Shackleford Family Movies

On an overcast Lethbridge day, I met Joey Shackleford at the Paramount building. We climbed to the roof of the Paramount theatre with Joey’s partner Dixie; Amber Panczak the current co-owner of the Paramount building and Mike Jensen our photographer. Later Joey Shackleford arrived at the Lethbridge Living offices to talk about his family’s legacy in movies in Lethbridge. His style of dress and physical stature is reminiscent of the “The Man With No Name” in the Clint Eastwood classic A Fistful of Dollars. Not unlike The Man With no Name, Joey is deft but strikes you as a thinker. Perhaps that is why he was a highschool basketball star who chose to become a teacher and educated thousands of students at LCI for 32 years.

Joey is part of a legacy that brought entertainment to Lethbridge and created places for the community to gather together. Joey’s two sons continue this tradition. His son Robert fulfilled his great-grandfather, A.W.’s dream and is an architect in Vancouver. Joey’s son Patrick is a chip off the old block and is a teacher at Winston Churchill Highschool.

The Galt Museum and Archives YouTube channel hosts the most wonderful video interview. It’s title “In Profile: Alfred William Shackleford and His Son Robert”. The 1992 episode of the CFCN Television program 'In Profile' is hosted by Elisha Rasmussen. The interview with Alfred William Shackleford and his son Robert focuses on their years in the motion picture theatre business in Lethbridge in their own words. What a marvellous experience to fast-forward to 2020 and listen to Joey Shackleford sharing his family’s story in movies. My talk with Joey inspired a need to know more about the men he obviously loved and admired so much, his father Robert (aka Bob) and grand-father Alfred William (aka: A.W. or Shack).

The story begins in 1921, when a young Calgarian named A. W. Shackleford, came to Lethbridge with the ambition to be an architect or a draftsman but was invited to manage the newly renamed Kings Theatre. Shack is quoted for having said, “it was just one of those things where you change life in the middle of the stream.” He ran the theatre for a year and returned in 1924 to purchase the lease for $3000.00. A.W. and his business partners started Lethbridge Amusement Companies Limited. It was the silent movie-era. Tom Mix and  Zane  Grey cowboy movies brought in decent crowds, but the Kings theatres struggled to turn a profit and closed in 1925. The Capitol Theatre opened in partnership with Famous Players on Thanksgiving Day 1929. It was a moment that will live in infamy as the stock-market crashed and A.W. had just opened a building that cost over $300,000. Any business owner today shudders at the thought. But Shack made it work.

After building a successful business, A.W. became the Mayor of Lethbridge in 1943 and served in that role for over 20 years. Shack attributed his ability to step away from the movie theatre business into public service to his wife, his secretary and his two sons Bob and Doug. “Without them, I couldn’t have done any of the things I did, Shack said. The business was in very good hands.
The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of drive-in theatres, with more than 4000 operating across North America. In 1950, a Calgary-based company opened the Green Acres Drive-In in Lethbridge on the corner of Mayor Magrath Drive South and Scenic Drive South, and two years later A.W. Shackleford and associates took over the operation. The theatre had a 60-square-foot screen and a capacity of about 400 cars, later expanded to accommodate 575 cars. Full of seat-beltless moviegoers (and maybe one or two stow-aways in the trunk).

Joey recounts that the movie theatre was “the first job for two generations in our family”. When asked what his least favourite task was working at the theatre, his answer was rapid-fire fast “None.” We talked about his first car he took to the drive-in with friends. It was a 1966 Valiant.

Drive-in theatres were new and exciting at the time. Perfect for a date and a novelty for parents, who could bring their kids along in PJs and enjoy a late show. Green Acres wooed families with westerns and comedies; they also installed a playground and organized Easter egg hunts, yodelling cowboy stage shows, and bingo games starting at 6 pm.

Despite their popularity, drive-in theatres were limited to the summer months with long daylight hours, and many were gradually squeezed out by urban sprawl and competition from multi-screen theatres. Joey reflects, “Going to the movies was

a big social outing back in the day. When the original Star Wars opened at the Paramount downtown, there was a line-up around the corner”. In Bob Shackelford’s words “Theatres will always survive. No matter what. People will always need to get out of the house and be with other people and  be together to enjoy the laughter.”

There is something magical about the moving image. Sitting across the table from Joey in 2020, then watching A.W. and Bob tell their story on video brings this Lethbridge family legacy to life. The experience of sharing stories is a tie that binds us.
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