Vancouver Island entrepreneur E.W. Bickle designed and built what is now the Sid Williams Theatre. The state-of-the-art movie house was opened on June 20, 1935, with a gala presentation of the new colour film spectacle “Babes in Toyland.” E.W. wanted to create the finest movie theatre on Vancouver Island, and his new Bickle Theatre on Cliffe Avenue featured many luxuries that event theatres in bustling Victoria did not offer. Bickle also built and owned Cumberland’s Ilo Ilo Theatre, Courtenay’s E.W. Theatre (subsequently the Palace Theatre on 5th Street), and the Comox District Free Press. The theatre’s current namesake, Sid Williams, actually worked at the E.W. in the 1940’s.
Bickle was a “hands on” theatre owner; many locals still remember attending shows and seeing him sitting in a leather wing chair in the lobby supervising the crowds as they came and went. Well into his senior years he arrived each evening in a chauffeured limousine to collect the day’s box office take. After E.W. Bickle passed away, the building operated for a time as an auction house and later became vacant for a number of years. On an early January morning in 1968, the Riverside Hotel next to the theatre at the corner of 5th Street and Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay burned down. This event was the turning point by which the citizens of the Comox Valley acquired a civic performing arts theatre.
After a great deal of fundraising, a land swap involving Crown Zellerback, a generous donation by the E.W. Bickle family, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on the part of many individuals and groups in the community, the black hole of the former Riverside Hotel got cleaned up. A fountain was built, the old Bickle was renovated and in September 1971 the new Civic Theatre and Civic Square were opened by Premier W.A.C. Bennett.
In honour of a much loved local actor and comedian, it was named the Sid Williams Civic Theatre in 1984. Sid Williams was born Frederick Sidney Williams on October 14th, 1908, in New Westminster, BC, and arrived in the Comox Valley in 1921 at the age of 12. Sid’s earliest stage appearance was in a school production in 1922. This began a lifetime of theatre involvement. From his tours with the Barkerville Players and as Century Sam; his many live appearances, both local and distant; to his television work (on The Beachcombers, PharmaSave commercials, and a documentary for CBC’s On the Road Again), they brought him many honours. Sid also served continuously as Alderman for the City of Courtenay from 1942 to 1964.
Sid ran the Civic Theatre for many years as a one man tour-de-force, and rain or shine could be seen up a ladder every week changing the messages on the theatre’s marquee. He passed away on September 26th, 1991.
The Sid Williams Civic Theatre has been serving the Comox Valley for over 25 years as a performing arts facility, and has had a professional administration since 1992. In 1998, the theatre was closed for some much needed renovations. After a few seismic tests, the City of Courtenay extended the original $1,000,000 budget to an incredible $2,500,000. The renovations extended the lobby, added a concession, a large ticket centre, family viewing seats, a 144 seat balcony, many needed washrooms, larger dressing room space, and much more.
Now, a 500-seat performing arts facility, the Sid Williams Theatre looks forward to providing quality entertainment for the Comox Valley for many years to come.
History courtesy of the Courtenay & District Museum.