Heritage advocates rise up to try to save Vancouver's Hollywood Theatre

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      There was a great sense of possibility in the packed basement room of the St. James Community Square last Sunday (November 17) as the Save the Hollywood Theatre Coalition rallied the Kitsilano community to rescue the historic movie house. Meeting chair Mel Lehan listed numerous successes in the neighbourhood’s tilts with developers and city hall.

      Will the Hollywood become one more?

      So much is arrayed against them, beginning with the weak and cumbersome tools the city has to protect both heritage buildings and the sort of lived history that gives any neighbourhood its soul.

      At City Hall a week earlier, when council passed a 75-day delay in approving building owner Dino Bonnis’s application to gut the interior of the theatre to create a fitness centre, it looked as though city councillors were already jockeying to apportion the blame elsewhere for the Hollywood’s demise.

      Andrea Reimer pointed to provincial rules requiring that cities “fully compensate a private owner” for constraining development rights. Geoff Meggs, who worried often about potential costs to the city, asked speakers from the two-week-old coalition why they hadn’t acted sooner to develop a plan to preserve the theatre, given that it was widely reported to be at risk after it changed hands in 2011. Heather Deal said property owners shouldn’t be unduly restricted: “That’s how they support their families.”

      Advocates for the Hollywood, including Lehan, explained that the community has tried to engage the owner and that the current tenant, the Church at the Hollywood, wants to purchase the theatre, which was built and operated by the Fairleigh family for 78 years until they sold it to Bonnis for $2.85 million. Although a report is due to the city in December or early January on how to better protect vulnerable heritage cultural facilities, some speakers wondered why there has been so little effort by the city in the past to strengthen its tool kit.

      Bonnis declined by email to speak to the Straight, through his brother Kerry Bonnis. Bonnis Properties’ downtown holdings include five sites along Granville, such as the Future Shop / Winners building and the Commodore Ballroom. Individually, the family owns many properties along Broadway. Dino Bonnis did tell the Province newspaper that no one “stepped up” to operate the Hollywood as a theatre. Others have argued that no one stepped up at the rent he was seeking.

      Senior heritage planner Marco D’Agostini told council that Bonnis and the city have been discussing major renovations to the building for two years and that the current application preserves more of the structure—including the façade, which has Vancouver’s first permanently affixed neon sign—than any previous proposal. He added that Bonnis is entitled to revert to a less attractive proposal if this one fails.

      All this negativity hasn’t fazed Mel Lehan, a veteran COPE council candidate and Point Grey NDP provincial election stalwart. When Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey told the crowd of 300 at the community meeting that he’s embarrassed as a world traveller by our inability to protect our history but “remains confident that we can turn the city into an entirely glass mausoleum”, Lehan didn’t blink. “There’s so many people that want to partner with us, it’s exciting,” Lehan later told the crowd.

      Maybe there will be a Hollywood ending to this movie, where the plucky community wins the heart of Bonnis, whose Greek family history on Broadway also runs deep. Maybe the theatre won’t be taken over by an American fitness chain after all. It will be just like Local Hero.

      Lehan knows, though, that he must reach Bonnis mainly through his wallet—with a solid business plan that draws on every resource at his disposal. Otherwise, this movie ends badly, with almost everyone a few years late and a few million dollars short.

      The Church at the Hollywood will screen You Can’t Take It With You Wednesday to Friday (November 20 to 22) at 7:30 p.m., with a suggested donation of $5. Tickets are available online at Eventbrite.




      Nov 20, 2013 at 10:37am

      Note to preservationists: it took the destruction of the old Penn Station in NYC, an architectural wonder, for the New York community to wake up to the importance of historic preservation. NYC now has a very strong heritage program. Vancouver needs the same. Maybe the Hollywood will be a wake up call.

      Michael Puttonen

      Nov 20, 2013 at 11:35am

      Consider the Pantages Theatre.

