Walking past the box office of the Spanish Revival style building, I opened the doors to the Patricia Theatre and was greeted with the haunting aroma of buttered popcorn. A poster board propped up in the entranceway spelled out the future of the historic Powell River theatre rather bluntly: Digital or Dark?
The Patricia is Canada’s longest standing continuously running movie house as its two able film projectors crank out screenings for local film festivals and new releases. However the looming digital conversion, that was set to happen in 2014, has been bumped up. As of this summer, film prints will no longer we sent out by the studios and to accomodate the digital upgrade the Patricia’s owner, Ann Nelson, needs to come up with $90,000 — and fast.
Ann, who bought the theatre 15 years ago, greeted me near the concession stand and held up a film card in front of me, allowing light from the window to shine through the coaster-sized object. “This is how they used to advertise upcoming pictures in the old days,” she said. On the blue, pink, and yellow tinted slide were Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. It was essentially the trailer for Casablanca.
We sat in the sunshine that beamed through the windows and lit up boxes of Hot Tamales, Nerds, and Reese’s Pieces. Ann told me all about the history of Powell River and how the Patricia came to be.
Ann began my history lesson with the first movie theatre in 1913. “It was a tent down by the mill gates and it used to blow down in every storm. Then, They built a building shaped like a shoebox on end down near the cenotaph.” Through a naming contest “Patricia” was selected given the popularity of Princess Patricia who had just visited Canada with her father, the Duke of Connaught. The theatre hosted everything from traveling trunk shows fresh off the steamships, to boxing matches and the latest Charlie Chaplin films – it was the social hub of town.
In 1927, Bobby Scanlon, son of the Powell River Company (Mill) founder M.J. Scanlon along with Myron McLeod commissioned Henry Holdsby Simmons from Vancouver to build a state of the art gem. “It was always intended to be a vaudeville and cinema house,” said Ann who added that Simmons built many auditoriums including The Stanley in Vancouver, just a year after the Patricia was complete in 1928. She told me that Simmons, an architect and engineer, “really got what movie palaces were supposed to look like.”
Girvan Studios from Vancouver came on board and gave the inside of the Patricia its signature murals, in the style developed by John Eberson. This was all a part of the “atmospheric theatre expression” creating fantasy environments for the theatre-going experience. Ann said that Eberson’s style turned the architectural world on its ear during an era when cinema and opera houses were adorned with lavish gold and velvet decor. He opted for grand painted murals, usually including a peacock, rather than cherubs and gold.
With its perfect acoustics, the Patricia is still a performance hall, hosting vaudeville and burlesque acts, parlour concerts, and even weddings. “It has revived again to be the heart of the community because so much that is fun and good happens here.” Ann, and other community members I talked to, beamed when talking about the possibilities for the theatre — if the conversion can be made.
“Once you wrap your brain around it, if we can get over raising the $90,000 to get all the digital equipment installed, it opens up possibilities that we’ve never had in this community before. We’ll be able to do satellite feeds of live sporting events, live cultural events, we can have themed parties here. To be able to diversify so that we can have all of this alternative programming means that we can survive another hundred years.”
Ideally, once over this fundraising hump, Ann would like to see the Friends of the Patricia Society take over the theatre.
The truth is that while everyone is excited about the new possibilities for the Patricia, it won’t happen unless they raise the funds needed to go digital. I mentioned to Ann that it was recently announced that Vancouver’s Ridge movie theatre was slated for demolition. As I said those words, sitting in front of a wall decorated with pictures of old movie posters, my heart sank.
“What that neighbourhood theatre has contributed to its local society is gone forever, and its so sad,” Ann said. “It’s the end of an era. A hundred and twenty years of cinema being the backbone of socializing on this continent just wiped out over night.”
Help the Patricia
The mercury of the fundraising thermometer is currently sitting just shy of $30,000, leaving $60,000 left to collect. The Patricia isn’t just an old movie house, it’s not even just a modern-day architectural relic. It’s the heart of a community — a community of 12,000 people that have already raised thousands of dollars to avoid drawing the curtain for the last time and boarding up its windows. They have even put out a challenge to find 1,000 people to each donate $90.
As I was taking photos of the seats, that were actually recovered from The Orpheum, a woman came in with two donation cheques. The efforts of Powell River residents have been commendable so far. I believe it’s also up to British Columbians, film lovers, architecture buffs, and those who want to support a community’s cultural centre, to step up and give them a boost.
The Patricia is a piece of local history (Powell River is in the “604” after all), Canadian history, and film history. It is the iconic landmark of Townsite, which is designated as a National Historic District. There are only two others in BC: Gastown and Victoria’s Chinatown.