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Park movie house’s last picture show inevitable

Movie lover Leonard Schein, owner of Vancouver’s Park cinema, knows time is running out for his beloved theatre.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

It was too early for customer popcorn, but the stately Park movie house was still a sight for sore, cinematic eyes on a foggy Thursday morning.

Like some rare, endangered species, the much-loved, refurbished, art-deco facility is living out its days as one of a diminishing number of single-screen theatres in Canada, a throwback to an age of movie ushers with flashlights, union projectionists and $2 matinees.

Inside the darkened theatre, operator Leonard Schein tidied up the news racks, then sat down to contemplate its future amid a sea of troubling closings of cinemas across the city, soon to include his own beloved Ridge Theatre, which he first purchased in 1977.

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Although the Park faces no immediate peril, Mr. Schein is not optimistic. "Our landlord has been very good to us, but at some point I'm sure he will tear down the whole building, the way a developer is going to tear down the Ridge," he said with a wistful smile.

Should that happen, the Park on Cambie Street would join a lengthening list of recently extinct theatres: Van East, the Hollywood, Oakridge cinemas, the Denman (soon to become a Dollarama store). This week, the Granville 7 complex – anchor of the Vancouver International Film Festival – confirmed its closing in early November. The Ridge will almost certainly follow some time next year.

"One tries to be positive," said VIFF director Alan Franey, who learned of the Granville 7's pending demise just a few days before Friday's closing gala, "but for those of us who value these things, every bit of news like this, we have to be a bit sad about, and worry about."

While Mr. Franey remains relatively confident the VIFF will survive the loss of its home base, the First Weekend Club, a nationwide organization promoting Canadian films that screened them at the Denman, is wondering where to find a Vancouver replacement. "What we are mourning with the closure of [independent] theatres is the loss of entities that had a real individuality, that tend to foster a real community. It's sad," said Katherine Brodsky, the club's public relations director.

Mr. Schein, a fixture of the Vancouver movie house scene for 35 years, who currently runs the Ridge, the bustling Fifth Avenue Cinemas and the Park, said the city should try harder to give individual theatres a break. Better density bonuses could be offered to developers to preserve the theatres, he said, although he noted the developer who owns the Ridge site hasn't asked for anything extra.

Councillor Heather Deal said the city's hands are tied. "It's frustrating, but there's very little we can do, if a private landowner does what he is entitled to do on his land," she said.

Neighbourhood theatres like the Park provide the first job for many young people, allow residents to walk to the movies, and there's a certain magic to seeing a film with others, particularly comedies or weepers, Mr. Schein said.

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Yet historic theatres like the Ridge, built in 1950, are turning into museum pieces. Mr. Schein said he is working with the Vancouver Museum to try to preserve the Ridge's distinctive sign and stained glass. "I think museums may be the future for single screen-theatres in Vancouver," he sighed. "The land value is just so high, owners feel they can make a lot more money putting condos on that land, rather than movie theatres. It's very unfortunate."

But for the longtime head of independent Festival Cinemas, money isn't everything. There are the joys of being your own boss. Not along ago, Mr. Schein relished being able to say "no" to Enbridge, which wanted to run one of their ads in his theatres. "They offered us a lot of money to do it. We told them we were running two anti-Northern Gateway pipeline ads instead. That was fun."

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