A Look at the Oliver Theatre

A Look at the Oliver Theatre

By Curtis Emde
Photography by Silmara Emde

Alex Gough grew up in Kimberley, British Columbia, where he swept up spilt popcorn at the local cinema after audiences filed out every evening. Before long, he was apprenticing in the little room above the auditorium as a projectionist.

Throughout the thirties and forties, he put these skills to use in the field, screening silent films for “entertainment-starved miners” at work camps and townships, from Gold Bridge to Lillooet, on a portable projector (Bicknell 98). His travels introduced him Charlie Troughton and Jake Seidler. The three of them made a plan to build and open a proper cinema in the southern Okanagan valley. They chose Oliver, a small community just north of Osoyoos and south of Penticton, for the location of this permanent movie house. Construction started in 1946.

On Hallowe’en night, a long queue snaked down Highway 97 from the brand new, elegant Oliver Theatre. The locals were lining up as much for the grand opening of their own custom-built movie house as they were for that night’s entertainment – David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

There was at least one local, however, who insisted that he preferred seeing movies in the town’s original, ad hoc cinema, which was inside the nearby Royal Legion. This local happens to be George Bowering, the first Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada. He recalls that

[b]efore they built the new Oliver Theatre on Main Street, we went to see movies in the Legion Hall. We would sit on two-by-twelves resting on upturned apple boxes, and listen to the projector laying out our western or our Disney.

For a while after they opened the new Oliver Theatre, across the side road and on Main Street, too, both places showed movies. On Saturdays most of the boys went  to the new Oliver Theatre with the folding padded seats and the projector you could hear only during the really quiet and suspenseful scenes. And because they did, I preferred to go to the Legion. (Bowering 333)

George’s stubborn loyalty to the Legion notwithstanding, the $55,000 Oliver Theatre, with its sloping floor, “comfort de luxe Dunlop foam rubber” seats, eventually won the day. It also had a Crying Room for parents and noisy babies, two modern Brankert-type projectors obtained through War Assets (at a cost of $7,000 each), and huge, theatrically-curtained screen. The Legion didn’t continue screening films for long. Its 16mm projector ended up at an antique shop across the street from the Oliver Theatre in May 2016, and was sold soon afterwards.

Over sixty years later, Bowering and his childhood pal Will Trump still vividly remember the Goughs and their legendary strictness. “They didn’t like us at all,” George told the Projection Project. The two youths were repeatedly thrown out of the theatre, for either sneaking in snacks from home (mainly carrots and celery, which now sound rather nutritiously quaint – not to mention being among the least conspicuous items, noise-wise, one could attempt to sneak into a movie theatre) or for trying to get into the late show without paying. “George taught me how walk very slowly backwards, as if we were coming out with the 7:00 crowd,” Will explained. “But we got caught.” The next time Will handed over some money for a ticket, Gough didn’t say anything. He just shook his head and pushed back the coins back.

Despite the high levels of discipline he brought to his business, Alex Gough would treat locals to a free Saturday matinee every 22 December – his birthday. The guests did have to pay, in one sense: they had to listen to Gough warble his way through several Christmas carols before the movie was allowed to start (Bicknell 99-100).

In 1964, the Goughs sold the Oliver to the parents of current owner David Lesmeister. David and his wife Christine took ownership in the mid-seventies, and have run it together ever since, weathering the various challenges all small-town cinemas faced in the years since; challenges ranging from cable television to home video to internet streaming. Converting the theatre to digital projection in 2012-13 allowed the Lesmeisters to keep screening the latest Hollywood product, and, therefore, the theatre has been able to keep entertaining Oliver and area well into the second decade of the 21st Century.

But something more lies at the heart of their success. In the spring of 2016, they sat down with the Projection Project in their theatre’s charming auditorium to share fascinating and humorous stories of their years in the industry – including the time Christine had to ask some rather rowdy out-of-town teenage hockey players to leave. But like the Goughs, the Lesmeisters were never strict for strictness’ sake. Instead, they wanted to create a space where everyone would be able to enjoy the film they’d paid to see – even if that meant having to assert themselves with the occasional bad apple.

David and Christine were generous with their time and their cinema, taking Silmara and I up to the projection booth and around the back to explore the storage room (where, slightly worse for wear, lay the original Samson and Delilah poster, featured in several vintage 1940s photographs of the Oliver’s exterior. Those photographs are frequently mistakenly identified as having been taken on the Oliver Theatre’s opening night). The couple was exceedingly modest about their contribution to the theatre’s legacy, and both seemed genuinely surprised when we asked what the secret to such a long, successful husband-and-wife working relationship is. “We’ve never thought too much about it,” Christine replied. “We always just got on with whatever needed to be done.”

And what always “needed to be done” includes providing personalized customer service, ticket and concession prices that put any multiplex to shame and the single-screen grandeur of a vintage movie house. Moreover, the Lesmeisters were always open to the dreams of a community long steeped in the classic small-town cinematic tradition. Given this tradition, it no longer seems like a mystery why, in this era of instant high-speed digital access and Netflix, people still go to the cinema.



Works Cited
Bicknell, Jacquie. ‘Oliver Theatre–Great Expectations Ushered in Success’ (p. 98-102).  Okanagan History Volume 62. Salmon Arm: Hucul, 1998. Print.
Bowering, George. Writing the Okanagan. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2015. Print.

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.