Paul Wilson: Movie-house rescue: a model for Hamilton

The people took over the long-dark Regent Theatre in Picton, a small town in Prince Edward County. Now there are shows aplenty, and they've even gone digital. This dispatch from the road also features lots of zombies, seven lottery winners and one bicycle built-for-two.
The Regent Theatre on Main Street in Picton was dark for 10 years. Then the community took over and made the landmark shine. (Paul Wilson/CBC)
Picton has a fine harbour, but when night falls the place to be is the Regent Theatre. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

It’s there, right on the licence plate – Ontario, Yours To Discover. And we’ve been off, doing just that, for the past week. 

In a place called Vankleek Hill, we bought ale by the jug at the Beau’s brewery. In the Thousand Islands, we took a boat tour and wandered about in a restored castle with a tragic love story.

In Prince Edward County, we pedalled, swam, drank apple cider. And we went to the movies.

The Regent Theatre is on Main Street in Picton. The town’s population is 4,000, and the whole county is about 25,000. In short, peanuts compared to Hamilton.

But maybe there’s something to learn about running a theatre from the people in Picton. The Regent opened in 1922. For generations, it flourished. Then it died. It was dark for 10 years.

But in 1994 a non-profit community group took over and now the place shines. Marnie and I went there on Friday night to see Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. (Cate Blanchett is flawless in a riches-to-rags role, and no one’s a better snake than Alec Baldwin.)

The Silver Cinema in Gananoque has few seats, but lots of vampires. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

I spoke to the young fellow at the ticket booth. He told me that early in 2011 The Regent took the big step and bought a digital projector. It’s a Christie, made in Kitchener, and a unit can cost $50,000.

But it brings the theatre right up to date. Over the last couple of months, in addition to classics like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Odd Couple, The Regent was able to showcase a string of new releases – Wolverine, The Butler, Despicable Me, Pacific Rim, Elysium.

The theatre, with about 450 seats, also streams live theatre, dance, opera. There are live acts too. They run The Regent with 120 volunteers who take tickets, operate the snack bar, sweep the floors. 

This is the kind of operation Ward One councillor Brian McHattie envisions for Hamilton’s only single-screen theatre in operation, the Westdale

Its Toronto owners have a hands-off approach to this property, and McHattie is concerned about the theatre’s survival. Should the movie house come on the market, he’d like to see it become community operated. 

The Westdale has not invested in a digital projector, and getting film prints these days is hard. So sometimes pictures stay a long time. The Way, Way Out arrived in late July and stayed nearly two months. 

It was a great picture, and the Westdale is just the place to enjoy it. But on the Saturday night that we saw it a few weeks ago, not many of those 498 seats were filled. It’s hard not to worry.

Or maybe this formula would work at the long-dark Tivoli on James North. When sold, the deal was no movies could be shown there for 20 years. Time’s well up, because that was 1989.

City of Bones

In Gananoque, an hour east of Picton, we went to the movies too. The theatre there, the Silver Cinema, just opened in March. It’s in a corner of a big warehouse where they used to make kayaks.

ABC TV would have you believe the stars of its new Lucky 7 series are in Queens, NYC, but they're actually standing in front of Hamilton's vintage Firestone store on Main Street East. (ABC Television)

No digital projector here. The theatre has just 60 seats. Nine of them were filled last Tuesday night for a showing of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

This vampire picture is still playing at Silver City Hamilton Mountain. Maybe some of the 300 delegates in town this week for the Cemetery and Funeral Professionals convention will take in the picture, but I’m not suggesting you do.

And that’s even though some of this movie was shot in Hamilton. There’s a creepy scene at the tombs on Millionaires’ Row in Hamilton Cemetery – though the Tuckett, Sanford and Watkins names have been camouflaged. And yes, the derelict Hotel Dumort is our Royal Connaught.

Marnie and I never really did figure out what was going on in the movie. It’s not for nothing that over at Rotten Tomatoes only 12 per cent of critics liked this one.

Lottery winners losing

Back at the hotel in Gananoque that night, we flicked on the TV, did a little channel surfing, and there was Hamilton again. This time, it was the premiere of a series on ABC called Lucky 7. 

Katie Misener of the Bloomfield Bicycle Company drops off a deluxe bicycle built-for-two. She thinks TV sucks. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

It’s supposed to be Queens, NYC, and seven employees at the Gold Star gas bar win the lottery. Except that gas bar is actually the Firestone store on Main East near Delta Secondary. The garage is a beauty, opened in 1954, making it a contender for the oldest Firestone store in Canada.

As for the series, longevity is perhaps not in the cards. Its debut last week was the lowest-rated fall drama premiere in ABC history.

TV Sucks

“TV Sucks. Ride your bike!” It’s right there on the side of the truck, the one from the Bloomfield Bicycle Company that brought a beautiful tandem to our hotel in Picton for the day – a magnificent $3,700 bright-yellow bicycle-built-for-two that goes like the wind.

Katie and Rick of the BBC are passionate about cycling and make it easy for you to be too. That beautiful tandem, delivered and picked up, is just $45 for the day. And you get free water bottles. Definitely two thumbs up.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.


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