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Historic York Theatre rebirth rekindles hopes of arts revival

The York Theatre, one of Vancouver’s oldest venues, is about to reopen – bucking a recent trend of closures and…

By Pauline Holdsworth , in Culture Feature story , on November 20, 2013 Tags: , ,

The York Theatre, one of Vancouver’s oldest venues, is about to reopen – bucking a recent trend of closures and demolitions across the city. It wouldn’t have happened without Tom Durrie, who’s been leading the community campaign to save it for three decades.

Durrie looks out his window across the street at the York every day.

Tom York
Durrie refused to let the theatre disappear.

“It’s magic. You see a space like that, and you just love it,” said Durrie.

He’s watched the theatre’s rusty signs flapping in the wind. He’s seen demolition start, stop and start again.

Today, after narrowly averted disasters and countless letter-writing campaigns, the founder of the Save the York Theatre Society — which began in 1981 — sees gleaming red tiles.

More importantly, he sees the promise of a arts revival on Commercial Drive.

The century-old theatre will re-open Dec. 4 and become the east side’s largest theatre, with 370 seats. For members of east Vancouver’s arts community, it is a sign that it’s possible to fight the trend of vanishing theatres — and win.

[toggle title=”Vanishing theatres”]“For what is now the oldest existing theatre in Vancouver to be not just saved, but to actually have a major investment in recreating it… I just think is miraculous,” said Jerry Wasserman, a theatre professor at UBC.

Like the York, most of Vancouver’s theatres and cinemas have had to constantly reinvent themselves to stay alive. Often, they’ve had to leave theatre behind.

That’s what makes turning a purpose-built theatre like the York back into a functional playhouse so special, said Wasserman.

The Pantages on Hasting Street opened in 1907 and was the city’s oldest theatre. It was demolished last year, after failed attempts to have the city provide incentives to save it. In Kitsilano, the Ridge on Arbutus Street was torn down earlier this year and is being replaced by condos.

The Hollywood nearby on Broadway stood empty for over a year before a local church bought it. Church members used the space for Sunday worship and also worked with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation to screen old movies.

Now, it’s set to become a fitness gym. In the West End, Denman Cinema became a dollar store. [/toggle]

Rebuilding an institution 

The York has had many lives: community theatre, punk-rock concert hall, Bollywood movie theatre.

“It was quite important for us to try to make it into a playhouse again,” said Shawn LaPointe from Henriquez Partners Architects.

Most performance spaces today in Vancouver are storefronts or converted spaces like churches or warehouses. The York is one of the city’s few remaining venues built specifically for live theatre.

Little Theatre sign
Construction workers uncovered this old Little Theatre sign when they started renovations. (Photo courtesy Tom Durrie)

The architectural firm sifted through years of history to restore the theatre to its roots.

“There were a lot of renovations done over the years that made it difficult [for it] to be a playhouse, so we had to undo a lot of those changes,” LaPointe said.

Recreating a district 

As home to the Vancouver Little Theatre Association between 1923 to 1977, the York was a magnet that pulled people from across the city.

“It occupied a pretty major place in the theatrical ecology of the city,” said Jerry Wasserman, a University of B.C. theatre professor.

Now, people are hoping history will repeat itself.

“Commercial Drive is ripe for an arts scene,” said Jay Hamburger, who runs Theatre in the Raw, a small company on Commercial Drive that focuses on experimental, progressive plays.

When the York was scheduled for demolition, Hamburger was one of many community advocates who added their voices to the fight.

He hopes the York’s re-opening will re-ignite interest in theatre in the neighbourhood. So does the woman who currently reins over the biggest theatre empire on Commercial Drive.

“You always need a critical mass of arts spaces to create a district, and I really think the York is going to put that neighbourhood on the map of cultural districts throughout the city,” said Heather Redfern, executive director of the nearby Cultch (a former church), which will manage and rent out the theatre.

York Theatre interior
The colour of the walls “makes the theatre look like it’s glowing,” said LaPointe.

Redfern said the new theatre will translate into big changes – not just for the theatre community, but the neighbourhood as a whole.

“We see it as a catalyst to reinvigorate those few blocks of Commercial between Venables and Hastings,” said Redfern. “It’s a bit of a no man’s land right now.”

As The Cultch’s largest venue, the York will allow for larger productions in east Vancouver.

Looking forward

Wasserman isn’t convinced the new theatre will change the neighbourhood and the local arts scene substantially. But it’s a sign the theatrical geography of the city is changing, he said.

“The center of gravity for the city seems to be moving east,” he said.

If that’s true, Hamburger said he hopes the Drive will see a revival of the progressive theatre that thrived there in the past.

“Can there be a revival? I would really hope so. But are the venues here for a company to take that chance? It’s a see-saw. There’s no guarantee,” he said. “But thinking about it is almost asking for life to happen.”