Paul Wilson: Toronto theatre operator eyes Westdale's vintage movie house

The Westdale Theatre is still a gem after all these years, but many worry about its future. The operator of Toronto's Fox Theatre hopes for a shot at running Hamilton's last single-screen house.
The Fox Theatre in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood has been going since 1914. It puts out a calendar of movies each month, and the Fox operators would like the chance to try the same model at the Westdale. (Wikimedia Commons)

Walk through the doors of the Westdale, last single-screen theatre in Hamilton, and you step into the golden age of Hollywood.

At SilverCity, the screen is bigger, the images sharper, the sound more clear. But there’s history in this Art Deco relic, a magic not duplicated at any big-box plaza.

There is only one Westdale and it’s been showing pictures, night after night, since 1935. That, however, is not a record.

According to management of the Fox Theatre in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, no theatre in Canada has been running longer than theirs. Next year, it will have logged 100 straight years.

That said, over at the Fox they’ve been casting admiring glances at Hamilton’s old theatre. They’d love to be running the show here and are now telling the owners of the Westdale exactly that.

Family has other old theatres

The Westdale is not for sale. For decades, it’s been owned by the Sorokolit family of Toronto. They also have two vintage single-screen theatres in Toronto – the Mount Pleasant and Regent – plus a newer multi-screen cinema in Pembroke.

The Sorokolits have taken a hands-off approach to the Westdale. Projectionist/ manager Jim Mair was hired over the phone 20 years and still hasn’t met the owners. And there’s Geoffrey Tresidder, the enthusiastic second in command, on the job for 10 years.

These two love the Westdale, and don’t complain. But many worry about the theatre.

Outside, symbolically, nearly half the letters are now burned out on the once-proud Westdale sign. But the big trouble is inside, up in the projection room. They’re still showing pictures on big reels of film. Most of the rest of the world has gone digital.

"Film is going to be all done pretty soon," says Andy Willick. He and business partner Daniel Demois have run the Fox, 2236 Queen East, Toronto for five years. They went digital two years ago.

Willick discovered the Westdale through friends in Hamilton. A couple of years ago, he spoke to Peter Sorokolit, patriarch of the family theatre business, about leasing the Westdale. "We even got to talking about money."

First step is to go digital

But no deal was ever done. Willick says he talked to Sorokolit again last week. "It seems there are some discussions going on as to what they want to do next."

Willick says step one is surely to bring digital images and sound to the Westdale. He says that could cost $80,000 to $100,000, an investment he and his partner would be prepared to make.

We tried to reach Sorokolit and ending up speaking to his daughter. She said he might get back to us, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Even if Sorokolit and family are of a mind to lease the Westdale, it could be to someone other than the Fox partners.

Brian McHattie, city councillor for the ward, has been worried for some time about the future of the Westdale. He’s written to the Sorokolits about the possibility of the community buying the theatre and turning it into a non-profit operation.

McHattie hasn’t heard back from the owners, but has a sense they are "getting warmer in terms of wanting to speak directly."

Theatres in the black now

Willick, of the Fox, has also been consulting since 2011 at the Revue, a Toronto theatre being run as a community non-profit. It opened on Roncesvalles in 1912, but shut down in 2006.

A community group was formed and got it reopened. It was losing money for three years, but is in the black now. Over at the Fox, they’ve been turning a profit for the last three years.

The Westdale has seating for nearly 500. On weekdays there might be 20 people in the theatre, on Saturdays a hundred. The Fox used to have room for 450. Now it’s down to 248 – bigger, more comfortable seats, with more legroom.

One part of the Fox formula that Willick believes would work well here is operating on a calendar model.

The Westdale often runs the same picture for several weeks. "But we’ve found variety is more important than running a picture for a long time," Willick says.

A Fox membership is $10, free for seniors. Members pay $8 for a movie, $10 for a double bill. Non-members pay $11 for a movie. The Fox prints up to 10,000 calendars a month, distributed through the Beaches neighbourhood. As well, it has a polished Web presence and the site gets 15,000 hits a month.

Hamilton did have a repertory cinema on the eastern edge of downtown, the Broadway, complete with a monthly calendar. But it couldn’t draw enough patrons, and closed in 1998 after a valiant 15-year run.

Different place, different times. Willick thinks Westdale would work better. And even though he’s a Toronto guy, he’s hearing this city is changing. "I like Hamilton. It’s getting the reputation of being cool, of being the place to live." |  @PaulWilsonCBC

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