Theatres Don’t Save Themselves

The people behind the restoration of Hamilton’s Westdale Theatre see it as an urban barn raising

It’s a fact theatres don’t build themselves. It’s also a fact they don’t save themselves either. Hamilton’s Westdale Theatre is no exception. It was built as part of Hamilton’s first planned community – Westdale. When the 1935 Art Deco-style theatre was put up for sale in late December of 2016, it held the title as the oldest, continuously operated movie theatre in Hamilton. It’s future, however, was anything but certain.

It’s also the last remaining intact movie theatre in Hamilton. All of the others are either gone completely, or have been gutted or re-purposed. That makes the Westdale Theatre something worth saving.

That was the rallying cry for what has become the Westdale Cinema Group, the not-for-profit group that came together to save the theatre. The first meeting started out as a group of people who wanted to talk about the uncertain future of the Westdale Theatre. The meeting ended with a number of participants agreeing to put in an offer to purchase the theatre. Three of them agreed to put up the $75,000 deposit that had to accompany the offer.

Of course, there was the not-so-small matter of the nearly $2 million required to actually buy the theatre. The group had until June 1 to put together the funding. That’s where the civic-minded spirit of Hamiltonians comes in.

Calls were made. Meetings held. Within a few weeks, the newly founded Westdale Cinema Group had enlisted local foundations and philanthropists who were prepared to loan the group enough money to close the deal. This story is about the people known as Founders.

You may recognize some, or even all, of their names. Carl Turkstra, Jessett Investments (Beth, Kevin and Graham McNally), Hamilton Community Foundation, Ron Richter, Jeff Paikin, and Robert Crockford. Between them, they loaned the $2 million needed to save the theatre. Each had their own reasons for deciding to support the Westdale Theatre revitalization project.

“I had tried to buy the theatre myself 5 or 6 years ago, but I had no luck locating the owner. Besides, they weren’t interested in selling,” says Carl Turkstra. He also chairs the Incite Foundation for the Arts that provides funding to the arts community in Hamilton. “I see this project as a very positive thing for culture in this City. It’s a charming old place.”

Jeff Paikin understood what the Westdale represented. “All of the theatres I used to go to as kid are gone. The Westdale represents a whole lot more than just a movie theatre to me. It’s the last one we’ve got left from our past. It’s part of Hamilton’s history.”

Each of the Founders talks about the theatre within the context of Hamilton’s history. They understand its value. Each of them saw their loan as an investment in Hamilton. Its culture. And its heritage.

“I like saving things that are unique and, for me, the Westdale has gained that status. Westdale Village is a beautiful hub for the neighbourhood. Besides, I love movies,” says Bob Crockford, a well known community supporter whose family has operated businesses in Dundas for a few generations.

The community seems to be very much in agreement with how the Founders see the significance of the Westdale Theatre. At a public event held in the theatre on Sunday, June 25th, a very enthusiastic crowd of over 700 people came out to see the theatre and to hear about the plans for its restoration. The new owners are quick to point out that the theatre will still be primarily for film, but the plans call for expanding the stage to host small theatre productions, live music, lectures, live streaming and community meetings.

“It’s clear to us that Hamilton wants to be involved in this project,” says Beth McNally, one of three McNallys that manage Jessett Investments. Beth’s cousins, Graham and Kevin, are the other two. Together, they have loaned a significant amount of money to the project, as well as stepping up as active volunteers who are working on the restoration plans. “Our parents and our grandparents went to that theatre. Now, with the future of the theatre in good hands, we too can use it, and so can our kids.” Graham McNally puts it this way, “Like most Hamiltonians, we care about our city. As an architect, I understand that buildings make memories. As a result, buildings are more than just bricks and mortar and design. They’re part of the way we live and define our lives.”

The Hamilton Community Foundation also stepped up in a big way to help provide loan money to acquire the theatre. Terry Cooke, CEO of the HCF, puts it simply, “So many of our memories are there at the Westdale Theatre. We believe strongly that so many more are yet to be made and we’re thrilled to be part of that.”

Ron Richter is pretty clear why he agreed to be a Founder. “I could see the enthusiasm of the people who were trying to save the theatre. I admired their drive and their credentials. Not only that, but I went to George R. Allen school. So, for me, the theatre meant more than just a project. It’s a neighbourhood theatre full of neighbourhood stories.”

The theatre has closed for the first time in 82 years, but for very good reasons. While, architecturally, it will be restored to its 1935 Art Deco glory, major improvements will be made to heating, air conditioning, washrooms, seating, sound and projection. Accessibility will also be a focus, including the addition of spaces for wheelchairs and a fully accessible washroom on the main floor. The City of Hamilton, with leadership from Ward 1 Councillor Aidan Johnson, is working on designating the building as a heritage building. The new owners couldn’t be more supportive. As Fred Fuchs, one of the Board members says, “We want to ensure that although we’re updating many of the systems in the building, the soul of this theatre remains. The architecture is a major part of that.”

The building was designed by local architect, Bruce Riddell, whose offices were located in the Sun Life Building at the corner of James Street and Main Street. Much of its original features remain. For example, underneath the current marquee, installed in the late 1960’s, sits the carved limestone original facade, featuring two carved faces of Tragedy and Comedy. The new owners plan on restoring both the inside and the outside to its original 1935 look. Plans call for the theatre to re-open in 8-12 months. As Fuchs puts it, “The faster we raise the $1.5 million we need to restore the theatre, the sooner it will re-open.” A major fundraising campaign called Building Magic, has been launched by the Westdale Cinema Group. The money will be a combination of individual gifts and government grants from all three levels of government. (see buildingmagic.ca)

The Westdale Cinema Group is calling this project an urban barn raising. They point to the level of goodwill in the community for the project. Many people have come forward with offers to help, both financially and physically. They include plumbers, painters, electricians, plasterers and many more offering their expertise free-of-charge. Not to mention theatre designers, architects, artists, restoration experts, web designers, and people who don’t have a lot of money but who are happy to offer their labour. It’s a great story of Hamiltonians coming together to make something good happen.

When asked if they would use the theatre once it re-opened in 2018, the Founders’ responses were both quick and emphatic.

Ron Richter: “Are you kidding? My Tuesday film group will be regulars.”

Carl Turkstra: “I will be there. For movies. For concerts. For TED Talks. At my age, I don’t want to just sit at home.”

Terry Cooke: “I have been going to the Westdale for years and I plan on continuing to do so. I can’t wait for it to re-open.”

Bob Crockford: “I am so heartened by the community support for this project. I’m very enthusiastically looking forward to more comfortable seats and improved sound and projection, but all within a great heritage building.”

Graham McNally: “I’m so pleased to be part of this project. The Westdale will continue to be a place where you can see films you can’t see anywhere else in Hamilton or Burlington. I believe it will be a cultural hub.”

Jeff Paikin: “I will use this theatre. I think it’s a very cool space and I know local groups will make use of it. It will be inclusive. For me, this is a joyful project.”

If the current buzz about this project is any indication, the Founder’s feelings about the Westdale Theatre project are shared by many.

For more information about the Westdale Cinema Group and the Building Magic fundraising campaign, visit buildingmagic.ca or the Westdale Cinema Group page on Facebook @WestdaleCinema