Community & commitment at Sidney’s Star Cinema
Dozens of excited, laughing children were streaming out of the first auditorium of Sidney’s Star Cinema when the Projection Project arrived on a chilly and drizzly afternoon in the summer of 2015. The kids had just seen the popular animated feature Minions. In just over an hour, the doors would re-open for another screening of the same movie, while in the adjacent and slightly smaller auditorium, a presumably older crowd would be taking in Mad Max: Fury Road. This brief lull between showings gave manager Shannon Davis and her staff of one a narrow wedge of time in which to sweep up a lot of spilt popcorn, spruce up the bright and very blue lobby, as well as check that the DCP projectors were loaded and ready for the evening’s entertainment.
Sidney is often seen by people in Vancouver as a retirement community, but the nearly one hundred kids and their parents who attended the matinee that Saturday clearly demonstrated that the ocean-side town boasts a more diverse demographic than its reputation might suggest. The town also makes a good case for having the highest bookshop-to-citizen ratio in Canada, with the large Tanner’s Books (with its attached Children’s Bookshop) anchoring a downtown bookshop circuit that also features The Military and History Bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop, Beacon’s Books, and Galleon’s Books and Antiques.
The Star sits within this circuit. It used to be a bingo palace before being converted into a two-screen cinema by Sandy Olive and her sister Carolyn Lewis, along with another pair of siblings, Marlene Hold and Judy Gwynn-Williams. There hadn’t been a cinema in Sidney for over twenty five years when the four women opened theirs in 1998 (see appendix 2 for a brief overview of Sidney’s movie house history). The last one, The Gem, closed in 1973. This closure had left such a hole in Sidney’s social and cultural life that the then-mayor Don Amos contacted Sandy, who was living on Salt Spring Island at the time, if she would be able to do anything about the problem.
“Don was full of encouragement,” Star owner Sandy Olive recalls. “He walked us through the permits and paperwork needed to make the theatre happen.” She also has praise for Don Amos’ wife Sabina, for not only being a regular customer but also for being a volunteer at the theatre for over ten years; making sure patrons are warmly greeted and seated. Sandy also credits her sweetheart Ken Walden for preparing the original business plan and for presenting their proposal clearly and convincingly to the town council.
Under the guidance of the two sets of sisters, the Star became an entertainment institution and social hub. But when Carolyn died of ovarian cancer in 2012, it was such a devastating personal and professional loss for Sandy that she considered leaving the motion picture exhibition industry altogether. “I’d have left [the business] if it weren’t for the kindness and sweet outpouring of appreciation and support that I received,” she told us, citing one member of her staff in particular for providing exceptional support: “Lindsay Pomper started working here when she was just sixteen and she’s been at the Star for about seventeen years now. She is the hardest working and most humble person I know.”
Despite having such a loyal and industrious staff, the Star faced other challenges: some movie studios will not allow cinemas to open a flashy new title on the day of national release unless they agree to run the film for up to three solid weeks; thus leaving the screen unsullied by offerings from rival studios. A multiplex usually has little trouble handing over an auditorium to just one movie for such a long stretch, but a small community theatre, shackled to a single film – no matter how hotly anticipated – will see its business drop sharply after the first five to ten days; and will likely play to tiny audiences or even totally empty houses in the painful third week. Such slow business can sell so little popcorn that it’s hard to imagine the lights and heating of the building being covered, let alone payroll or the rental costs of the films themselves.
Having a second screen helps mitigate such problems. The Star can feature selections like Minions close to or even on the international release date, while simultaneously offering variety with features like Mad Max or Mr Holmes on its other screen. And while Sandy admits that while there will always be some young people who will leave Sidney to drive twenty five-odd minutes to Victoria on opening weekends to catch a heavily-hyped 3D blockbuster on the bigger screens of the bigger city, this kind of migration-viewing does not put a significant dent in her business. In fact, the Star benefits from the opposite trend: regulars who drive up from Victoria as often as they can manage; people happy to make the effort to see movies in a calmer, more nostalgic environment than anything offered by Victoria’s corporate multiplexes.
But the movie exhibition industry has been radically transformed by something other than audience viewing habits: the end of the 35mm era. Traditional film projection had been the industry standard for over a century, but by 2010 it was becoming increasingly difficult to get one’s hands on actual film prints, especially for remote, single-screen independent theatres. Hollywood studios had already begun phasing out film itself a few years prior, and many theatres across B.C. and Canada closed when faced with the astronomical costs of upgrading to digital projection (being unable or unwilling to go through the digital upgrade process contributed to the eventual closure of many theatres, including Vancouver’s Granville 7, Kitsilano’s Hollywood Theatre, Burnaby’s Dolphin Two-plex, Surrey’s Clova Cinema and Victoria’s downtown Capital 6). With a single DCP (Digital Cinema Package) projector and accompanying accessories costing up to $80,000 apiece and the Star desperately needing new seating (its 30-year old seats had been purchased second-hand from the Odeon in Victoria), some worried Sidney’s local movie house would be the next to lock its doors and turn off its lights for good – the latest victim of the digital revolution.
