Renovated space at Odeon theatre started as balcony in 1940s

Update: There'll be a soft-opening Tuesday through Thursday nights for the renovated theatre No. 5 at Cineplex Odeon in downtown Victoria. Work crews finished their jobs ahead of schedule. No. 5 will host one showing each night of Wonder Woman, then go to a full schedule of shows on Friday.

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Pierre Gauthier says it still boggles his mind that Cineplex Odeon’s largest auditorium was once just the balcony of the historic Yates street cinema, which opened 69 years ago.

When demolition began last month on the upstairs theatre No. 5, where 450 traditional theatre seats are being replaced by 174 luxury recliners, it brought the spacious theatre’s magnitude and history into sharp focus, he said. Originally, the single-screen cinema would have had about 750 seats on the main floor and 550 on the balcony.

“You’re taking a 1948 movie theatre balcony and turning it into an absolutely wonderful place to watch movies in 2017,” said Gauthier, the Odeon’s general manager.

The biggest challenge for crews, he said, was gutting the auditorium, which was last renovated 20 years ago when the Odeon, by then a triplex, was reinvented as a seven-plex.

To the relief of moviegoers with mobility issues, the Odeon’s 1997 makeover included an elevator along with new curved screens and upgraded sound, Gauther said.

It also included a key feature that is being updated as part of the renovated auditorium where Wonder Woman is being screened once nightly until it officially opens Friday with a full program — a designated area for patrons who require wheelchairs and companion seating.

The initial upgrade 20 years ago was a welcome change from the days when patrons who used wheelchairs or couldn’t climb stairs avoided seeing shows in the huge upstairs cinema.

Many disabled filmgoers who wanted to see E.T. in 1982, for instance, had to wait until Steven Spielberg’s megahit could be moved into a smaller ground-floor theatre.

Gauthier will never forget the day a disabled youngster wanted to see the sci-fi classic and was crushed to learn it was playing upstairs.

“We moved all the people who were in No. 5 for E.T. down to No. 2 so the boy could see it,” said Gauthier.

Ironically, disabled patrons also had difficulty seeing My Left Foot eight years later, when the box-office hit about Dublin artist Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy, was booked to play upstairs.

Gauthier, whose staff had offered to carry physically challenged filmgoers upstairs, also occasionally moved My Left Foot into a smaller theatre to accommodate them.

Crews have been working steadily for the past six weeks on the theatre, which has received a new dark-blue paint job and carpeting since its old seats were removed.

The auditorium also has a new state-of-the-art sound system, acoustic panels and aisles on each side, but no more centre aisle.

No. 5 was the last auditorium to be converted as part of last fall’s luxury-seating makeover. The completion was delayed to avoid disrupting the holiday movie season and the Victoria Film Festival in February.

The large stage in front of the screen — popular because of the distance that enhances front-row viewing — is also being retained.

It stands where railings once did on a balcony that was packed with opening-nighters on Feb. 17, 1948, for the Odeon’s North American première of Master of Bankdam, a British historical film starring Anne Crawford, Dennis Price and David Tomlinson.

There were lineups down Yates street to Douglas and up Johnson for what the Victoria Daily Times called “the biggest theatre opening and première in the city’s history.”

Walking past what he calls “the best seat in the house” — front row centre — Gauthier reminisced about his days as manager of Calgary’s Grand Theatre during an era when balcony seats were coveted.

“People have always liked the balcony,” he said. “In the old days, when there was smoking in theatres, we charged extra because the balcony was where you could smoke.”

Aisle seats were also smoking seats and “the whole theatre would be full of ashtrays,” Gauthier said.

Smoking wasn’t the only thing hazardous to your health on the balcony, he added.

“The worst thing was the time a girl got so excited watching a Beatles movie, she jumped off the balcony.”

The balcony business began to drop off after smoking was prohibited in theatres, said Gauthier, whose wife, Velma Gauthier, managed the former Haida Theatre, which also had a balcony.

“When we weren’t busy, we’d just close the balcony,” he said.

mreid@timescolonist.com

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