REMEMBERING KENTVILLE’S MOVIE PIONEER (March 25/05)

In the early 1950s a Washington Post columnist with the last name Pearson visited Kentville. He was strolling along a town street one afternoon when a man tipped his hat and said, “Good morning Mr. Pearson.” When the columnist returned home he wrote a piece about being recognised by a total stranger because of a physical feature common to his family, the large “Pearson nose.”

What the newspaper man didn’t know is that to one of Kentville’s best known entertainers, everyone was Mr. Pearson. Al Clarke had the habit of addressing any male he ran into, stranger or acquaintance, as Mr. Pearson. Advertiser editor Harold Woodman heard about the incident, wrote a column about it, and gave everyone a good laugh. But not at Clarke’s expense. Clarke himself, a cheerful, always ready with a funny story kind of gentleman, related the incident many times when he wanted to lighten the moment.

The good morning Mr. Pearson story is one of many tales that make up the Al Clarke legend. Many people still remember Al Clarke, but he is largely unknown to younger generations. There was a time, however, when Al Clarke was a popular Valley celebrity who was hailed for his musical, theatrical and sports promotions.

Born in Canard and a Planter descendant, Al Clarke’s achievements were numerous. In the early 1900s, Clarke, along with Fred Hiltz, pioneered the opening of a silent movie theatre, the Nicklet, on the third floor of the Hiltz block (now the location of the White Family Funeral Home). The Advertiser article celebrating Clarke’s life, published on his death at age 76 in January 1958, noted that he was the founder of Kentville’s “first motion picture house” but it is believed that his movie theatre was the first in this region. Later, circa 1910, Clarke moved the theatre to a new building on Main Street, and the Nicklet eventually became the Empire Theatre, the space now occupied by D. M. Reid Jewellers Ltd.

Clarke and Hiltz added a stage to the original Nicklet and produced theatrical shows. Stage shows were produced at the Main Street location as well, and said The Advertiser tribute, many were American-based productions that first played in Halifax before coming to Kentville. For decades, Clarke produced a series of popular musical variety shows throughout Kings County using local musicians and singers. “Perhaps Mr. Clarke’s most cherished work in the entertainment field,” The Advertiser said, “was provided in the Second World War. He organized amateur groups and presented shows throughout the entire Valley, raising large amounts for the Red Cross.”

Clarke is not as well known for promotion of sports but he was a pioneer here as well. “When the new Kentville arena opened in 1913,” The Advertiser noted, “Clarke and Hiltz sponsored the Kentville senior team of the Western Nova Scotia League. Mr. Clarke promoted many track and field events and road races, and he also brought (Nova Scotia boxing great) Sam Langford here.” Assisted by Clarke (Langford was blind) the boxer made many appearances at boxing matches and other sporting events.

Clarke was a talented singer as well and for many years was a member of the original and famous Clarke-Cross Quartette along with his brother John, and Spurgeon and John Cross.

“Known to everyone as Al,” said The Advertiser, “(Clarke) was one of Kentville’s most popular and colorful citizens. He enjoyed a wide friendship and in the New Ross-Aaldersville area… as throughout Kings his name was a household one.”

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