Hollywood's Red Risk

Surviving as an independent

Published: Jan 17 2014, 01:01:am

Sunday, May 10, 1984
    This two-part newspaper feature, focusing on programming changes being undertaken by Vancouver independent theatre owner David Fairleigh, began with a review of the motion picture The Lady in Red. The review portion of the article told readers that:
    According to the legend, John Dillinger was a movie fan. On the evening of July 22, 1934, he took his girlfriend to the Biograph Theatre in Chicago where Clark Gable was starring in Manhattan Melodrama, the story of a slum kid who grows up to be a gangster.

 *     *     *

REGINALD FAIRLEIGH DIDN'T have a lot of time to think about Dillinger's death outside the Biograph. During the violent summer of 1934, Fairleigh was planning the construction of his own neighbourhood movie house in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood.
    Fairleigh, a founding member of the B.C. projectionists union, had been involved in the picture business for more than 20 years. During the First World War, he set up Dominion Theatre Equipment, Ltd., a company that could outfit an auditorium with "everything but the film."
    On October 24, 1935, he opened his own theatre, The Hollywood, at 3123 West Broadway. His son David remembers taking tickets for the premiere attraction, the Will Rogers comedy Life Begins at 40.
    A family operation in a family neighbourhood, The Hollywood prospered. Between 1941 and 1951, Reginald leased his theatre to the Famous Players circuit, but retained ownership. During the lean years of the 1950s, it returned to independent status, soldiering on against the odds to become a Kitsilano institution.
    Filmgoers have had the opportunity to meet four generations of Fairleighs. Built by Reginald, The Hollywood is currently owned by his two sons, David and Richard, and their sister, Constance.
    On any given evening, you might be greeted at the door by David, sold a candy bar by one of his 10 grandchildren and see a double feature projected by either Richard or David's son, David, Jr.
    (Like his father, uncle and grandfather, David, Jr., is a dues-paying member of the local projectionists union. The 732-seat Hollywood is, the Fairleighs are quick to point out, a union house.)
    The theatre's survival technique was developed during what David Fairleigh calls "the holocaust period," the early years of television and wholesale movie house closures. He continued booking double features, and "we kept the prices low."
    Although The Hollywood still has the lowest admission price in town ($2.75 vs $3 at The Savoy and $3.50 at The Ridge and East Van Cinema), it has considerable competition for those box-office dollars, A flamboyant new generation of independent exhibitors is creating new excitement in a city that was, until recently, totally dominated by the two big theatre chains.
    Helping to breathe new life into Hollywood programming is Alex Grant, who acts as Fairleigh's publicity and program consultant, and occasional relief manager at the theatre. Grant prepares the Hollywood's program flyer, and is the author of its stylishly opinionated capsule comments on the films.
    It was Grant who noted that The Lady in Red, a 1979 film, had never had a Vancouver theatrical release. The distributors' vaults are full of good American films that have either been forgotten or were unnoticed in their runs through the chain theatres, he says.
    Grant contends that the Hollywood can offer its patrons exciting and unexpected film experiences at the traditional low prices. Fairleigh insists that his programs must draw enough customers to allow the theatre to pay its way.
     Both agree that, ultimately, it is the audience who'll decide.

The above is a restored version of a Province feature item by Michael Walsh originally published in 1984. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: At this moment (Jan. 17), the final fate of the 79-year-old movie house is uncertain. The Kitsilano neighbourhood cinema celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2010. Owned and operated by four generations of the Fairleigh family, its sale to a property developer and closure seven months later (following a May 29 farewell screening of the 1988 feature Cinema Paradiso) came as a shock to the community. Unable to proceed immediately with his plan to gut the interior and repurpose the building as a fitness centre, the new owner found a tenant in a local Christian congregation (affiliated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada) that reopened it as The Church of the Hollywood on September 16, 2012. The church group's lease expired at the end of November 2013, but its action in preserving the auditorium as a public space (and for screening films) bought time for a preservation-minded community group to form. Following a mid-November meeting of the Save the Hollywood Theatre Coalition that attracted cultural celebrities as well as provincial and municipal politicians, the city put a ban on further development until Jan. 20, 2014. Earlier this week, the city extended its ban for a further 45 days in the hope that a deal could be struck between the owner and the community.