The Vic Theatre is Keeping it Real

With its low-key art house approach to movie screenings, the Vic Theatre is keeping it real. 

By David Lennam | Photo by Belle White

The Vic Theatre has been a cinema of firsts: midnight screenings, popcorn with a baker’s yeast topping, reclining seats (sort of), alcoholic drinks and, most recently, the first in Canada to reopen after the initial COVID-19 lockdown. 

Theatre director Kathy Kay and the Victoria Film Festival (VFF) decided to start showing movies again on June 12, that are — in COVID-appropriate language — socially distant from the mainstream. 

One of the advantages the Vic has over the big chain screens is it’s more of an art house — not second-run films, but those untethered by zillion-dollar budgets. 

“We really wanted to offer entertainment again that was outside your home screen,” says Kay. “And we just needed to figure out how to make it as safe as possible.” 

The new realities: only 50 of the theatre’s 213 seats are made available, pre-sold online, as are concession items, which await each moviegoer at their seat. Entry is from the lobby. Exit from the rear. Seats are disinfected between screenings. 

The changes haven’t deterred viewers.

“Our first week open, we sold out most screenings,” says Kay.

Another advantage is audience loyalty. The Vic is rare in that it’s operated by the VFF, thanks to a favourable lease from landlord Gerald Hartwig, who manages Nootka Court for an overseas owner, and who appreciates the importance of art and culture.

“That we can help the Victoria Film Festival stay in the public eye and raise money 12 months of the year, while keeping the theatre going,” he says, “is a win for everyone.”

If there was a documentary made about the Vic, the Hartwig name might get top billing. Gerald’s father, Hans, built Nootka Court in the 70s. And when that curious mall was in its heyday, the Vic was called the Towne Cinema, one of several single-screen downtown theatres.

Opened in 1974, with the forgettable The Harrad Experiment, the Towne wasn’t the first single-screen, but it might be the last. The Twin, Coronet, Haida and Newcombe are all long gone. So’s The Roxy. The University Heights fourplex closed in July, and the Capitol 6 may become the new home of the YM\YWCA.

A Local Hot Spot

Former City councillor Pam Madoff is a Vic regular, drawn by the low-key vibe and a nucleus of regulars.

“I kind of fell in love with the 5:30 showings.”

Others were more drawn to the midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Growing up, Marcus Pollard recalls his mom and brother returning from Rocky Horror with tales of singalongs and toast tossing. As a youngster who had just arrived from tiny Kitimat, this was something inexplicable. 

“It felt like New York or somewhere, definitely not Victoria. And then when I was 16, my brother snuck me in to see Eraserhead … so yeah, the Towne opened me up to a world of weird, and there was no turning back.”

Musician Steve Barrie also had a coming-of-age at the Towne.

When he was 12, with some older friends, he was introduced to Rocky Horror.

“What a blast. Hit in the head with toast. I never knew adults behaved like normal, interesting, funny human beings.”

During a 46-year history dotted by ownership changes and shutdowns, the Vic has maintained its status as a beloved space.

It’s still the only place to catch Rocky Horror (despite three- to four-hour cleanups after each show), as well as niche festivals, singalong and quote-along film nights, or — full-time since 2014 — VFF programming of everything you won’t see elsewhere.

The Seats…Oh, Those Seats

Bong Villarba managed the Vic Theatre from 1996 to 2000 after the cinema had been shuttered for several years, then reopened by Landmark (Canada’s second-largest cinema chain behind Cineplex). He brought back the famous midnight screenings and embarked on some genius marketing.

“Because most of our films were non-mainstream, the general public weren’t as informed, and it took a bit more to promote the films. So we did a lot more to generate top-of-mind interest.”

For Run Lola Run, he constructed an enormous shoe and collected used shoes to donate to those in need. His staff donned Elizabethan costumes during the months-long run of Shakespeare In Love. And when the Vic wasn’t able to acquire The Phantom Menace in 1999, he presented the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs and paraded a home-built set of oversized helmets around town.

“Bong made it personal,” says Kay. “I certainly felt it was a value added to the experience of going to a film.”

Then there were those seats.

“Bizarre,” says Madoff. “They flipped you backwards when you sat down in them.”

Michael Reid, who spent more than 36 years writing about film for the Times Colonist, figures they were the precursor to the reclining seat.

“It’s a miracle I don’t have long-lasting disc problems because of those chairs. They had two positions: sitting straight up or way back.”

One patron remembers watching Star Wars there and feeling like being in a TIE fighter if you moved the seats back and forth.

Wither The Art House?

The Vic Theatre is home to great underrated films and, under the stewardship of the VFF, is proving that the art house is still valid.

“There’s a pretty large group of people who are tired of mainstream films,” says Villarba. “They just seem regurgitated, more of the same. These films provide so much more. The stories are original; the actors are hidden gems. They’re so different from what we see from blockbusters.”

Reid agrees. “The Vic has held a special place in my heart. Apart from Cinecenta, the Vic is really the last remaining art house in Victoria, and gives people a chance to see festival films they may have missed.”

Donovan Aikman, VFF programmer for 23 years, has watched so many single screens enlarge into multiplexes.

“The line I used to use is, ‘Records didn’t kill live venues and radio didn’t kill records and television didn’t kill radio.’ There’s always been a hunger for seeing movies that you’re not going to see at the multiplex.”

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