The $200,000 cost of replacing the projectors and seats would have been prohibitive without the subsequent massive effort from the community. Over an intense eight month period, Sidney witnessed a frenzy of fund-raising and campaigning, with town councillor Ken Podmore kicking things off with A Starry Afternoon of Music, featuring the Bayside Big Band and the Islanders. The event raised nearly $5,000. Other volunteers took their own initiative (including organizing garage sales) to help raise money, and each pledge of $150 ($250 for businesses) earned the donor either a piece of the original projector or a little star-shaped plaque for the back of one of the new chairs. “The first plaques were attached pretty cheaply, just with sticky tape,” manager Shannon admits. “Most of them just fell right off on the first night…in the middle of the movie!”
The plaques will have to be redone, pre-drilled and individually grommeted. But while the new chairs might not initially have held name plaques securely, at least they eventually arrived. When they were first delivered, it was soon discovered the chairs were the wrong size and had to be re-ordered. But the original Odeon seats had already been removed, so the Star was suddenly totally free of seating. But the show, as they say, had to go on: Sandy introduced a BYOC (bring-your-own-chair) policy, and before long the auditoriums were filled with lawn chairs and floor pillows. Mary Windspear loaned the Star a selection of stackable chairs, with St Paul’s United Church donating some seating of its own. With building code restrictions reducing the seating capacity for each auditorium (normally 150 and 125) to just 60 apiece, it was a cozy, intimate time at the Star. The reduced capacity left room for coffee tables and foot rests, allowing patrons to stretch out more comfortably in front of the screen than they’d ever been able to before. Eventually Beacon Community Services and the Beardons, a husband and wife team, purchased and delivered a selection of love seats, sofas and plush seats. These exclusive, limited-size audiences enjoyed sprawling and lounging on the temporary furniture so much that Sandy joked to Victoria’s Times Colonist newspaper that she should have been charging double instead of half price.
In the end, the campaign raised a staggering $185,000 towards the new projectors and furniture. “I do think Sidney is a particularly generous and vibrant community,” Sandy says. “The people here very much appreciate [the Star’s] unique atmosphere, the personal touches, as well as our efforts to remain affordable and responsive to our community’s needs.”
And while the staff may miss the tactility of the century-plus tradition of building up of prints and threading projectors by hand, most acknowledge the convenience of digital projection, as well as appreciate the consistent quality of image. In the film era, the smaller markets tended to get scratchy, damaged prints handed down from bigger centres, but with DCP technology, the sharpness of the image in Sidney is on par with that of anything available at any urban Cineplex.
Thus, the Star’s continued presence in town is assured – at least for the near future. “I don’t think Sidney would ever let the Star close,” says Shannon, thinking of a future that will likely see more threats to independent theatre survival emerge. Whatever the threats are, it’s clear that the strong-willed community of Sidney, BC is prepared to face them. Indeed, almost as if both in congratulations for past victories and in readiness for future battles, a famous Margaret Mead quotation (a gift from a donor to the new projectors campaign) is centrally displayed in the Star’s lobby: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Certainly any small community of thoughtful, committed citizens able to support six bookshops within a one-kilometre radius can certainly keep the lights of their local cinema lit for years to come.
Despite the mop in her hand and an obviously lengthy list of duties to attend to before the next group of children and their parents arrive for more Minions, Shannon paused to serve us an on-the-house bag of popcorn. “It’s the best on the island,” she said, echoing the type of popcorn-superiority hyperbole made, it must be said, by almost every movie theatre manager we’ve ever spoken to. However, as if to back up her claim, a couple came into the Star at that exact moment. They hadn’t come to buy tickets for the next show or to ask about coming attractions, but rather to buy a large popcorn to go. This was not a rare occurrence, we were told: people often came to the Star just for some take-away popcorn, generously smothered in butter melted in a slow cooker sitting on the concession counter. It was very good, we conceded. Whether or not it can truly be ranked as the best popcorn on Vancouver Island, however, will require more research.
Walking us to the door, Shannon wrapped up our conversation by saying, “I want to retire in Sidney,” returning us to our initial impression of Sidney as a retirement haven. She has a condition, however: “I won’t do it unless the Star is here.”
Click below to see a photo gallery of Sidney, BC & the Star Cinema:
© Projection Project, September 2015
The Projection Project would like to thank the Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman, whose 1 February 2013 article ‘Small towns pitch in to keep theatres alive’ first tipped us off about the Star Cinema, and ultimately lead us to Sidney two years later.
Appendix 1: Two short lists of movies
Here are the top five most popular movies shown at the Star over the last 17 years, based on ticket sales:
- Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone
- Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
- My Big Fat Greek Wedding
- Kings Speech
- Mama Mia
Owner Sandy was slightly more reluctant to list her personal favourites. She did, however, give the following titles as a “way too tiny sample” of her own top picks, in absolutely no particular order and not limited to movies that have been shown at the Star:
To Kill a Mocking Bird
Appendix 2: Sidney BC’s Movie House Heritage
Sidney’s first movie house seemed to be an informal, ad hoc one: films were screened sporadically from 1913 to 1919 on the second floor of Berquist Hall. Around the same time, another cinema was in operation, and was given an actual name: Bob Sloan and Sam Roberts’ Beacon Avenue theatre was christened The Columbia. It lasted scarcely more than a month. A major factor in its quick closure was, allegedly, Roberts’ habit of letting kids in for free!
