Real estate the problem

Curtain falls on an urban institution

Published: Jun 15 2017, 01:01:am

Sunday, June 17, 1990.

MOVIES. FOR SOME, THEY'RE an obsession.
    For others, a mere diversion, a means of expression, or even a way of life.
    Ultimately, they're a business.
    Friday [June 15, 1990], business realities brought the curtain down on what had become a Commercial Drive institution, The Vancouver East Cinema.
    "Business has never been better," theatre manager Donna Chisholm said after learning that her lease on the premises would not be renewed. "But the building . . . has been sold to new owners (who) plan to operate a Chinese-language theatre."
    In July, the auditorium will reopen under new management as the Far East Theatre. Chisholm, who has operated the Van East since July 1985, is "taking a break" from the exhibitions business to "check out my three-year-old."
    Relocating the business, she says, proved harder and more tiring than she'd expected.  “In the beginning, I thought that it would be a smooth transition," she says.
    Currently, there are a number of "dark" movie houses in the Vancouver area, including such former Famous Players venues as the Downtown and the Denman Place , as well as the ex-Cineplex Broadway, Dolphin, Fraser and Vogue theatres.
    As it turned out, "there's a lot of competition for theatres right now," said Chisholm.
    A number of local independent entrepreneurs recently made offers on the soon-to-be-ex-Cineplex Park Theatre on Cambie Street.
    Chisholm was among them. "We bid what we knew we could afford," she says. In the end, though, "it came down to how many risks I wanted to take at this time."
    Given "the lack of a suitable space," she decided to let her family obligations take precedence. That said, she remains positive about the place of independent exhibitors in the local movie mix.
    "The problem we're encountering is just real estate," says the self-described film fanatic. The Van East, after all, "was successful in supporting itself" and, under her guidance, "a real alternative theatre."
    The wife of Vancouver International Film Festival director Alan Franey, Chisholm admits that alternate exhibition "doesn't make much sense as a pure business."
    Even so, with the pure business theatre chains ever more wedded to mass-market blockbusters, independent operators are the only ones left who cultivate small, special-interest audiences.
    As a repertory house, the Van East was able to premiere small, specialty pictures, to indulge in nostalgia programming, and package "festivals" of films with narrow ethnic, ideological or political appeal.
    As a community-based theatre, it "was constantly responding to change," she says.
    "I'm a dilettante," the Kitimat-born Chisholm says cheerfully. But, when home video made many of the repertory standbys unavailable in Canada, "I had to start getting creative."
    And what are the lessons of five years of cinematic creativity?
    "Tolerance," she says thoughtfully. "The truth of the idea of (different) tastes and opinions."
    Initially, her Van East programs consisted of "the films I'd seen and loved." Eventually, though, "I started to like all kinds of film, to appreciate a good 35mm print and a good comedy because audiences came out happy.
    "I learned that you can combine business with pleasure."
* * *
    "Vancouver's unique," says Donna Chisholm, "in that it maintains so many independent theatres."
    Though the passing of the Van East is a significant loss, nearly a dozen non-chain theatres still remain in operation.
    First-run alternative programming remains a policy of the Ridge Theatre. Budget bills continue to be offered by the Hollywood, Lux and Paradise cinemas. Until recently Chinese-language films were the stock in trade at the Shaw, Golden Harvest and Golden Princess theatres. The Haida, Fox, Kitten and Venus continue to provide diversion for hardcore pornography fans.

The above is a restored version of a Province feature by Michael Walsh originally published in 1990. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: The business of the movies has changed a great deal since Donna Chisholm decided to “take a break” from managing a theatre. In the late 1980s, our entertainment ecosystem was undergoing a seismic shift. New home entertainment options and the expense of theatrical digital equipment have created a fragmented audience, while enabling unprecedented corporate concentration of much of the industry. One result has been the virtual elimination of independent owners operating neighbourhood movie houses. The uniqueness in the cinema scene that Chisholm observed in 1990 was on its way to becoming a Vancouver memory.  
    Of the 18 cinemas named in the above report, only two exist as movie houses today (2017). Despite the city’s growing Asian population, the Van East Cinema’s new owners were late in exploiting the appeal of Chinese feature films. The Shaw Theatre, opened in 1971 to play pictures produced by the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio, shut down in 1985. It remained dark until 2009, when local music impresario Mo Tarmohamed reopened it it as the Rickshaw Cabaret. The Golden Harvest had opened in 1974 as an outpost of the Shaw Brothers' major competitor, former Shaw producer Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Studios. Closed in 1991, it underwent major renovations in 2014 to become The Imperial, a boutique theatre currently available for private functions. The Golden Princess, originally opened as the Rio in 1938, changed its name in 1982 to reflect its switch to Chinese-language programming. Its checkered history is encapsulated in the introduction to my review of the film Tremors,
which notes that it’s back to being the Rio and is currently one of Vancouver’s two surviving independents.    
    The Van East returned for a time to screening second-run features, eventually closing in 2011 to make room for a condominium development. Of the six theatres named above that were “dark” in 1990, all are gone. The Downtown (1909-1999) is now a Granville Street nightclub. The Denman Place (1969-2012) is the site of a dollar store, and the Broadway (1977-1987) is a gambling casino. Both the Dolphin (1966-2014) and the Fraser (1920-1989) were demolished to make way for new buildings. The Vogue (1941-1987) now operates as a live music venue. Its Art Deco building was designated a National Historic Site by the federal government in 1993.
    The Park Theatre, built in 1941, operated independently for a time but, in 2013, was purchased by corporate giant Cineplex Entertainment. The Hollywood (1935-2011) sits empty today, while the Lux (1934-1993) was demolished and the Paradise (1958-2000) is now a nightclub. Two of the four cinemas that were programming porn films in 1990 — the Kitten (1971-2004) and the Venus (1912-2007) have been demolished. The Haida (1939-2013) sits empty and the Fox (1980-2013) has been refurbished as a cabaret. As a glance at the dates noted in parentheses makes clear, many of the movie houses listed were part of the urban landscape for generations. Not named in the above story was Vancouver’s Dunbar Theatre. Though opened as an independent in 1935, it was being  operated as a Famous Players theatre in 1990. In 1998, it returned to local ownership and today shares with the Rio the distinction of being the city’s only surviving neighbourhood movie houses.