Monday, August 2, 2010

If Roxy goes dark, Victoria loses a gem

The Roxy has a ho-hum interior, but glistens like a bijou at night. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 2, 2010

VICTORIA

The Roxy offers refuge from the maddening city, a darkened sanctuary of flickering images and escapist fare.

It is one of the last of the neighbourhood theatres, tucked along a street of low buildings. The nearby restaurants are a smorgasbord of mom-and-pop operations — an Italian deli, a Moroccan cafe, a Caribbean jerk joint. Some years ago, a cheque-cashing outfit opened across from a bank. Now the bank is gone to be replaced by the castoff treasures of a Salvation Army thrift store.

Each evening, a parade of moviegoers enters a theatre in which the price of admission is so low as to not require a loan from the sharks across the street. A ducat for a double feature costs $7 and just $4 on Tuesday, which is less than the cost of a fancy drink at Starbucks. There are no chain coffee shops on this stretch of Quadra Street, but there is the aptly named Caffe Fantastico.

The concession stand at the Roxy Classic offers java, too, as well as cider and fruit juice and hot chocolate and, in summer, slushies with their delicious promise of brain freeze. Hot popcorn is topped by melted butter, not some chemical concoction.

It is mildly comforting to know the sticky stuff on the floor is 100 per cent natural.

Armed with candy, patrons find a seat in which to watch the house’s lone screen.

On Saturday afternoons, the pint-sized set take over the house.

Outside, during most days, the theatre is a quiet place, a queue only forming as the sun goes down.

While the building is no bijou, it sparkles like a jewel.

A new overhead sign, with a flicker of neon, has been placed overhead. A row of posters advertising the movies lights up the entrance at 2657 Quadra St.

The north marquee reads: SAT 130 KARATE KID 4 SHREK FOREVER.

The south marquee reads: 700 LAST AIRBENDER 9 GET HIM TO THE GREEK.

The theatre does not list one possible coming attraction — a wrecking ball. The business is for sale for a cool $1.2 million.

The theatre was purchased three years ago by Michael Sharpe, a real estate developer. He cleaned up the exterior, gussied up the interior. The old entrance, including a door covered with faded movie stills, an unwelcoming greeting, was returned to its former glory of four glass-fronted portals.

While the listing for the property states the movie house “boasts solid and still growing audience numbers,” it also suggests “development potential ... as the site is utilized well below potential highest and best use.”

No kidding. The Quadra Street Village has enjoyed a resurgence, becoming something of a hipster haven stretching from the anarchist bookstore to the retro movie house. The Roxy’s Facebook page has 1,056 members, enough to fill the seats threefold. It is the last single-screen theatre in the city. (The only other independent movie houses in the region are the student-run Cinecenta on the University of Victoria campus and the two-screen Star Cinema in a converted bingo hall in Sidney.) With no adjacent, living-room-sized theatres as at a multiplex, the projectionist can crank the volume on the new Dolby Digital system, reviving the theatre’s old slogan, “Where sound sounds better!”

The theatre opened on Feb. 1, 1949, as the Fox, the sign including a neon rendition of its vulpine namesake. The first bill included cartoons, a newsreel, and a feature attraction in Technicolor, “This Time for Keeps,” starring Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante and the band leader Xavier Cugat. Other early showings included “Sealed Verdict” with Ray Milland and “Easter Parade” starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.

The Fox was owned by a projectionist and a pharmacist who owned the adjacent drugstore on which advertising signs promoted Sweet Caporal cigarettes. Constructed in a post-war era of scarcity, the building was designed like a Quonset hut. It looks like an oil barrel cut in half vertically before being placed on its side. These days, the exterior is painted blue.

Over the years, other neighbourhood cinemas succumbed to changing times. In Oak Bay, the Avenue Theatre closed during the Depression, becoming a warehouse before being converted into apartments. Further east, the Oak Bay Theatre closed its doors in 1986, leaving behind a sign that is now the symbol of the village.

The Fox survived, barely. It became a porno palace during the 1970s before being bought in 1986 by a partnership including Howie Siegel, a restaurateur who puts the boy in flamboyant.

As a boy in Brooklyn, the flying monkeys scene in the “The Wizard of Oz” caused him to run screaming from Loew’s Boro Park Theater. Thus began a lifelong passion for cinema. He once dreamed of becoming a studio mogul.

“When I finally figured out I wasn’t going to make movies,” he said, “I might as well show ’em.”

The joint was named the Roxy CineGog. Its slogan: “Where movies are a religion.”

He made a killing with “Crocodile Dundee,” drew in the art crowd with “Babette’s Feast” and “My Life as a Dog.” The art crowd displayed a certain eccentricity. Though tickets were the cheapest in town, patrons clamoured at the concession stand for free cups of hot water in which to dunk the tea bags they brought from home.

A different crowd gathered for midnight showings of “Heavy Metal, “Dazed and Confused,” and the annual Halloween showing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a bane to the cleaners who faced mountains of rice, toast and toilet paper thrown at the screen. For years, a streak of what looked like dried egg could be seen above the screen. Once, police had to be called to escort a streaker who refused to dress after his stunt.

One of Mr. Siegel's innovations involved removing the middle arm from pairs of seats in the back row. He called them nursing and necking seats.

“There was some sort of sucking going on,” he said.

“A great place for lovers to disappear to. Myself included.”

They don’t build them like that anymore.

The Fox Theatre opened in 1949 with a cartoon, a newsreel, and "This Time for Keeps," starring Esther Williams, Jimmy Durants and the band leader Xavier Cugat. B.C. Archives photograph I-02039.

5 comments:

forestwmoon said...

It seems to me like there's still hope for The Roxy. If the new owner has a heart then maybe the movie theater will stay, perhaps with improvements making it better than before.
Victoria needs to keep its entertainment businesses, I don't want The Roxy to turn out like the bowling alleys.

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