Martin family's theatre faces wrecking ball

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      A Point Grey landmark that has been in Prime Minister Paul Martin's family for three generations will soon be demolished. Ken Charko, president of First Run Theatres, told the Georgia Straight that he will have to close the Varsity Theatre at 4375 West 10th Avenue because the property is being redeveloped.

      The site is owned by Nellmart Ltd., a Martin family-controlled company that combines the name of the prime minister's mother, Nell, and the family's surname. Charko said that his company, First Run Theatres, has operated the 468-seat theatre on a lease for the past seven years. He estimated that the Varsity is more than 50 years old.

      "I thought we really did a good job," Charko said. "I'm sad to see the Varsity go, but I understand it's time."

      Vancouver developer Robert Fung, president of the Salient Group, told the Straight that his company will buy the site from Nellmart Ltd., but this is conditional upon obtaining a development permit. He wouldn't disclose the price. The Varsity site had an assessed value of $1,133,800 in 2005.

      Fung acknowledged to the Straight that Prime Minister Martin is his godfather. Fung, a former executive with Concord Pacific, is the son of Paul Martin's friend and former university roommate, also named Robert Fung. The elder Fung, a developer and financier, is a long-time federal Liberal supporter who chairs the Toronto Harbourfront Revitalization Corporation.

      Charko and Fung each told the Straight that they couldn't be sure when the Varsity will close because it depends on when the development permit board approves the redevelopment. In an initial step, Vancouver's Urban Design Panel granted unanimous support on July 6 for the Salient Group's proposal for a four-storey building at 4375 West 10th Avenue with ground-floor retail and three storeys of residential units. According to the minutes of the panel's meeting, several members described it as a "handsome" project, and some supported retaining the Varsity name to commemorate the neighbourhood theatre.

      "There is the potential to do good-quality projects-residential, multifamily projects-that fit into this neighbourhood and can really continue to add to the growth of Point Grey Village," Fung said.

      The Salient Group's proposal will not go before city council because it conforms to current zoning. "From our standpoint, we're expecting the development permit sometime this summer, and I say that with some uncertainty," Fung said. "We do need additional permits to go on from that."

      Charko described his time operating the Varsity as an "absolute joy". He noted that the theatre was the original venue for the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1982. He said that the flags appearing along the theatre's faíƒÆ’í‚ §ade represent all the countries with films that appeared at the first festival. Charko added that the Martin family has treated him fairly over the years.

      As Canada's finance minister, Martin declared on his financial-disclosure form that he owned 15,028 Preference Class A shares and 47 of Preference Class B shares in Nellmart Holdings Inc., which owned 50.25 percent of the voting shares in Nellmart Ltd. None of the Martin family members could be reached for comment by deadline.

      Nellmart Ltd. also owns the Plaza at 881 Granville Street and the Dunbar Theatre at 4555 Dunbar Street, which Charko's company also operates. This year, the Plaza's assessed value was $1,894,000, and the Dunbar Theatre's assessed value was $1,218,600.

      "We're going to put a lot more energy into the Dunbar and fix up a lot of stuff," Charko said.

      In 1994, then-Bloc Quebecois MP Suzanne Tremblay asked in Question Period if Martin participated in a meeting as finance minister with two other cabinet ministers to discuss the sale of Ginn Publishing to a company that owned Famous Players. "The minister, through his Nellmart Ltd. holding, owns three cinemas in Vancouver and leases them to Famous Players, a Canadian subsidiary of Paramount Communications," Tremblay alleged in Parliament.

      Then-industry minister John Manley replied in Question Period that there were no discussions between him, Martin, and then-heritage minister Michel Dupuy concerning the sale of Ginn Publishing. In 2004 after Martin had become prime minister and had transferred much of his corporate empire to his sons, he stopped listing Nellmart Holdings Inc. and Nellmart Ltd. on his financial-disclosure form.