Schein-y new Park Theatre packing them in

Vancouver's movie-theatre godfather, Leonard Schein, isn't planning to make any money on his new venture, the Park Theatre on Cambie Street, which reopened on May 24. The problem is, he might not be able to help it.

This past weekend (May 27-29), more people came to the Park to see Ladies in Lavender than came to any of the 57 other North American theatres screening the British film. More than 2,000 people showed up. They sat in Schein's 506 seats, which are fitted with lumbar support for older audiences and movable arms that allow comfy snuggling for lovers. Many of them ate popcorn with real butter, the butter having been bought at the nearby Choices Market. Some ate goodies baked across the street by chefs at the Tomato Fresh Food Café and available at the Park concession. They listened to the new digital sound, enjoyed walking through the cayenne pepper- painted lobby, and watched the new curtain swing open and shut. After 23 years in the theatre business, Schein thought he was done. But this neighbourhood movie house-which he ran from 1990 until 2001-lured him back.

"If I didn't reopen it, no one would," Schein told the Georgia Straight. After Famous Players and Alliance Atlantis decided to close the 65-year-old theatre's doors this spring, the Park sat empty. Neighbours, business and residential, called Schein. He leased it in April, and his team spent seven days a week for almost two months renovating the space.

"I spent over $300,000 on the reno," he said. "That's the reason no one else would go in. It's not eco?nomically sensible. If it makes $50,000 per year, in six years it will break even. I could have done it for less, but the theatre deserved the money”¦.I hope not to lose money, but I did this mostly because I thought it should be there."

The Park breaks the rules for what makes a theatre "successful" in 2005. First, it only has one screen. As Schein pointed out, it has been 40 years since a single-screen theatre was built in this city. Second, there's no parking lot. Third, as other theatres' concessions offered more and more kinds of food, from chimichangas to cappuccinos, the Park's offers mostly the usual, with a few baked goods for variety. Fourth, Schein promises to not make use of the B.C. Liberals' "training wage" and will offer employees new to the workforce the full minimum wage, to start-unlike other theatres, he noted. Fifth, no Hollywood blockbusters.

As a veteran of Vancouver's scene, Schein is comfortable with breaking the rules. Born in Los Angeles, he attended university in San Francisco during the late '60s and early '70s, then came to Vancouver as a draft-dodger in 1972. He taught psy?chology at the community-college level, but he missed the alternative film culture of California. The only way he could see the films he craved, Schein realized, was to buy his own theatre. In 1978, he opened the Ridge. That was his first. Two years later, he bought the Vancouver East Cinema, and he started the Vancouver International Film Festival the next year. Schein continued to acquire and sell theatres, finally selling off the Park, the Varsity, the Starlight, and the Fifth Avenue cinemas in 2001. That's when he thought he was done.

Schein then took on other duties. He is often quoted in newspapers as the president of the Canadian Cancer Society for the Greater Vancouver Region, as the cochair of the Friends of [mayor] Larry Campbell, and as the president of the Point Grey Village Business Association. He is also the president of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, helps with revenue development at Doctors Without Borders, and is the president of Festival Cinemas, among other roles.

Now that he's back in the business, he admits his other commitments have "suffered" while he launched the Park. But the way he's running the theatre, it almost blends in with his other volunteer engagements. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival held a fundraiser there on May 26, the first of many the Park will host, he promised. On May 30, Schein's staff accommodated the Park's first monthly Movies for Mommies with baby-friendly features, including change tables and hot-water tubs for warming bottles. And he has already booked two Canadian films, both with a strong Vancouver connection, for the summer: Scared Sacred and Hank Williams First Nation.

In addition, supporting local independent businesses, he said, is central to his vision for the Park.

"The idea of working, shopping, and playing close to home is a good thing," he said. "It's better for the environment, and you support local merchants, which employ neighbours and provide convenience. Vancouver has very distinct neighbourhoods, and that's part of what makes it livable."

Undoubtedly, that's true. But the days of the single-screen neigh?bourhood movie house may be numbered.

Schein, though, hopes that with his investment, and the enduring popularity of a night out at the movies, the Park will live on for at least another 40 years.