Oxford theatre, 'church of film' for 80 years, closes its doors

Former Oxford theatre projectionist says the theatre meant a lot to many people over it's 80-year history. The final show was Wednesday.

'There was something different about going and seeing a film there and unfortunately this is the end'

The final show at the Oxford Theatre is tonight. (Robert Short/CBC)

The lights went down for the last time Wednesday evening at Halifax's 80-year-old Oxford theatre.

When the art deco-style, single-screen cinema opened eight decades ago, former projectionist Aaron Larter, who now works at the Halifax Central Library, said it was during a boom time for west-end Halifax.

"It was a special place for a lot of the people who worked there, who went there," Larter said.

The Oxford Theatre in 1957. (Nova Scotia Archives)

In his time working at the theatre, Larter has seen weddings and special screenings, including one of the musical Grease where people dressed up and danced.

"To work there it was just kind of a magical place," he said. "There was something different about going and seeing a film there and unfortunately this is the end of that."

Sold to developer

The current owner of the Oxford, Cineplex of Toronto, announced two weeks ago the building that houses the theatre, located at the corner of Quinpool Road and Oxford Street, was sold to a local business owned by the Nahas family, Nanco Group.

The art deco-style, single screen cinema opened eight decades ago during a boom time for west-end Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

The developer said it plans to keep the building intact and turn it into a commercial and residential complex.

'A church of film'

Larter, who worked as a projectionist and manager at the Oxford between 2005 and 2008, said he was sad to hear news of the closure, but not entirely surprised.

"Part of me knew that this day was going to come eventually," he said, noting that sold-out shows at the theatre were rare in recent years.

"To work there it was just kind of a magical place," says former projectionist Aaron Larter. (Robert Short/CBC)

Larter said for him and others, the Oxford was more than just another theatre — it had character and a sense of history.

"For me it was kind of like a church, a church of film. It was a special place that you went and it just added onto the experience of seeing a film there. It enriched that experience," he said. "It was part of the whole package deal so I'm definitely going to miss that."

When the theatre opened in 1937, it was billed as a glamorous movie palace and cost 30 cents to see a film. (Robert Short/CBC)

First dates, film festivals

Just before the theatre's 75th anniversary, then-owner Empire Company Ltd. invested in a makeover that included renovating the auditorium. In 2012, the theatre also switched to a digital projector from the old film projector that Larter and another projectionist, Kevin Priest, had operated.

For 20 years, Priest operated the projector, mostly as a hobby, about one day a week. He was first introduced to the hobby by his dad, who made a career as a projectionist in Halifax theatres, though not at the Oxford.

The theatre held a lot of meaning for residents, Priest said.

Kevin Priest worked as a projectionist at the Oxford for 20 years. (Steve Berry/CBC)

"I think given its tenure, how long it's been around, it meant a lot of things to a lot of different people — you know, a place where they might have gone on first dates," he said.

The busiest times were during film festivals, when they had to change reels for every show.

"If you do something wrong, it's always a full house for film festivals," Priest said. "So if something happens, the bulb blows, it's not just like changing a light bulb, it's a lot more complicated than that. If something happens, you've got to fix it and fix it fast," he said.

The art deco-style, single screen cinema opened eight decades ago during a boom time for west-end Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

'A landmark in the city'

The last film Priest screened was Ghost Writer starring Ewan McGregor in 2010. Right now, the marquee from that show is the screensaver on his phone — a lasting memento of a difficult moment.

"It was over. It was the end of something that I enjoyed," said Priest. "Film has always been a big part of my life and to walk away from that and never really go back, it's a big change."

The developer says it plans to keep the building intact and turn it into a commercial and residential complex. (Robert Short/CBC)

Priest said he didn't have tickets for any of the final shows celebrating the history of the Oxford but he's going to miss the place.

"I did drive by last night to see what was on the marquee," he said. "It's a landmark in the city."

The final film at the Oxford is a sold-out screening of Titanic that started at 7 p.m.

Priest said he didn't have tickets for any of the final shows celebrating the history of the Oxford but he's going to miss the place. (Robert Short/CBC)

About the Author

Cassie Williams

Reporter/Editor

Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. I live in Halifax. You can reach me at cassandra.williams@cbc.ca

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.