If you’re anything like me, you read the recent news of the Park & Tilford theatre’s final curtain call with a heavy heart. It is yet another business that won’t be surviving the COVID-19 closures.
The six-screen multiplex first opened back in 1988. In recent years, management had seemingly figured out the plot twists of the Netflix era by screening first-run blockbusters alongside indies, classic screen gems, film festival selections, and student films, creating a community atmosphere in the process. When my son was born, my wife attended “Stars and Strollers” matinees, specific screenings for moms with screaming babies.
After an impressive 31-year run down on Brooksbank Avenue, the Park & Tilford shall be missed by many. The theatre’s demise sent me on an extended flashback into the colourful, century-old history of North and West Vancouver movie theatres.
The first-ever theatre to open on the North Shore was the Lonsdale, a grandiose, 800-seat ornate hall at 1545 Lonsdale (now an HSBC Bank), opening in 1911 to great fanfare. It would serve as an opera house, vaudeville theatre, concert hall and movie theatre until its closure in 1952.
Down the hill were two smaller theatres that opened a few months later in 1912, within a few doors of each other on West First Avenue, both featuring silent films accompanied by live music. First was the Gem Motion Picture Theatre, which only lasted a few years, and next to it was the more successful Empire Theatre, which ran until 1935.
North Van’s first Hollywood-era movie house was the Nova Theatre, at 1421 Lonsdale Avenue, which is now Jack Lonsdale’s Pub. It opened in 1938 with a showing of James Stewart’s Seventh Heaven.
In 1946, the Odeon theatre chain took over the Nova and erected a large, Hollywood-style vertical neon sign that could be seen for blocks up and down Lonsdale. Odeon ran the 640-seat theatre until 1958, when they pulled out to cash in on the drive-in movie craze of the late 1950s, opening the North Shore’s only drive-in down at 300 Pemberton Ave.
For the next 20 years, so many North Shore teenagers snuck in to the drive-in in car trunks, and over, under, and through fences, clandestinely catching everything from The Blob to Goldfinger to Planet of the Apes, that it’s hard to find anyone who actually paid admission. The drive-in screened its last outdoor picture show in 1978.
Back up on Lonsdale, the Odeon Theatre sat dark for six years until it reemerged under the name of the Totem Theatre in 1964 with a grand opening of Fate Is The Hunter starring Canadian actor Glenn Ford.
Many North Van moviegoers remember the Totem with mixed emotions, including award-winning North Shore News photographer Mike Wakefield. In the mid-1970s at around the age of 9, he clearly recalls suffering through a low-budget King Kong rip-off called A*P*E at the Totem. The movie was so bad that the kids threw everything they could at the screen, including popcorn and drinks. A few rows ahead of Mike, a fight broke out, during which a prosthetic leg was used as a weapon. It’s a silhouette that has been branded in Mike’s brain ever since.
On Mike’s 11th birthday, his dad unwittingly dropped him off with his friends at the Totem for a matinee showing of the X-rated David Cronenberg parasite-sex-horror film Shivers. The Totem Theatre closed in 1978.
Up in Lynn Valley, there was a quirky, family-run movie house called the Cedar Theatre (or Cedar V, or Cedar View) that opened in 1953. It was located in an odd, Quonset-hut-shaped hangar-like building at 1260 Lynn Valley Rd. (now a Scotiabank), and showed everything from first-run films like Burt Lancaster’s The Swimmer to B- and C-movie double features like Devil’s Canyon and Let’s Go Stepping. Every weekend through the 1950s, kids formed huge lines snaking around the corner of Lynn Valley Road and Mountain Highway to catch double feature matinees the likes of The Lone Ranger, Tarzan and The Three Stooges.
Over in West Van, the earliest theatre was the Hollyburn, located at 1750 Marine Dr., which is now Home Hardware. The Hollyburn was owned by future West Van mayor Howard Fletcher and was built in regal style by his father-in-law, the famous builder Albert Snider, also responsible for the Lost Lagoon fountain and what is now the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Hollyburn opened in 1926 as an 800-seat vaudeville theatre complete with balcony, eventually evolving into a full-time movie house. The Hollyburn closed in the early 1960s.
