Saying goodbye to the Ridge Theatre
It opened on Thursday, April 13, 1950, with a screening of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier. There were searchlights and a pipe band, and patrons wore fine cashmere coats and stylish hats. It will close forever on Sunday, February 3, with a screening of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The farewell will be casual, and fond nostalgia may lead to a few sentimental tears.
The Ridge’s celebratory Last Film Festival, with $5 screenings that start this Friday (January 25), will mark the end of what is, right now, the city’s most storied cinema. How things have changed. There are no more movie theatres on Granville Street’s theatre row: no Plaza or Odeon, no Studio or Coronet, and no Granville 7. Neighbourhood cinemas are almost gone. The Varsity is an award-winning set of high-end condominiums. West Broadway’s Hollywood is a Pentecostal church awaiting elevation to redevelopment heaven. The Vancouver East Cinema is a construction site. The Starlight is a restaurant. The Denman is a Dollarama.
The Ridge, one of the holdouts, was always the best of them. Since it opened with its soundproof balcony crying room, a parent-friendly innovation so unique that no one else in the city ever bothered to follow suit, it has been on the leading edge of the Vancouver movie business. That became particularly true after 1977, when a former draft resister who had been teaching psychology at local colleges took over the lease from Alf Knowles. Young Leonard Schein had no idea where his interest in movies—kindled at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and expanded at the Saskatchewan university film club he founded—would eventually take him. Quite some distance, as it happens.
On March 31, 1978, the Ridge became an independent repertory cinema, with a double bill of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca. It showed classics and first-run specialty films and was soon our art-house flagship, the crucible of the Vancouver International Film Festival, and home of our first movie-theatre cappuccino machine. It was also the stylish stage for the cross-dressing, toast-tossing partisans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show until two city councillors and bitter enemies, George Puil and Harry Rankin, finally agreed on something and, in 1981, shut down the midnight screenings.
On a cloudy Tuesday January morning, after a brief chat with Larry the cleaner about the traditional Rocky Horror detritus of toast and toilet paper, Schein sits at the back of the theatre and contemplates its pleasures: the art deco clamshells that frame the screen; the scalloped ceiling that laps toward the front like a series of gentle waves. Most new movie theatres today, he says, are charmless boxes. And virtually all of them are multiplexes.
Schein is sad but philosophical about the end, which became inevitable in June 2011 when Sondra Green, the daughter of the late long-time property owner Arthur Fouks, sold the property for $15.6 million to Cressey Developments. “It seemed pointless to fight it,” Schein says. The zoning allowed for condos, and although the company briefly entertained his pitch to incorporate a multiplex, all the profits are in condominiums. “I know the reality of single screens,” Schein says. “I know the reality of land costs. And I’m lucky that this property wasn’t sold years ago.”
Schein’s involvement with the Ridge does have some happy endings. At the concession counter, he thumbs through some old programs, including the one-sheet for the first Vancouver International Film Festival, in 1982. It opened with Bruce Beresford’s The Club and featured Bonnie Sherr Klein’s documentary Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, The Secret Life of Plants, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. By 1985, the festival—which today is among the largest in North America—was growing so quickly that Schein sold his two theatre leases for nominal sums: the Ridge to projectionist Ray Mainland and the Van East Cinema to Alan Franey.
Schein, who also served a year as head of the Toronto International Film Festival, went on to spearhead art-house film-exhibition innovations across the country in partnership with Alliance Atlantis. Today, with long-time business partner Tom Lightburn, he runs Festival Cinemas, operators of the Ridge, the Fifth Avenue Cinemas multiplex on Burrard Street, and the Park Theatre on Cambie Street. The two also hold a mortgage on the Rio Theatre, where operator Corinne Lea has been dogged by Kafkaesque provincial liquor regulations in her effort to shift from a movie theatre with occasional live shows to a concert venue with the odd movie.
Schein came back to the Ridge, in 2005, after a tragedy. In 2000, Mainland was killed in a car crash on the Burrard Bridge. His successors failed to sustain the theatre as a rep house, and Schein took over the lease and returned it to its original role, showing more mainstream first-run films. Video and the Internet, despite wild predictions, didn’t devastate film exhibition, but they killed the repertory cinema.
It’s real-estate values, property taxes, industry economics, and competitive dynamics that are killing the neighbourhood theatre. That, Schein believes, is not entirely inevitable. “All the single-screen theatres are going,” he says. “It’s not unique to Vancouver.” But he believes that neighbourhood multiplexes are viable. That was Schein’s pitch to Cressey. He also has his eye on some city-owned property across from the Fifth Avenue Cinemas as a potential multiplex site.
“It’s land value that throws everything off,” Schein argues, noting that the resulting taxes, which were nearly $40,000 a year at the Ridge, can sometimes exceed the rent that theatre property owners receive. And that’s where he believes the city can play a role: by offering city property for such cultural uses.
It’s in this regard that Schein, a donor to the city’s governing Vision Vancouver party, and Dunbar Theatre operator Ken Charko, a 2011 city-council candidate for the rival Non-Partisan Association, are in agreement. Charko is frustrated that his property taxes are based substantially on the land’s development potential and contends that the city’s effort to shift one percent of the tax burden to residences from business should instead take one percent from all payers and use it for tax abatement for enterprises the community particularly values. “If I were king for a day, I would target the tax shift—one percent from all to all,” Charko says by phone.
Schein notes that in 2007 the provincial government gave municipalities new power to target tax relief for community revitalization. The province declared that Bill 35 “enables municipalities to use a broader tax-exemption tool to encourage many forms of revitalization within their communities”. In November, he adds, the city provided an incentive to software developer Hoot Suite to stay in Vancouver by giving it a lease-to-own deal on a city-owned police building near False Creek. The city also recently leased an unused Industrial Avenue warehouse to the nonprofit Arts Factory Society for artist studio space.
Vancouver does a commendable job of supporting nonprofit arts organizations with grants and, particularly, with “density bonusing” deals where developers build community facilities in exchange for increased overall square footage. One such facility is the nonprofit Vancity Theatre, current home of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which—along with the not-for-profit Cinematheque and the new cinema at SFU downtown—is one of three remaining public downtown single-screen theatres.
However, the city’s recent rearguard effort to preserve the innovative cultural programming at the Waldorf Hotel, which foundered, in part, because of the pending sale of the building to a condominium developer, left many wondering if Vancouver is doing all it can to foster “for profit” cultural institutions, which contribute enormously to our city’s cultural life.