Topic: Hollywood Theatre, Vancouver BC - 75 yrs
From: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Registered: May 2003
posted October 23, 2010 12:31 PM
Find photos of Vancouver's historic Hollywood theatre here.
VANCOUVER -- Margaret Fairleigh was worried that her kids wouldn’t find work during the Great Depression. So she urged her husband to open a business that could employ the family.
Reginald Fairleigh proceeded to swap a house on Dundee near Kingsway for an empty lot in the 3100-block West Broadway. Then he hired architect Harold Cullerene to design a small neighbourhood movie theatre.
Cullerene came up with a simple but elegant art deco gem with graceful parapets and neon signs trumpeting the theatre’s name, and the promise “pick of the best plays.”
The Hollywood theatre opened on Thanksgiving Day, Oct. 24, 1935, with a double bill, Will Rogers in Life Begins at 40 and Thelma Todd in Lightning Strikes Twice.
Seventy-five years later, the Hollywood is still showing double bills, and still owned by the Fairleigh family. This weekend, it’s celebrating its 75th anniversary with parties Friday, tonight and Sunday, followed by George Clooney in The American and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
When it opened, the papers carried ads for 26 movie theatres in Vancouver. The only one still alive and showing movies full-time is the Hollywood. (The Ridge and Park were built a few years later.)
In an age of home video and digital downloading, it’s an anomaly, an old-style neighbourhood theatre. It’s become a local icon, a living heritage site. It’s so beloved that somebody chose the Hollywood as the site for their wedding this summer.
You have to wonder what Reginald Fairleigh would have thought. A fairly strait-laced fellow, legend has it he insisted that all male customers wear ties and all females wear dresses when the Hollywood opened. He also didn’t want any nookie going on when the lights went down.
“There was no necking in the theatre,” relates Reginald’s grandson David, 66, who now owns the Hollywood.
“He had little notes made up that said ‘Please respect your date. Treat her as you would your mother or your sister.’ Apparently they really howled with laughter when they saw this thing. He’d tap on their shoulder in the dark and they’d be trying to read it.”
Adds David’s son Vince, who manages the theatre: “Now we [have been] voted the No. 1 make-out place by the website vancouver.com.”
Tickets were 10 and 15 cents when the theatre opened. There were no movies on Sundays, and the concession stand had to bring in popcorn from outside – a popcorn-maker was considered a fire hazard. But they seem to have allowed smoking, because the Hollywood still has a couple of ancient standup ashtrays in the lobby.
Film was made out of nitrate in 1935, which is highly flammable. Hence, fire regulations meant the projectionist’s booth is made of cement and seals off in case of fire. There is a chain that melts at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, causing covers to fall down over the small windows coming out of the booth.
“You didn’t want the audience to look back and see fire,” explains David Fairleigh.
There are two Simplex XL 35-mm film projectors in the booth, because each projector can only play about 100 minutes of film. When a film is too long for one projector, the projectionist was supposed to seamlessly start the second one up with the next reel. But there have been occasional slip-ups.
“They made a few mistakes here,” laughs David.
“My uncle was once running the projector and [the film playing] had a rocket ship landing on the moon, but he got the reels mixed up and the next one had Indians attacking.”
David knows everything about projectors – he was a union projectionist at a variety of theatres from 1965 to 1998. After his father David Sr. died in 1998, he wound up taking over the theatre.
David Sr. was a fixture on the local scene for decades. He was the manager of the Hollywood from the day it opened, and his brother Richard ran the concessions. (Reginald moved to Seattle in the 1950s, where he ran a theatre supply company until he died at the age of 96.)
David Sr. put on some interesting double bills over the years.
“My grandfather [once] played My Left Foot with Rambo,” relates Vince Fairleigh.
“A lot of people dissed him for that, everyone was laughing at us. But the whole My Left Foot crowd wouldn’t be caught dead in Rambo, so everyone left. And the second show all the action crowd came, who love to eat popcorn. We make more money off the action crowd. So we sold out twice practically that night.”
Action films don’t do as well today, though.
“Chick flicks, documentaries and foreign films, they go over the biggest,” says David Jr., who picks the double bills.
“Film festival-type movies are the ones that people like. I get an older audience, they like foreign stuff. I play the blockbusters too, but sometimes they don’t go over as well. One of the biggest hits was Finding Nemo, because it hits all the audiences, from children to seniors,” says Vince.
“Pulp Fiction did excellent here too. Anything Quentin Tarantino does is gold here. Quentin’s awesome.”
As a second-run house, the Hollywood pays 35 per cent of ticket receipts to the film’s distributors (first-run theatres pay 70 to 90 per cent). But being a single-screen theatre, it’s a financial disaster if a movie turns out to be a dud, because the Hollywood is locked into its movies for a week run.
The theatre only has 651 seats, so it never made anyone rich, even in the glory days. Which may be one of the reasons David Sr. and Jr. made so few changes to the décor over the years. It still has the original terrazzo mosaic at the front, the ticket booth is still glass on top of black and gold tile, and tickets are dispensed from a time-worn machine with green, red and black buttons.
“This would be seniors [green] and this [red] is adults,” says David Jr. “I’m not sure if that’s from 1935, but I know it’s damn old.”
Parts of the theatre are definitely looking their age: the tin base of the neon sign could use a paint job, and some of the carpet on the stairs has been patched with grey gaffer tape.
But the auditorium is still amazing, with a clock in the left-hand corner, the original art deco speakers on either side of the stage and 24 rows of seats, most of them original (although they have been reupholstered).
Sadly, the seats aren’t being filled like they used to be. A few years ago, 400 or 500 people would show up each night; now an average night is half that.
“In the summer an average night would be about 100,” says Vince, who is also a very successful first nations artist (his mother is Nish’ga, and he was the artist-in-residence at the Museum of Anthropology during the Olympics).
“Right now is supposed to be the busiest time of year, and an average night might be 200 people.”
Most people would sell the land and move on — the Hollywood is on a double lot that’s probably worth several million dollars. Property taxes are $50,000 per year, and finances are so tight the Fairleigh family does much of the cleaning and upkeep themselves.
But David Fairleigh says he’ll do everything in his power to keep the Hollywood going.
“As long as the customers support me I won’t sell,” he states. “As long as I can pay the taxes and the wages I won’t sell. But if it comes to the point where I can’t pay these things, I’d have to.”
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