The Last Picture Show
Unlike the reconfigured vaudeville houses of Hastings Street’s “great white way” or their Granville Street sisters the Orpheum and Lyric, the Capitol was all early 20th century high technology: a 2,500 seat palace built for the photoplay, replete with Wurlitzer organ.
On opening night, March 12, 1921, “famous silent film star Wallace Reid, once billed as ‘the most popular screen idol in America,’ burst through a paper screen singing and dancing to great applause. With a blare of trumpets, the Capitol Theatre Orchestra presented an overture, and Mayor R. H. Gale took the stage stating what a great day it was for Vancouver’s progress.” The opening night screening? Unknown.
When competition for the burgeoning audience of moviegoers got tough, the Capitol got sound. In 1928 it was the first local theatre to host a “talkie”, Mother Knows Best. James Melton warbling Sally of My Dreams ushered in a boom of Granville movie houses, and set in motion an ever-shifting land- and namescape that lasted decades: the Paradise, the Coronet, the Studio, the Plaza, the Downtown, the Vogue, the Dominion, the Odeon, the Towne, Caprice, the Capital 6, Vancouver Centre and, ultimately, the Granville 7.
We were struck dumb. Pop’s usual idea of a Summer day off was repainting the living room, or some casual brick laying. Not a movie. Never a movie –with both of us creeping into the double digits we had yet to see the inside of a theatre, although not for a lack of relentless tag team pestering. “You can watch a movie on TV,” the standard response.
And yet there he was: not dressed for work, car keys in hand, telling us to get a move on if we we’re going to get downtown in time. Downtown!
Wordlessly my brother and I suspended our ongoing low-intensity fist fight and piled into the Biscayne. We cruised smoothly through the bright and lazy Saturday afternoon streets and soon were floating up the endless escalators and the massive interior of the Capitol 6.
Many years later I deduced my father’s sudden shift in disposition: he had no real interest in the movie, but wanted to survey the brand new theatre’s tile-work, the public’s use of his exacting, painstaking labour.
He was happy. We were giddy. As the lights dimmed and the crowd hushed, a raucous orchestration filled the theatre and my tender little mind, and I read the words: “A long time ago ….”
Short on drivers’ licenses, of a Friday night a half dozen of us would time a rendezvous on the No. 16. Running north on Renfrew, east on Hastings, and south on Granville, and stopping in front of the Coronet, it represented the very peak of the modest transportation options available to us.
We’d wander the busy streets for a while, past the young and old couples, the families, the knots of youth. We’d survey the sketchy characters hanging out on the concrete benches, and the giant, waddling brute we named “Sid” –after his sotto voce monosyllabic drug sales pitch- while considering the evening’s formal entertainment options. Debating the relative merits of our choice shortened the bus ride home.
Caligula rolled into town, and the Towne, and the nightmares and/or fantasies of Bernice Gerard. Taking umbrage at Bob Guccione’s historical epic cum porno (no pun intended), busloads of evangelicals offered some Christian charity by making the trip in from the Valley to drum up business for the theatre.
Sure, I could drive to there -or, for that matter, get a beer at the Ritz or the Drake without too much trouble- but the Towne didn’t want to spoil its good thing: Caligula was strictly off-limits to the under-18.
It played for a year and we all turned 17. It played for another and we organized a viewing as a modest rite of passage. All I can recall about the experience was the perfunctory if energetic lesbian interlude -the sort of thing now available with a few quick clicks.
I drifted off, but came back now and again. Sometimes on a date, mostly for the Festival.
On a clement October Saturday night I stumble out of the Granville 7 and VIFF’s screening of Kill List in need of some air. A glass façade across the street has replaced the Capitol; gone, along with its tiles and the tile fitter.
I wander south past the nightclubs, past the gals dressed in a fashion once classified as “working girl”, past the guys vomiting figuratively out of bars and literally into the streets.
Portland, Oregon. Population: 2.26 million people. And 10 independent movie houses hosting an diverse mix of second-run features, classics, independent productions, festival and foreign fare, and what used to be termed “art house”, along with food, beer, and even babysitting.
I slip into the Bagdad on Hawthorne, the restored Egyptian-themed 1927 jewel in the McMenimins crown. The room is packed for shorts of William Shatner’s excesses, Star Trek mash-ups, and related youtube oddities, and the main feature, The Wrath of Khan. I leave the chuckling behind me and slip backstage to Back Stage Bar for a tumbler of bourbon and a communal screening of the latest Mad Men.
Number two of the Vancouver Heritage Society’s “Top 10 Endangered Sites (2010)” list is “Vancouver Movie Theatres.”
The City’s Cultural Plan calls for “a city of vibrant, creative neighbourhoods,” even as the Venus, Varsity, Van East Cinema and the art deco-era Hollywood slip away. Now the choice is stark: save the remaining theatres as local amenities to help sustain urban vitality and a unique sense of place -exemplified in solitary splendour by the Rio– or lose unique community space.
But since there’s no will, there’s no way. A community attempt to save the Ridge is sidelined by the developer’s commitment to incorporate the theatre’s sign in its condo reincarnation; an idea to save the Granville 7 as a venue for the eclectic perspectives of local film programmers and festivals is moot -the deals are already done, right down to the rubber stamps and handshakes. The carnage continues.
November 4, 2012. The last show on Theatre Row is The Bourne Legacy. A Hollywood franchise product inconspicuous in its sound and fury, inconsequential and disposable, the ideal bookend to that long forgotten feature that played across the street almost a century earlier.
The brief circus of media stories regarding this inauspicious event has already moved on. It’s quiet tonight, just a handful of patrons. I’m solo, half by choice, half by the less-than-illustrious nature of the event proffered. “Not even busy on closing night,” I overhear the manager remark, resignedly.
Looks like we’ll be going out with a bang and a whimper.
The audience can’t be more than dozen people. The theatre’s decidedly chilly.
The manager offers a few words to mark the occasion.
As the lights dim, someone wonders aloud whether there’s going to be trailers. There are.
Oddly, I found myself caught up in the story. At least until the plot devolved into a long and unlikely chain of kinetic events. I stay for the credits, like always.
Sunday night on the dark, rain slick street. A few stragglers heading south, a trio of buskers trying to pull it together. Such a quiet night to mark Vancouver’s progress.