      The people of Winnipeg have this history to reflect upon:


      The people of Vancouver have this:



      The Hollywood Theatre shared, say, by the VSO, Jazz Festival, and other musical powerhouses from Early music to New, to Pop to Hip-Hop and film programming would be a smashing success.

      Of course it would. All we need is a little trigger... a little thing called a density-transfer... through a Community Amenity Contract between the City and a developer.

      Wall Financial gave to the Industrial Alliance and got gobs of extra density, transferred to another site, and spent $16 million for 135k sq. ft. extra density at 100 blk. W. 1st. The evolution of the CAC model indicates the Hollywood good for 30k-50k in a density transfer. Something like that, depending on sale price and renos...

      This city needs more than “vision”. It needs affection, it needs wit. If Bramwell Tovey is any indication, the folks committed to the Hollywood have both. Here’s hoping the City listens to the people this time.

      And if we lose another soulful venue, if that happens, then goddamit how about some free rent for performing artists?

      The Playhouse Theatre Company records claim they had 250 days rent-free days a year the VPTC at the Playhouse. Where did that $600k go?

      From the Vancouver Playhouse Website:

      “There are no events currently scheduled at this venue.”

      And no, no, no, that doesn’t translate to ‘no demand’.
      Au contraire...I refer you to Say’s Law...
      or the words of that White Rock writer who got awfully famous awfully fast...

      “If you build it, they will come.”


      Nov 20, 2013 at 1:20pm

      That is a lie that no one stepped up to the plate to run this as a theatre. People stepped up to the plate but how can anyone actually run it as a theatre if he sets the lease price so high that no one can commit?


      Nov 21, 2013 at 8:56am

      I have heard mention of a petition. Where can one find this petition to sign? Why is it not online to sign? Is there a save the Hollywood FaceBook site?

      Charles Campbell

      Nov 21, 2013 at 10:40am

      There are potential models to save the theatre as a theatre, but they haven't been put clearly on the table for all to see, and too many people have been worrying about what they can't do. But with the property owner holding his cards close to his vest and city leadership lacking a bit on this specific issue, a proper conversation on the way forward is difficult.

      Josh Wapp

      Nov 21, 2013 at 3:20pm

      Check out www.civictheatre.ca and read about how a very similar situation in Nelson BC turned into a non-profit society running their theatre there.
      It CAN be done. It is feasible. It might have to be turned into a multi-screen eventually, but with grants and volunteerism, anything can happen. Please don't give up! The Hollywood is beautiful!
      All the best, your friend in cinema,
      Josh Wapp, Nelson, BC

      John W.

      Nov 21, 2013 at 7:07pm

      "Senior heritage planner Marco D’Agostini told council that Bonnis and the city have been discussing major renovations to the building for two years and that the current application preserves more of the structure—including the façade, which has Vancouver’s first permanently affixed neon sign—than any previous proposal. He added that Bonnis is entitled to revert to a less attractive proposal if this one fails."

      If this is the least of all evils, I guess it's better a crappy conversion. However, I cannot forget the sham that was "heritage preservation" for the old Vancouver Public Library building on Burrard. They stripped it to its skeleton, added another floor and re-skinned the building. They never restored the mural as promised, and I don't know it's fate.

      Interesting that the supposedly progressive Vision councilors end up sounding like garden variety capitalists.


      Nov 23, 2013 at 10:53am

      @John W

      I wish the Hollywood Theatre well, but I think it would be a mistake to decry the City's heritage preservation on the basis of its treatment of the old VPL.

      You may have another opinion but I always thought the second Central Library to be visually undistinguished, a concrete and glass Lego brick, equally reminiscent of a strip mall and a medium security prison. The inside was airlessly crowded.

      The architecture buffs got to keep their Lego-style modernist exterior and the library got to go somewhere bigger (not necessarily prettier) so that was kinda good, no? I agree the mural should reappear, if that was a promise at the time.