Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hollywood Theatre a Kitsilano landmark for 75 years

The Hollywood Theatre in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood has been a beacon for 75 years.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 21, 2010


The red neon cuts through even the gloomiest Vancouver evening, promising a world of fantasy.

The Hollywood Theatre stands as a beacon of entertainment at 3123 West Broadway, a Kitsilano landmark whose name burns overhead.

Above the entrance, a smaller neon sign in cursive letters promises, “Pick o’ the Best Plays.”

A ticket booth of black and gold tile juts from the facade. Inside the glass, the original Automaticket dispenser still works, though it is in disuse. On some weekends, the booth is staffed by Alice Fairleigh, the widow of the original manager.

The Hollywood opened its doors 75 years ago this month. In all that time, through Depression and world war, the advent of television and the introduction of the videocassette, the rise of the video game and a future of live streaming, it has continued to show films on a large screen, a 19th-century innovation seeking an audience in the 21st.

It is believed to be the oldest family-owned theatre in the land.

To buy a ticket is to vote in favour of the simple pleasures of the past. Inside, a deco sign reading “Loge” indicates a stairwell to the balcony. The 651 red plush seats have wooden armrests, the end seats on each aisle sporting grooved modernist patterns.

Theatre manager Vince Fairleigh 
To take a seat at the movie house is to visit the Fairleigh family living room, to indulge their passion (and their livelihood), now shared by a fourth generation.

If the fixings seem dated, it is a sign of the hard-scrabble life of the independent theatre owner.

“It could use a little TLC,” acknowledges Vince Fairleigh, who has been the theatre’s manager for 18 of his 42 years.

He has been busy in recent days preparing for a three-day celebration this weekend to mark the anniversary. Klieg lights will be set up on the street to illuminate the night sky, while volunteer actors dressed in costumes featuring pillbox hats like old-time ushers will serve wine and canapes. A candy girl will circulate.

The Friday to Sunday double bill features “The American” (a thriller starring George Clooney) and “Casablanca,” the romantic drama released seven years after the Hollywood opened its doors.

On Oct. 24, 1935, which was Thanksgiving Day, moviegoers flocked to Vancouver’s newest cinema to watch a program featuring shorts and two features — “Lightning Strikes Twice,” a comedy starring Ben Lyon and Thelma Todd, and “Life Begins at Forty,” featuring the humourist Will Rogers as an easygoing newspaper publisher battling heartless bankers, undoubtedly a popular storyline for Depression audiences. (The beloved Rogers had died in a plane wreck in Alaska two months earlier.)

Tickets cost 10 cents with another nickel charged to sit in the balcony.

Competition for entertainment dimes was fierce in Vancouver in the 1930s, as some 26 cinemas battled for customers. The downtown Orpheum promised “more stars than the milky way,” while the Strand combined a movie (“The Girl Friend” starring Ann Southern as “huggable, kissable Ann in a giddy gaiety city”) with a live stage show such as “Brown Skin Models,” promising “41 scintillating sepias hot off Harlem!”

Earlier, the city’s neon skyways gave West Hastings a reputation as the Great White Way. By the 1930s, Granville Street was known as theatre row. The new Hollywood was one of eight neighbourhood cinemas. In those days, Kitsilano was thought to be suburban.

The Hollywood was opened by Reginald and Margaret Fairleigh on the day their son David turned 19. Reginald was a pioneer in the local industry, having opened a movie house in 1914 during the era of silents. The Hollywood, with its modern look of clean concrete lines, was built on a vacant lot near the intersection with Balaclava. The Walburn Neon Co. company proclaimed the Hollywood’s red sign with blue trim to be the first in the city to be permanently attached to a building, eliminating unsightly wires and cables.

In time, teenaged David Fairleigh, the original manager, became known as Mr. Hollywood, a popular figure who was known to dress in top hat and tails to welcome patrons to his bijou.

When he died in 1998, aged 82, one newspaper obituary noted the idiosyncratic double bills he booked. He inexplicably paired “Great Expectations” with “The Big Lebowski,” while brilliantly matching “Yellow Submarine” with “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” (In the latter, a Soviet sub runs aground.) Apparently, he once also misspelled “Beattles” on the marquee.

His namesake son took over and continues booking intriguing double bills to this day. The top ticket costs just $8 (and $6 on Mondays).

Vince Fairleigh, a son of David II, a grandson of David I, and a great grandson of Reginald, wooed his future wife, Heidi MacKenzie, while she worked the candy counter. Vince is also a carver of note, having twice been an artist in residence at the Museum of Anthropology. (His mother, the former Thelma Cornell, is a Nisga’a.)

This weekend’s festivities will begin with a traditional welcome from the chief of the Squamish Nation.

Mr. Fairleigh expects to instruct the servers to cut off appetizers before the guests get stuffed.

Otherwise, he explained, “we’ll lose too much in popcorn sales.”

Double bills for a dime
The Hollywood Theatre opened for business on Thanksgiving Day, a Thursday, in 1935. On the first bill: “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “Life Begins at Forty,” starring Will Rogers, the humourist who had recently been killed in a plane wreck. The bill for the Friday and Saturday shows: “I’ll Fix It” and “George White Scandals.” Tickets were 10 cents and 15 cents for a seat in the balcony. A Saturday children’s matinee cost just 5 cents.

The opening of Vancouver’s “newest suburban theatre,” as it was styled, gained a favourable reception by Vancouver newspapers. “Overflow Crowd at Hollywood Theatre Opening Thursday,” read a headline in the Daily Province. The News-Herald gushed about the chairs installed in the theatre. “They would grace an expensive home so stylish, sturdy and comfortable are they of steel construction, the frame is covered with a rich, dark upholstery. Watching a film from one is as comfortable as sitting at home listening to the radio.”

Mr. Chips meets To Sir With Love
The Hollywood Theatre has long been a popular retreat for students and faculty from the University of British Columbia. It was the subject of at least one masters thesis. The title: “Understanding the Significance of a Neighbourhood Movie Theatre as a Cultural Resource.”

Bijoux and burgers
The Hollywood had stiff competition when it opened its doors in the Depression year of 1935. Among the other cinemas eager for patrons: The Capitol, the Orpheum, the Strand, the Dominion, the Lyric, the Rex, the Globe, the Stanley, the Colonial, the New Broadway, the Maple Leaf, the Alma, the Grandview, the Kerrisdale, the Kitsilano, the regent, the Victoria, the Windsor, the Olympia, the Fraser, the State, the Marpole, the Kingsway, and the Music Box.

A favourite after-show dining spot was The Aristocratic Hamburgers with restaurants at Kingsway at Fraser and 10th at Alma. “Kleen, kozy, kwick,” it promised.

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