Hamilton

The Westdale Theatre aims to raise $1.5 million to return to its roots

The Westdale Cinema Group wants to bring the the Westdale Theatre back to it's 1935 glory and thanks to the community, the vision is on its way to becoming a reality.

One of Canada's oldest movie theatres is in full gear to receive a face lift thanks to the community

The Westdale Theatre is going through a restoration after being bought by the Westdale Cinema Group and is working towards becoming a first run theatre for arthouse films. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

The Westdale Cinema Group is aiming to restore Hamilton's beloved Westdale Theatre to its original 1935 glory and members of the community are coming together to help make the shift to the past possible.

The group is aiming to raise $1.5 million to restore the theatre by July of next year, working from the original architectural drawings for the theatre.

The historic sign, plaster work interior doors and other decorative details are all some of the historic and vintage features  that will be restored or preserved in some form.

Graham Crawford, one of the founding board members for the Westdale Cinema Group says overall, the theatre has strong bones. 

"It's actually in fairly good shape. It's tired and it does need to be refreshed and patched and fixed." - Graham Crawford

"It's actually in fairly good shape. It's tired and it does need to be refreshed and patched and fixed.

"Most of the major work is behind the walls and in the ceiling." 

Graham Crawford is one of the founding members of the Westdale Cinema Group who is working on restoring the Westdale Theatre. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

The Group's crowdfunding campaign has raised $36,555 so far by selling seats, commemorative pins and old tickets and is hoping to raise $150,000.

The campaign allows the community to play a part in the restoration, but other financial contributions will be coming from governmental grants on all levels and private donations.

So far, Crawford says "hundreds of thousands of dollars" have been raised.

Crawford says the theatre that used to seat over 600 people will be reduced to 385 to abide by new codes. But the theatre will still keep its old school charm.

A theatre that could once fit 600 people, will now be a 385 seater theatre. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

"In terms of the grand public space, the lobby, the rear lobby, and the auditorium- they will be fully restored."

The jazz plaster on the walls of the theatre will remain the same as part of the 1935 aesthetic, when the theatre first opened. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

Heritage designation will play a role in restoration

The Westdale recently received heritage designation, which means some elements of the building cannot be removed, but can be restored to its original look.

The neon letters spelling out "WESTDALE" have been taken down and will be finding a home within the theatre as a decorative element.

The well-known WESTDALE neon sign will find a new home inside the theatre as a decorative piece. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

The metal structure on the face of the building will also be removed and expose the facade. That facade features a comedy and tragedy mask carved out of limestone on the face of the building. The original facade was noted in the heritage report. 

The old facade of the theatre will be taken down to reveal a comedy/tragedy mask that was covered by the metal surrounding (Royal Lepage)

The jazz plaster, the decorative iron grate in the centre of lobby, the coves around the lobby and around the theatre ceiling have been identified as heritage features and will remain.

The iron grate on the ceiling in the front lobby has been deemed a heritage feature. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

The "WT" logo above the theatre screen has also been deemed a heritage feature and will also make its way throughout the theatre as part of a design motif.

Even the 1935 art deco style doors will be replicated and placed back into the theatre, thanks to the generosity of people wanting to help with the restoration.  

The ceiling coves and "WT" logo above the screen have been deemed heritage features. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

"When people come back through that door, they will be walking back through a theatre as it was in 1935," said Crawford.

Bringing a new purpose to an old theatre

Crawford along with board members Jeremy Freiburger of CoBalt Connects, film producer Fred Fuchs, and former Valley City Manufacturing owner Bob Crockford purchased the theatre because they wanted to continue to keep it in operation. 

If we lost this, chances are we were going to lose any independent or arthouse film. If you're a film buff, that was it; it's going to be gone. So we kept it.- Graham Crawford

Crawford believes that Hamilton is underserved for arthouse and independent films.

The Westdale was often the place to come to watch arthouse films in Hamilton and Crawford wants to continue that.

"If we lost this, chances are we were going to lose any independent or arthouse film. If you're a film buff, that was it; it's going to be gone. So we kept it."

Crawford sits beside one of the original parts of the projector used in the theatre, which will be up for auction. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

Often times, arthouse independent movies had their first run in Toronto before coming to Hamilton. Crawford hopes that is is going to change.

"We've already met with the three big arthouse independent film distributors in Canada. They're very excited about this."

Eighty per cent of what Westdale Theatre will be doing on a nightly basis will be film. Beyond movies, Crawford says he would like to bring authors, panel discussions, TED talks, and chamber orchestras to the theatre. 

 There is also interest from McMaster and Columbia International College to use the theatre be a lecture hall during the day.

Community coming together to save history

Crawford has seen members of the community come forward to dedicate their time, their money, or skills to help restore Westdale Theatre.

"We've got people saying to us 'I've got no money, but I can give you labour for nothing. Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll be there,'" said Crawford

Shortly after a meeting with CBC News, Crawford said a woman came by with a $1,000 donation to purchase seats in the theatre where her and her partner sat in when they came to the Westdale. 

The projection room at the Theatre will be reconfigured to accommodate new bathrooms on the upper level of the theatre. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)
We are calling this an urban barn raising because Hamiltonians have stepped up.- Graham Crawford

"If you throw enough money at anything, you can fix it.

"But what's happened here is we are calling this an urban barn raising because Hamiltonians have stepped up," said Crawford.

The Westdale Cinema Group is selling seats, naming rights to portions of the theatre, and having an auction to sell some of the theatre memorabilia to reach their $1.5 million target.

"The buzz, the feedback the goodwill- I mean, I love my city. I didn't know it would be like this. This is way beyond my expectations," said Crawford.