Edmonton’s Jewish history comes back to life

Edmonton’s Capitol Theatre in 1928

Edmonton’s Jewish community will soon have a platform through which to tell the story of its contribution to the city’s development, when the historic jewelry and optometry store H.B. Kline reopens at Fort Edmonton’s Capitol Theatre June 9.

Fort Edmonton, a park that showcases the living history of Edmonton, opened the Capitol Theatre movie and vaudeville house as one of its exhibits in 2011. It included the windows of Kline’s store, which had been located at the theatre until the store closed in 1972. But beyond the windows, there was nothing else to be shown of the shop.

Ken Wasserman, the great-grandson of Herman B. Kline, was determined that more of the story be told. His great-grandfather’s store was in business from 1904 to 1972, and it morphed from something akin to a pawnshop into a jewelry store. “I’m assuming by virtue of what was, in a mercantile sense, realistic at that time,” he said.

Wasserman, who calls Edmonton home, began collaborating with Debby Shoctor, archivist and executive director of the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta (JAHSENA), to bring the store back to life.

“We want the store to serve as an interpretive space through which the story of Edmonton’s Jewish pioneers can be told,” Shoctor said. “The Capitol Theatre building was an integral part of the Jewish history of Edmonton, but no mention of our story was made in the interpretation of this site in 2011.”

The building was constructed by the Allen brothers, two American Jews who built theatres throughout North America. On the left side of the theatre, the Pipe Shop, owned by the Ostry family, was in business for 30 years, while on the right sat H.B. Kline Jewelers, one of the city’s first jewelry stores.

Recreating H.B. Kline Jewelers comes with a price tag of $70,000, and neither the City of Edmonton nor the Fort Edmonton Foundation has stepped up to contribute, although they have co-operated in other ways, Shoctor says. Instead, Edmonton’s Jewish community will have to foot the bill. To date, the community has raised $52,000 and is appealing to the public for financial donations and donations of vintage jewelry, antique eyeglasses and 1920s-era crystal and silver that will stock the store’s shelves.

Five antique clocks are among the donations that have come in so far, the gift of a local clock restorer who once worked for Kline’s son, Irving. Another donor has offered to match all financial donations up to $10,000. Wasserman has also donated genuine heirloom articles from his family’s collection.

“This will be a wonderful honour for my family,” Wasserman said. “It’s a foot in the door, a lens we can use to view the history of the Jewish pioneers in Edmonton. It will be a bona fide historical locale.”

What’s more, it’s in a location that plays a crucial role in historical storytelling in Edmonton. Fort Edmonton Park is one of the city’s premier tourist destinations and an educational attraction that receives more than 100,000 visitors each year.

“At present there is no museum for the Jewish community of Edmonton or anywhere in northern Alberta, nor is there an outreach method whereby our rich history can be told to the general public or to student groups,” Shoctor said. “This project will satisfy that need.”

The funding will allow furnishing and build-out of the 400-square-foot space and pay for an interpreter to be stationed inside the store, starting this summer, to tell the story of Edmonton’s Jewish community.