“I stick my neck out for nobody.” - Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Casablanca (1942)
It’s been two days since the Bogart-Bergman classic flickered to life at Hamilton’s Westdale Theatre. And thank goodness a number of necks stuck themselves out for this once-and-again glamourous movie house. Put up for sale at the end of 2016, it likely would have never shown a movie again had it not been for the not-for-profit Westdale Cinema Group, which mobilized in January, 2017, and quickly came up with a deposit.
One of those necks – the one belonging to Graham Crawford – is trying to point out the highlights of the glorious, $2.8-million restoration (which took seven months longer than anticipated), but he keeps getting interrupted by grateful Hamiltonians.
“Congratulations! What time are you showing the free movie?” says one man as he extends his hand to shake. Today, Some Like It Hot is on offer to those who contributed to the fundraising campaign, along with a pre-movie open house.
“It’s phenomenal,” another says as he goes in for a bear-hug.
One man bounds down the staircase and practically pins Mr. Crawford to the concession stand, a contemporary take on Art Deco designed by Mr. Graham’s partner, Gerald Stanley, who spent much of his career in the design and construction arm of Cineplex-Odeon under Garth Drabinsky. “Congratulations! Looking good! It’s really changed up there,” the man says, beaming.
“Oh, it was gutted, it had to be,” Mr. Crawford replies, “to get the number of washrooms to code.”
An elegant, jewel-encrusted older woman concurs: “Beautiful washroom!” she opines as she descends the stairs and locks eyes with the two men.
It’s not just the washrooms: Everything here is beautiful. The corrugated metal box with its large, illuminated letter-board no longer smothers the façade; instead, the hand-carved, Indiana limestone Comedy and Tragedy masks once again direct their gaze onto King Street West, just as they did until the 1969 renovation sucked away much of 1935. Below these is a more Deco-accurate, smaller marquee lovingly constructed by Sunset Neon. And speaking of neon, the familiar (if a little kitschy) WESTDALE letters in green neon have been repurposed inside as decoration over the staircase.
Below Sunset’s streamlined signage, a riot of cream, orange, black and swirly olive-alabaster Vitrolite (pigmented structural glass) has been removed, refurbished, harvested from elsewhere and reinstalled in its original jazzy pattern. One piece, formerly painted over, sports sandblasted pyramid-shapes. And would you look at those front doors? Hand-crafted by Alan Stacey and his team at Heritage Mill in nearby Dundas, Ont., they respect the original ziggurat pattern while eliminating the complex sash pattern for a more pleasing, contemporary look.
Inside the lobby, original Deco frames for coming attractions posters have been recreated by local firm Crescent Cabinet Co.
It’s hard to believe these myriad details were gleaned from a handful of period photographs, all in black-and-white; in fact, the Vitrolite patterning was determined from just one photograph that had to be lightened up in Photoshop.
Even in the main auditorium, the new – and much more elegant – café-au-lait/mint-green paint scheme comes partly from scrape-tests, but mostly from educated guesses, says Gerald Stanley, who had access to a 60-page building specification document from the Ontario Archives: “In spite it being called a ‘specification,’ there was nothing specific in it in terms of colour,” he quips. Pointing to one of the decorative columns that frames the giant screen, he adds: “This gold that you’re seeing here is a guess because one of the few archival photos we have, the paint in that area looked metallic.”
The “jazz plaster” that covers most walls was a different story, however. While much of the peaks-and-valleys, stucco-like finish was untouched, many areas had been damaged by cover-ups or obliterated by water damage. Somehow, Schuit Plastering & Stucco was able to recreate the finish so well, the eye is completely fooled: “That’s original, this is not,” says Mr. Crawford, pointing to two identical patches of wall. “They were really, really good, they really cared about this.”
It wasn’t just the plasterers: Every single worker who spent time on the Westdale understood that they were preserving something bigger than the sum of its parts: “The trades, they work every day on construction stuff, but they seemed to embrace this as a special project,” Mr. Crawford confirms. “To have a building that is designated inside and outside is not that common.”
And then there were the donors: All 345 seats were “purchased” and name-plaqued; the new accessible seating area was named; and the lobby, stage, auditorium and even the popcorn machine were sponsored in exchange for immortality on brass. Those who volunteered their skills or time in other ways have been honoured via an illuminated sign.
Even 21st-century interventions done for convenience or fire code – a half-wall separating auditorium from lobby has been removed and the only heritage elements to remain upstairs are windows – have been done with grace and thoughtfulness to the overall impact on the building’s character. Then again, that’s not surprising, since movie houses are places that seem to belong to all of us … magic places some folk will gladly stick their necks out to save.
But now, finishes Mr. Crawford, it’s our turn: “The truth is we need to keep raising money; we paid for everything to open, but there’s a big chunk that are loans.”
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