The town’s other movie house, Fourth Street’s Berquist Picture Theatre, would prove more durable. Housed in a former warehouse owned by Andrew Berquist, the theatre was leased by Saskatchewan’s Silas Victor Henn in 1921. Renaming the theatre The Auditorium, Henn held a grand re-opening weekend on July 29th and 30th of that year. He opened with the comedy 39 East alongside a Buster Keaton two-reeler. The day-to-day operations of The Auditorium were overseen by Sever K. Halseth, Andrew Berquist’s son-in-law, until 1930, when The Great Depression was a major factor in its closure.
The building sat empty for over a decade. Then, on Labour Day 1942, Mr Henn (having joined forces with D.G. Lumley) re-opened The Auditorium under its new name, The Rex. The theatre could now hold 350 movie-goers and featured 30 special ‘love seats’ for two, a movie theatre trend at the time. The photos below show examples of cinema love seats, from the Toby Theatre in Invermere, BC (the Toby kept its original 1948 seats until the theatre’s sad closure in September 2013). The wooden love seat, to contemporary eyes, looks like it would probably accommodate a single average-sized adult, but might have trouble with two. Nevertheless, couples did manage to squeeze in night after night. And, more recently, many couples at the Star Cinema also snuggled into love seats once again – or at least some slightly larger, well-padded modern versions: when the theatre’s auditoriums were temporarily filled with donated seating, the single most popular furniture type was the love seat.
Marjorie and Rudolph Martman, with their son Bob and his wife Dorothy, bought the Rex in 1946, the same year they all arrived in Sidney from Saskatchewan. The Rex was such a hit (entertaining not only the citizens of Sidney, but also of North Saanich across the highway and the many airforce crew members stationed at the nearby airport) that they soon realized they needed a larger, modern facility and more seating capacity. Thus, the Martmans had a 391-seat Quonset-style hut custom built on Beacon Avenue. Taking eight days to erect, the structure was originally nearly 30 metres long and 12.5 metres wide, and featured deluxe padded velour seats. Dubbed The Gem, the theatre opened on 19 January 1950 with
The Inspector General starring Danny Kaye. Tickets went for 50 cents apiece.
As the Gem flourished, the building that had housed the Martman’s original business, the Rex, was subsequently occupied by a number of businesses, including Sims Laboratories Ltd, which built aerials for television (cinema’s powerful new rival), as well as The Vancouver Island Casket Company, before burning to the ground in April 1963. The site has been a parking lot ever since.
The Martmans were respected local business people who operated the Gem for twenty-three years. Locals recall entering the lobby as children and having Dot sell them confectionaries and popcorn with a smile from behind the concession. The next time they encountered her was often in the auditorium itself, however, where she would be in a decidedly less friendly mood, as a result of having to storm in to tell the kids to stop making such a racket during the movie!
Bob Martman admitted to the Sidney Review in 1973 that he had little choice but to close the Gem. The trend towards more violent, adult-themed Hollywood movies in the early 1970s meant finding family-friendly fare for the Gem had been a growing challenge for the Martmans. In addition, box office was down, and the struggle to get a new print every week while maintaining the building was exhausting. He pointed out that Sidney was simply too close to the provincial capital’s larger selection of theatres and movies: “If we were another thirty miles away, it would be different,” he told the Review. “I’ve been getting movies that played in Victoria two, three weeks…by the time I got them, they’d been seen by anyone who’d wanted to see them.”
After screening approximately 1,250 movies over its two decades – that’s a new film every week – the Gem screened its last, John Wayne’s The Big Jake, on 6 October 1973. The distinctive building had its sloping cinema floor levelled the following year and became a Macleod’s Hardware store. Just under twenty years later, another hardware store, Tru Valu, moved in, lasting until at least 2006 before being replaced by the inevitable loonie store.
Dorothy died on Mother’s Day of this year (2015), aged 90. Her husband Bob died almost exactly two months later on July 8th at the age of 90.
The Projection Project is grateful to the Sidney Museum and Archives for most of the information in this appendix. We would also like to offer special thanks to Brad R Morrison for his January 2014 ‘Town Talk Newsletter’ article about Sidney’s cinematic history, as well as for answering our questions both by email and phone, and for responding to our requests for vintage photos with professionalism and friendliness.
Bob Martman quotations are taken from the Wednesday, 10 October 1973 issue of the Review.
Further thanks to Victoria’s Time Colonist newspaper for additional information on the Martman family.
Text by Curtis Emde
Star Cinema photography by Silmara Albi
Historical information provided by Brad R Morrison,
Vintage photographs courtesy of the Sidney Museum & Archives