Paul Wilson: Councillor wants no surprise ending at Westdale Theatre

The Westdale Theatre goes right back to the early days of talking pictures. Some worry that the days are numbered for the last single-screen house in Hamilton, but one politician is working on a plan to keep it alive.
The Westdale Theatre is the last single-screen house in Hamilton. Built in the 1930s, some worry The End is now near. (Hamilton Public Library)

Night after night, they dim the lights at the Westdale Theatre and the magic begins. It’s been that way for 77 years.

The Art Deco beauty in the heart of Westdale Village is the city’s last single-screen theatre in operation. It seats 498 people in style. But for how much longer?

"There have always been rumours," says Brian McHattie, councillor for Ward 1. "People wonder what’s going on."

And he worries too. "Many feel the theatre is the glue that keeps the Village together."

For decades, the theatre has been owned by the Sorokolit family of Toronto. They also own the Mount Pleasant and Regent, both vintage single-screen houses in Toronto, plus the Algonquin, a newer multi-screen cinema in Pembroke. But the family has certainly taken a hands-off approach to operations here.

Hasn't met the owners

For instance, Jim Mair, projectionist/ manager at the Westdale, was hired over the phone some 20 years ago and has yet to meet the owners.

Projectionist Jim Mair, left, tells councillor Brian McHattie about the stone faces of Tragedy and Comedy, now hidden behind a new sign. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Councillor McHattie doesn’t want to antagonize those owners, now in their 80s. "My sense is that it’s a delicate situation."

So he’s about to draft a carefully-worded letter to them, explaining that the theatre is too important to lose. If the day should come when they want to sell it or close it, McHattie will say in his letter, the municipality just might want to buy it.

Each year, Ward 1 gets $1.6 million in area-rating dollars. McHattie believes tapping that to make the Westdale a public theatre might be money well spent.

"We’d view it as a community non-profit theatre," he says. "A lot of people are interested in making sure it stays in the city. And that goes well beyond Westdale."

Crackerjack pair

The owners may not be on site, but they have found a crackerjack pair who are.

There’s Jim Mair, 74, who arrived in the early ‘90s, having worked in theatres since the days of black and white. He lives in Niagara Falls and commutes four days a week in his big black Lincoln. He loves this theatre, its history, even the ancient Century projector. "It’s a marvelous piece of equipment, designed to last a hundred years."

His younger, hipper assistant is Geoffrey Tresidder, 30, on the job about 10 years. He maintains the theatre’s Facebook and Twitter presence and he runs the place when Mair’s not there.

He wants the Westdale to keep right on going, but knows the challenges. About 90 per cent of movies today are shown in digital format. The Westdale is still on film, 24 frames a second.

From left, Brian McHattie, Geoffrey Tresidder and Jim Mair share some projection-room humour. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Playing right now is Moonrise Kingdom, a quirky and heartwarming story set in the 1960s. It wouldn’t be in Hamilton if not for the Westdale.

Only seven prints

"But we had to wait nearly four months before we could run it," Tresidder says. "A lot of people drove to Oakville, afraid it wasn’t going to appear here." As the world runs on digital now, there were only seven film prints available for all of Canada.

Jim Mair loads another big reel of film, but nearly everyone else has gone digital. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

And often it’s just a case of the movie distributor not considering Hamilton a market worth reaching. So Tresidder can understand why the owners would be reluctant to replace that old projector. "What’s the point of plunking down upwards of $50,000 if they’re not going to give you the movies you want to run?"

When a picture does find its way to the Westdale, it often stays for months.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had a long run this summer. "One woman came six times and brought a carload of people with her each time," Tresidder says. "You have to get good word of mouth."

But even then, it’s a trickle, not a torrent. On weeknights, there might be 20 in that big theatre. Fridays, maybe 50. Saturdays, a hundred, at $10 a ticket.

Tresidder says the best way to make the Westdale more competitive would be to cut it in two for a second screen. "Of course, that would ruin the building."

McHattie would hate to see that. "It would certainly be our preference to keep it as one theatre, to look at it and say, ‘How do we make it break even?’"

When the Westdale opened in 1935, a double bill was a quarter and TV was still a couple of decades away. No wonder they filled all those seats. |  @PaulWilsonCBC 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson.