could provide the illusion.

Former usher Bill Clarke remembers those days, one night in particular. The 17-year-old had just finished his shift and found himself walking behind Trudell through downtown London.

"I noticed a number of people, shopkeepers along Dundas Street, would say 'hello' to him and he . . . would say `hello' to them," he recalls. "It struck me that it would be great as I grew older to be recognized by people who I knew to be prominent."