I must admit I had mixed emotions when I heard Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre had purchased the Roxy cinema.
The image of its producing artistic director Brian Richmond, a distinguished dramaturge, theatre director and UVic professor, peddling popcorn and showing Adam Sandler movies was, well, dumbfounding. Yet I was thrilled to hear this top-shelf arts company was giving the historic Quadra Village cinema a new lease on life, doubling as a movie house and a legitimate theatre.
Let’s face it. Since Howie Siegel sold the Roxy in 2007, it’s become a creaky, poorly promoted shadow of its former self.
When Blue Bridge bought the rundown theatre from developer Michael Sharpe last month for $965,000 with a generous loan from businessman Michael Salomon and his wife, actor-director Shauna Baird, an exciting new chapter began for the 300-seat movie house that opened as the Fox in 1949 with the Esther Williams vehicle This Time for Keeps.
Originally owned by G.C. Walkley and Alberta showman B.A. (Bert) Nixon, the cinema housed in an army quonset hut later boasted Victoria’s first curved screen, and had a pipe organ. It became an arthouse theatre in 1963, when Nixon sold it to Nat Taylor, co-founder of Cineplex Odeon with protégé Garth Drabinsky.
Taylor later sold the theatre to his nephew Barney Simmons, who renamed it the Quadra and ran it as a soft-porn house before restoring mainstream fare. Simmons sold it in 1986 to Siegel, who ran it for 21 years before selling to Sharpe.
While Richmond might not seem like a movie guy, he’s surprisingly passionate about cinema.
“I’ve been a movie buff since I was four,” he says, adding he watches at least six movies a week. “My mother would give me 25 cents a week and that’s what I’d spend it on.”
He says he’ll watch anything, adding he just sat through Wolfgang Petersen’s clunky swords-and-sandals epic Troy.
“Bad storytelling teaches me as much as good storytelling,” he said.
The self-described film exhibition neophyte admits he has a steep learning curve, and he’s reeling from a crash course on everything from projection issues to booking films.
“We’re handcuffed by the fact it’s still a 35 mm theatre,” he notes candidly. “It’s the Roxy’s biggest problem, so the urgency to convert to digital is extreme. Thank God we decided to keep Neil on.”
He was referring to Neil Kelly, the Roxy’s acerbic and knowledgeable manager Siegel hired.
“Neal knows where the switches are, where the skeletons are, how the toilets flush,” Siegel joked.
With studios phasing out 35mm prints, the purchase of a $65,000 digital projector is Richmond’s top priority. Meanwhile, he’s showing “whatever we can get” from a limited supply of 35 mm movies such as Snitch and Zero Dark Thirty, currently playing at 7 and 9 p.m. to keep Blue Bridge at the Roxy, as it’s temporarily known, up and running.
The objective is to have the theatre converted to a mixed-use facility by this fall, he says, but there’s much work to be done. First up is the launch of Blue Bridge’s $2-million capital campaign to repay the loan and finance renovations.
It’s “absolutely critical,” Richmond says, to build a proper stage, backstage area, dressing rooms and a lighting grid. Seating will be reduced to 280 to accommodate changes, including more washrooms and a refurbished lobby.
While films will be a mainstay, the theatre has tremendous potential as a live-performance venue for shows by Blue Bridge and other groups. Vancouver’s Rio Theatre, an arthouse cinema that began adding live music and multi-disciplinary art events in 2008, is an obvious model, except that the Roxy would focus more on legitimate theatre.
It helps that Victoria city council gave its blessing to its liquor licence application. If approved by B.C.’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, liquor service would be allowed under certain conditions.
After lamenting how Victoria audiences still haven’t had a chance to see many of the fine Canadian films showcased at last weekend’s Canadian Screen Awards, I couldn’t help but feel the Roxy could become an ideal home for such films.
“That could be a great opportunity for First Weekend Club to support,” said Anita Adams, executive director of the national non-profit that builds audiences for Canadian films through initiatives such as partnerships with Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre and Toronto’s Bell Lightbox. “We don’t have a big presence in Victoria and that’s something we’d like to change.”
While Cinecenta currently caters to discerning filmgoers with an eclectic array of alternative film fare, programmer Michael Hoppe said the University of Victoria Students’ Society program welcomes the Blue Bridge enterprise.
“I wish them well,” he said. “There’s been some overlap between the Roxy and Cinecenta, but they also have distinctive specialty audiences. Quadra Village is becoming a funkier, more happening place, so that bodes well for them.”
The Roxy also gives Blue Bridge a chance to expand its demographic.
“The key is to keep it busy and program inventively,” said Siegel, who in his day hosted British pop star Donovan. “They have an opportunity to bring back vaudeville. But it’s not just for the tony black-tie crowd. They can bring in the unwashed masses — the bohemians, the rockers, the auteurs.”
While Richmond is open to programming art and foreign fare, classics and perhaps films linked thematically to Blue Bridge shows, he has other things on his mind right now — from architectural plans to fundraising initiatives.
“And we’re also producing our full season of plays,” he said. “It’s a good thing I work dawn to dusk.”
© Copyright 2013