When Tom Durrie looks out of his window and onto Commercial Drive, the arts activist and former Pacific Baroque Orchestra general manager has reason to smile. After years of protest and advocacy, Durrie can finally rest assured that his beloved York Theatre is safe from the threat of wrecking balls and condo developers. On Monday (December 2), the Cultch will formally take possession of the venue, just two days before Theatre Replacement’s Jack & the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto christens its newly refurbished rafters.
“I’m very, very pleased and really happy about it,” raves Durrie in a phone call with the Straight. “It’s wonderful. You know, we started the Save the York Theatre Society in 1981 when the owner at the time was threatening to tear it down. So it was really 25 years or so of persistence that ended up where we are today, with a beautiful historic theatre on Commercial Drive that has a lot of importance in the history of theatre in the city.”
Located just north of Venables Street on the Drive, the proscenium-stage theatre was built in 1913 as the Alcazar, and was later renamed the York Theatre in 1940. Among its many incarnations, it was the home of Vancouver Little Theatre for 54 years, a punk venue that played host to everyone from the Dead Kennedys to Black Flag during the 1980s, and later the pink-hued Raja Theatre cinema, before being sold to a developer in 2007. Over the years it has survived many threats of demolition, but it wasn’t until the most recent brush with destruction that a successful effort was made to save it for good.
It was back in August 2008 that Durrie glanced across the street from his home and was aghast to see workmen removing pieces of the theatre in preparation for a tear-down. The owner of the site, EDG Homes (which purchased the property in October 2007 for the asking price of $952,000 as Vintage Development Corp.), had already submitted a detailed plan to the city to build a three-storey, five-unit townhouse development on its lot. Durrie initiated a flurry of phone calls that ultimately led to a stop-work order from the city and, a month later, a 120-day temporary protection order for the site.
That four-month reprieve was just time enough for an alternate plan to take shape: developer Bruno Wall’s Wall Financial Corporation would purchase the site from EDG and finance a $12-million renovation by Henriquez Partners Architects. The Cultch would operate the venue once work was complete. The plan hinged on the city providing 100-percent capital funding for the site through a mix of density transfer, property-tax exemption, and direct funding. On December 18, 2008, a newly sworn-in Vision Vancouver–led city council unanimously agreed to do just that. Today, the venue’s façade has been restored to its 1937 art-deco appearance, and its historic interiors, stage, fly tower, and auditorium have been upgraded. The building has also been given the addition of a two-storey glass lobby that faces the Drive.
Sitting in the Cultch offices, executive director Heather Redfern recalls how the deal was quickly pulled together with the help of late former city councillor and activist Jim Green. “Tom Durrie got in touch with me and told me that the property had been sold to a developer.…So I called Jim. Then Jim called Bruno Wall. And one of the things that became very clear was that if it was going to have any chance at all of flying at the city, not only was it about the money to build the building, it was also going to be about how to operate it. And so that was when I started to look at the feasibility of us operating it.”
As it turns out, while the York Theatre adds to Redfern’s workload—not to mention her stress levels in overseeing yet another theatre renovation that has slipped almost two years past its original completion date—it will actually be a source of financial stability for the Cultch.
“The issue for the Cultch financially is that there’s a big infrastructure,” explains Redfern. “There’s a big overhead that the few seats that we have cannot support.…The [370-seat] York more than doubles our inventory. That makes a huge difference to our business model, and so the York in fact is going to help sustain the Cultch.”
The York will be run primarily as a rental venue, says Redfern, who anticipates it being a popular venue for music and experimental theatre. Among those shows already booked for the coming season are a PuSh film screening of Nanook of the North with live improvised music by throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Jesse Zubot, and Jean Martin (January 31 to February 1), and the world premiere of City Opera Vancouver’s Pauline, with a libretto by Margaret Atwood (May 23).
Norman Armour, executive director of the PuSh Festival, is also directing Pauline. “We need more [theatres] of that size in the city,” he says in a phone call. “To have another 400-seat theatre here and to have it be a venue not only for music but that can take theatre in…I think it’s going to be a great addition to the city,” he reflects. “You stand on the stage and there’s this feeling of kind of you’re in this small concert hall. You’re almost in this small living room and doing a salon for 380 people, a salon performance. There’s a beautifully intimate feel to the room.”
Adds Charles Barber, conductor and artistic director of City Opera Vancouver: “I think, if the sound works, it’s going to be a wonderful house for the kind of chamber repertoire that companies like ours do.…We have had for many years a terrible shortage of smallish and mid-range proscenium houses. Now here’s one coming online again after 100 years.”
While there is endless enthusiasm for what the venue will bring to the city’s cultural community, there is also plenty of speculation about its potential to breathe life into what is currently a somewhat dead zone of Commercial Drive between Venables and Hastings Street.
“There’s no question in my mind that it’s going to do for this neighbourhood what the Stanley [Theatre] did for Granville Street,” says Redfern emphatically. “I really believe that. The Stanley was the beginning of the whole revitalization of Granville Street.”
Architect Gregory Henriquez points out that Nick’s Spaghetti House next door (a fixture on the block for over 50 years) will likely soon have more business than it can manage—and adds: “If someone was smart, they’d open a little restaurant across the way, and coffee shop. I think in terms of amenities for the neighbourhood it could be a very positive thing.”
Speaking over the phone, he notes that he designed the glass lobby to blend the activity on the street with the York. “At night when it lights up, you’ll see all the people inside the lobby being sort of the actors in a stage set, with spectators being outside on the street,” he explains. “The lobby itself becomes a metaphor for the use, which is the theatre. So it’s a piece of urban theatre, which is the idea of the building.”
Perhaps most importantly, the facility helps strengthen East Vancouver as a cultural hub. “You need a critical mass of venues in order to really create a vibrant cultural district,” observes Redfern. “So with our three venues now, and with Havana [Theatre on the Drive], with all of the artists that live and work in this neighbourhood, with the Rio, it’s really feeling like a cultural district. And it’s happened where most of the artists who live in the city actually live. Which is brilliant, because that’s exactly where it should happen.…It isn’t imposed, like, ‘We’re going to create a cultural district here.’ It is a cultural district that is finally getting the infrastructure it needs to look like one, to feel like one.”
While many, including Barber, still mourn the loss of East Hastings Street’s 650-seat Pantages Theatre, which city council voted against saving in 2008, there is a palpable sense of optimism and pride in the cultural community about how the York was brought back from the brink.
“I think that it was just one of those really perfect times when everything fell into place,” reflects Redfern. “I’ve always said about this project and just about any other project I’ve worked on: as long as you find people who can say yes, you’re good.”
“I just think it’s a real success story,” adds Armour. “Everybody in every little corner of the community played a role in making this possible: the private sector, public sector, and the not-for-profit. I think it’s amazing.”