Feisty Rio owner Corinne Lea fights for local artists

The Emily Carr grad fell in love with the independent East Van movie house while producing shows for the local burlesque community

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      Corinne Lea has overcome a lot of adversity since taking ownership of the Rio Theatre in 2008. She started off by fighting to get an antiquated law from 1920 changed so the venue could acquire a liquor licence in 2012—the first for a movie theatre in B.C. Then, in 2018, when the property was put up for sale and there was a good chance it would be torn down and replaced with condos, she campaigned to raise enough money—$8 million—to buy it.

      During the COVID-19 pandemic, a third major hurdle has come Lea’s way, and it involves the struggle to simply stay open.

      In November of 2020, the provincial Health Ministry decided that movie theatres had to close, even though bars and restaurants were allowed to operate. Up until the pandemic hit, the Rio had been a thriving destination for live concerts, improv comedy, and burlesque shows, as well as a cherished independent movie house.

      In order to survive, the feisty Lea took drastic action in January this year and turned the venue into a sports bar.

      “I came up with the idea out of sheer frustration,” Lea explains on the line from her Mount Pleasant home. “Having your business closed repeatedly, with no end in sight, is traumatizing. When you don’t know when you can open again, it’s extremely hard on your mental health, on your financial health, on all the staff. I just reached a breaking point when I could see they weren’t going to do anything to help us. So that’s when I came up with the marquee: ‘Screw the arts. We’re a sports bar now.’ ”

      Before taking charge of the Rio and becoming known as a fierce protector of Vancouver’s arts scene, Lea honed her business chops at the Havana Restaurant on Commercial Drive, which also doubled as a gallery and theatre venue. When she moved on from there, she started searching for her next project, and at that time she was heavily involved in producing shows for the local burlesque community. She was always looking for venues and found one in the Rio.

      “I basically fell in love with the theatre,” she says, “and I’ve found what I love to do.”

      As far as her career in business goes, Lea didn’t learn how to get ahead by attending business school. She actually graduated from art school—Emily Carr, to be precise. But what Lea may lack in formal business training she makes up for with fortitude. So where did she get that fighting spirit?

      “I think it’s because I am a child of a single mom,” she explains. “I have a joke amongst my friends that I was a daycare child, and you learn to fend for yourself as a daycare child. So I learned to be kind of scrappy at a young age, and I’m sure there’s some genetics in there that makes me a bit feisty. Where some people get discouraged by things, I just get charged by them. It gets me going.”

      That inner drive has no doubt helped the 51-year-old entrepreneur get to where she is today: taking on the many challenges of running a place like the Rio. When asked to pinpoint what she’s found to be the best thing about the job, she doesn’t miss a beat.

      “The community,” she blurts out, “100 percent. That is the thing that has fuelled me all these years and it’s also the thing I’ve missed the most during the pandemic. Like right now, our sales are minimal—we’re just living off the concession. So, financially, is it really worth being a sports bar? You could argue maybe it’s not.

      “But for the community, it is worth it. I mean, it literally cheers me and everyone else up when we’re watching RuPaul’s Drag Race together. You know, we could all watch it at home—everybody knows that—but there’s something about being with others. That’s why we have the logo of the restricted [symbol cougar]…and it says: ‘An experience you can’t download’. I feel really passionate about that.”

      Since 2008, Corinne Lea has been doing whatever it takes to keep the Rio—and the arts—alive in East Vancouver.

      As far as her best personal experience at a Rio event goes, Lea points to the time she produced and participated in a Leonard Cohen tribute night that featured local poets, musicians, and dancers. Equally memorable—though not in a good way—was a live broadcast of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

      “You know how everyone thought [Trump] was gonna lose?” she recalls. “I was in my blue Hilary suit and I was expecting to be celebrating then wound up just watching that whole thing spiral downward. Nobody wanted to leave, ‘cause nobody wanted to be alone with this horrible news.”

      That downer event aside, Lea says that her years guiding the Rio have resulted in everything from being moved to tears to laughing out loud to just being inspired. And she knows what she wants to do once COVID-19 is conquered.

      “I would like to do a live show with local artists,” she says, “and I want to feature what they’ve been working on during the pandemic. In my spare time, I’m also a painter—that’s how I work out my stress—so I’ve got plans to do a big art exhibition as well as a big live event. Artists have been hit the hardest through this pandemic, and I really want to celebrate a moment when we can get back to sharing in a room packed with other people without being afraid.

      “I think it will be emotional to experience that again.”