The Penmar Theatre: down to the wire

In May of this year, The Projection Project spent two days at the southern tip of Okanagan Lake, in Sunny Penticton, gathering material for our upcoming documentary Out of the Interior: Survival of the  Small-town Cinema in British Columbia.

We were there to look into the history of the city’s legendary downtown cinema, the Penmar. We were also there to meet two members of the dynamic team working to re-open the original Penmar building as a multi-use community cultural space.

At the local branch of Okanagan Regional Library, Silmara and I were thrilled to discover the original Penticton Herald ad (on microfiche) heralding the grand opening of the Penmar Theatre in the early 1960s. After the extravagant launch, the Penmar would go on to entertain Pentictonites (Pentictonians?) for decades.

The theatre endured all those decades despite several close calls. The projection room serviced up to three auditoriums simultaneously, and its walls bore the burn marks resulting from a fire caused not by highly flammable nitrate-based film stock accidentally igniting, but rather from an extremely hot carbon-arc light projector being knocked over. It seems that two projectionists were playing a rowdy match of floor hockey one night, killing time before they had to make their next reel changes. One of them took a hard check against his machine, which crashed to the floor, bursting into flames on impact.

The theatre closed in 2012 when its owners, Landmark Cinemas, moved into a new big-box multiplex a stone’s throw away.  The Penmar’s vintage 35mm projectors were collected in a dumpster in the parking lot. It seemed like the end of an era.

When we arrived at the old Pen-mar building on Martin Street this spring, however, it felt like the beginning of a new one.

Kerri Milton, the president and director of the Penmar Community Arts Centre, and her colleague, projectionist and videographer Adam Viklund, led the two of us through corridors and auditoriums piled with sawdust and construction materials. But it was clear that work on a multi-purpose, state-of-the-art community centre was well under way.

Sponsorship from local businesses including Valley First Credit Union had helped bring the Penmar Community Arts Society’s ambitious this far, and there was palpable excitement in Kerri and Adam’s voices as they showed us blueprints indicating where the sleek new concession stands would go and explained how the new dressing rooms and green rooms would facilitate live theatre and musical performances; not to mention how high-tech digital projection would allow the re-imagined Penmar Valley First Community Arts Theatre to also be a first-rate, independent cinema.

But despite the support of so many local businesses, city council members, dedicated volunteers and nearly half a million dollars in fundraising, plans for a rejuvenated Penmar have recently hit a couple of serious snags.

First, the expenses involved in renovating a building over half a century in age turned out to be more than anticipated – to the tune of $190,000. Secondly, the owners were beginning to grow impatient: despite all of the work, sweat and sacrifice going on inside the Penmar, it had, after all, been closed to the public for three years without earning the owners any money. A deadline was given. The Penmar Community Arts Society had to come up with the shortfall by the end of 2015, or the Penmar would be demolished.

Many might have faced such an ultimatum with a mix of regret, anger and resignation. The Penmar team, however, was galvanized. With less than a month left before the end of the year, they took their story to the media and launched a Kickstarter campaign, this time appealing to the public: “we really want the community to know that this is their theatre,” Kerri told the Projection Project. “They’ve been so supportive all along, but to get over this final hurdle, we just need them to help give us this one final push.” 

To some, it might seem like nothing short of a Christmas miracle will save the Penmar, but the Society is optimistic, having already earned over $15,000 in Kickstarter donations in first few days of the campaign. “We’re so close,” Kerri says. “And I just know the people of Penticton have what it takes to get us to the finish line.”

The Projection Project isn’t following the Penmar’s story with the detached cool of objective journalists. We have our fingers very subjectively crossed, hoping for a successful outcome. We are also shamelessly self-interested: we want to visit the valley again in the spring of 2016 to photograph the Gala Night reopening of this classic Okanagan Theatre. Not only would it be a fantastic celebration in its own right, but it would also give our documentary something that those in Penticton who respect and cherish the performing and cinematic arts deserve: a happy ending. And a new beginning.

Penmar Community Arts Society:

Kickstarter – Crowdfunding campaign to save the Penmar:


About The Author

Silmara Emde is a photographer and graphic designer, and Curtis Emde is a writer and teacher. They are based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and together they form the Projection Project - a multi-media venture that documents the changing nature of movie-going as the 35mm film era ends and the digital era begins.