Twenty-six years after the Oak Bay Theatre ran its last picture show, the Tweed Curtain is rising again for movie buffs.
History will repeat itself this fall when Kevin and Shawna Walker, owners of the rebuilt Oak Bay Beach Hotel, give movie lovers and visitors an early Christmas present - the launch of its plush cinema and dinner theatre.
With a tip of the hat to tradition, the David Foster Foundation Theatre's movie lineup begins in December with the classic that opened the Oak Bay Theatre in 1936 - A Midsummer Night's Dream starring Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland.
"I used to enjoy the funky nature of the Oak Bay which offered a taste of history like Sidney's theatre," recalled Kevin Walker. "Where else can you go where the owner stands out front and tells you what your evening will be like? It connects you in a way modern theatres don't."
Like so many other aspects of their $52-million makeover of the iconic oceanfront hotel, the David Foster Foundation Theatre is a labour of love. A portion of all ticket sales will go toward their pledge to raise $2 million over 10 years for the Grammy Award-winning musician's foundation that aids families of children needing organ transplants.
Before the movies unspool, the theatre with a capacity of 300 will open Nov. 16 with Bob LeBlanc's Celebration: A New Beginning, a musical-comedy revue honouring the hotel's history featuring the dinner theatre veteran and his Variety Fare troupe.
Stan Davis, best known for Four Neat Guys, his Forever Plaid-inspired musical, takes the stage in December with Harmony for Christmas, his musical revue harkening back to the hotel's popular dinner theatre musicals.
Accented by chandeliers, wood panelling, state-of-the-art audio and digital projection and a stage showcasing Foster's prized grand piano, the theatre was designed to present movies during the week and theatre on weekends.
Filmgoers shouldn't expect a carbon copy of multiplex fare, Walker cautions. His theatre's strengths, he says, lie in its alternatives - from eclectic programming to inspired food-and-beverage service in an intimate setting.
Theatregoers can enjoy three-course dinners showcasing West Coast cuisine and sommelier-suggested libations from a wine cellar built using reclaimed bricks. The licensed entertainment venue will offer moviegoers lighter fare - including chef Brock Bowes's "truffled popcorn" - and alcoholic beverages in the comfort of portable theatre seats with cuphold-ers.
Walker said not having to adhere to a chain's corporate agenda gives him flexibility.
"If that means running The Grinch Who Stole Christmas for a matinÃ©e, we'll do that," he said, adding patron feedback will be a factor. "We're very much a family-friendly venue, but we think we can present some of the classics that are passed over."
Movies, priced under $10, will typically have 10-day runs in "Oak Bay's community living room" as he describes the hotel.
"We have all kinds of crazy things planned," Walker said with a laugh. One event to expect is a breakfast with Santa, built around movies. Another, called Christmas Wrapping, will unite seniors from area residences and children for movie events.
On occasion, parents will be able to eat at the hotel's Kate's CafÃ©, or have a pint in its historic oceanview bar, the Snug, while their children watch movies.
The theatre will be the third cinema in the municipality. The first, the Avenue Theatre, opened in 1913 at 2013 Oak Bay Ave., and showed movies until the Depression.
Michael Hoppe, programmer for Cinecenta, still has fond memories of his years (1981-85) managing the Avenue's successor.
The Oak Bay, at 2184 Oak Bay Ave., closed Feb. 6, 1986, just short of its 50th anniversary, with a showing of The Shooting Party.
"Operating an independent theatre is like going to a horse race and not being allowed to bet on any of the leading runners," owner Jack Mears said, lamenting the changing times. "We've been snuffed out by the big companies [Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon]."
During his time, Hoppe breathed new life into the 400-seat cinema.
"It was typically the British films like Educating Rita and The Dresser that tended to do well," recalled Hoppe, who also booked foreign films and cofounded the theatre's precursor to the Victoria Film Festival.
He remembers running The Gods Must Be Crazy for four weeks before that unexpected indie sensation was scooped up by the late Barney Simmons for his Quadra Cinema. It ran there for more than a year, becoming Victoria's biggest movie hit.
Hoppe lamented having to let the film go to accommodate Starman, the pre-booked movie being touted as the next E.T.
Although they didn't line up outside in their slippers as some reportedly did years earlier, Hoppe recalled many patrons being fond of Mr. Berwick, the elderly gentleman who ripped their tickets, and praising the theatre's safety.
"It was the only theatre, except for Cinecenta, where I heard women say they felt comfortable coming alone."
While Hoppe declined to predict how the Walkers will do, he said booking the classics was a safe bet.
"The more British, the better."
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