The longest continuously running theatre in the history of North Shore movie houses was the beloved West Van Odeon, located at 1565 Marine Dr. in the heart of Ambleside. It opened as a one-screen, 768-seat theatre in 1948, showing films like Red River and Key Largo. The West Van landmark eventually subdivided into three very narrow theatres, and lasted until 1991, a full 43 years. It is positively etched into the movie-going memories of generations of West Vancouverites, including mine.
As a kid in the 1970s, I can fondly recall the Odeon’s crowded, dimly lit and carpeted lobby, the staccato sound of the overflowing popcorn machine competing with the anticipatory hubbub of ticket holders eager to catch JAWS, Star Wars, or Halloween, none of which I was allowed to see. On weekend matinees, if it was your birthday, they’d bring you up on stage. In 1977, a couple of West Van teens cheekily rearranged the marquee from Slapshot to Slapshit. You can imagine the reaction of many an upper crust Ambleside shopper the next morning. In 1979, West Van Secondary’s graduating class – featuring future mayor and MP Pamela Goldsmith-Jones – took their grad photo wearing togas under the marquee that read Animal House.
By the summer of 1982, I was 11 years old and had finally earned parental permission to see movies at the Odeon with friends. E.T. had landed. The film became so popular that it eventually took over all three screens. I distinctly remember my friend (future MLA and current Education Minister) Rob Fleming and I loving E.T. so much that when it was over, we got right back in line to see it again. And again. And again.
A year or two later, Beverly Hills Cop blasted into the Odeon, but alas, it was rated R. That didn’t stop me from convincing my future Smugglers bandmate Nick Thomas to go along with my scheme of purchasing tickets to Annie in Theatre 1, and then slipping into Theatre 2 to howl at Eddie Murphy at his best. We crouched low in our seats to avoid the sweeping beam of the usher’s flashlight, and loved every minute of it.
A few blocks east was the fancier Park Royal Theatres(where Whole Foods is now). With its floor-to-ceiling front glass windows, long white curtains, and lobby festooned with tropical plants, it felt like you were entering a fancy hotel.
The Park Royal opened in 1966 with pictures like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Sand Pebbles. In 1985, I saw Witness starring Harrison Ford at this theatre, but missed the climax due to a ruffian behind me shoving a jumbo-sized popcorn box over my head. I was with Chris Monahan, son of swashbuckling Canucks forward Garry Monahan. Chris chased the offender through the lobby to the sidewalk out front, where he laid a Slapshot-like beating on him until an usher in a bow tie intervened.
The Park Royal Theatre temporarily closed in 1993. It sat dark for four years until the second-run Caprice Theatre chain took over briefly in the late-1990s, trying to bring back the “double feature” concept, which flopped. The theatre closed permanently in 1999.
The focus for the North Shore’s film-going audience was pulled back to North Van, with modern multiplexes like the Esplanade 6 and the Park & Tilford. The Esplanade opened its doors in 1990 across the street from Lonsdale Quay and ran for 28 years, closing in 2019. The theatre drew a negative international spotlight in 1997 for a front row, execution-style shooting murder during a screening of the gangster film Donnie Brasco.
With Park & Tilford’s closure, it means that, for the first time since 1911, the North Shore has but one movie house: the fancy, boozy, reserved seating Cineplex Cinemas Park Royal and VIP, which opened in 2019, but remains temporarily closed due to COVID-19.
While we wait to once again savour the smell of hot buttered lobby popcorn, the dimming house lights and glorious wide screen, it’s important to remember that those original North Shore theatres like the Gem, the Empire, and the Lonsdale were all closed during the 1918-'19 global pandemic.
Take heart in the fact that they all reopened soon after, dancing their way into the Roaring Twenties, the talkies, and eventually the Golden Age of Hollywood.
And so as we sit at home, tapped out on Netflix, may we never again take for granted settling into our seats for the collective experience of onscreen magic, when we can laugh, gasp, cry, and cheer, together.
See you at the movies!
With special thanks to the North Vancouver Museum and Archives, West Vancouver Library, Katy Thompson, and the West Vancouver Historical Society.
Grant Lawrence is a North Shore-raised author, musician, columnist and CBC personality. Grantlawrence12@gmail.com