In a city sorely lacking in performance space, it is sad to see a beautiful and practical small theatre sitting dark and unused. A survey carried out by the Coal Harbour Theatre Project showed that a theatre of 500-600 seats was cited as the most urgent need by performing groups in the city. The theatre we are talking about is just that size, and it is not a converted warehouse or church, it was built as a theatre. It has a proscenium stage, a fly tower, balcony with loges, and excellent acoustics.As the Raja Cinema for the past ten years this theatre has had its ups and downs. It has now been closed for almost a year.
The For Sale sign went up last fall. For the greater part of its history, it was known as The York Theatre, and, for the present purpose, I am restoring that name.This history of the theatre, most of which I compiled in 1981, is a vision for the restoration and revitalization of this delightful and historic facility.
My love affair with the York Theatre began in the 1970’s when I attended plays there presented by the Vancouver Little Theatre. In 1981, I formed the Save the York Theatre Society to prevent a proposed demolition, and I have followed its uses and misuses ever since. I hope you find this interesting and the project I propose worthy of support.
The Alcazar Theatre
In 1913, the young city of Vancouver was riding the crest of a period of economic and cultural growth that had fostered a flourishing of theatre and theatre construction. No less than twelve legitimate theatres were operating at the time the Alcazar Theatre at 639 Commercial Drive was opened.
The other theatres were located in the downtown area, but the little Alcazar was built in a new and developing part of town on the slopes just east of False Creek. The Grandview slopes were sprinkled with the fashionable homes of a newly prosperous middle class as tramlines were extended from the centre of town. Prosperity and leisure made it possible for people to turn their attention to culture and the arts. Accordingly, in 1912, a Mr. VanHarlinger and his wife opened a music and drama recital hall on the main floor of the apartment block where they lived at 635 Commercial Drive. But their sights were set higher than a mere recital hall, and they appealed to Robert MacLaren, a retired oil geologist from Calgary living in Vancouver, to build for them an appropriate theatre, destined, in their minds, to become a cultural centre for the city.
Mr. MacLaren was amenable to the idea, having already shown an interest in the work of Mrs. Van Harlinger. A promising young architect named John McCarter was hired to design “a practical working theatre with excellent acoustics.” Construction began in August 1913.
John Young McCarter was 27 when he designed the Alcazar Theatre. He personally selected the timbers that were used to support the roof and the balcony, and he was very proud of the way in which the loges were set down between the supporting beams of the balcony. After serving in the navy during World War I, he returned to Vancouver to found, a few years later, the architectural firm of McCarter and Nairne. With this firm he designed a number of Vancouver’s most outstanding buildings: The Marine Building (now designated a heritage site), the Georgia Medical Building (demolished in 1991), the Devonshire Hotel (demolished in 1981), and the Vancouver main post office (slated for demolition), to name a few. Active with the Board of Trade and other civic organizations, he was one of Vancouver’s most prominent and distinguished citizens. John McCarter died in Victoria at the age of 94 in 1981.
Robert MacLaren moved to Vancouver from Calgary in 1912. His enthusiasm for the arts led to his acquaintance with the VanHarlingers and to the building of the Alcazar Theatre. MacLaren’s son, Donald R. MacLaren, was away at McGill at the time, but recalled, years later, his surprise at finding his father owner of a theatre. Donald MacLaren went on to become one of Canada’s most decorated flying aces, and, in later years, a founding director of Trans Canada Airlines.
The success of the Alcazar
Opening night of the Alcazar Theatre was on November 3, 1913. The play was “that screamingly funny and clever play” Too Much Johnson by William Gillette. It was presented by the Alcazar Stock Company, under the management of Mr. VanHarlinger. The reviewer for the Vancouver World described the new theatre as “the neatest and most completely designed theatre in the city. A very pretty, cosy little place, neat, clean, bright as a new pin.”
The success of the Alcazar Theatre was, however, not to last. An economic slump in the pre-war period was causing a general falling off of theatre attendance, not to mention the fact that a new form of entertainment, motion pictures, was making serious inroads into the popularity of live theatre. The start of World War I brought further difficulties to an already troubled scene.
The Alcazar Theatre and its resident stock company gave in to economic pressures in 1915 and closed its doors. They were soon opened again, under new management, as a movie theatre called The Palace. Then, in 1923, a two-year-old amateur theatre company, the Vancouver Little Theatre Association, purchased the theatre and renamed it The Little Theatre. Their first production in their new home was Lonesomelike by Harold Brighouse, starring Dorothy and Betty Somerset. Audience members of the time recalled trudging through mud to get from the tram stop to the theatre.
The Vancouver Little Theatre Association occupied the building continuously for the next 54 years, providing Vancouver with a yearly season of high-level semi-professional theatre. During much of this time, this was virtually the only live theatre to be seen in the city. Many well-known performers received their first opportunity and experience in The Little Theatre.
An extensive renovation
In 1940, a fairly extensive renovation of the theatre was undertaken. The seats were replaced, the walls and ceiling were covered with “acoustical board,” new “indirect” lighting was installed, and a cement-block building providing a lounge area was constructed adjacent to the original entrance. At its re-opening in 1941, the theatre was given a new name: The York Theatre.
Another renovation and redecoration took place in 1960. This time, a small building on the southeast corner of the property was added as a scene shop.
By the 1970’s, interest in non-professional theatre had declined considerably, and attendance at VLTA productions was dropping steadily. Discouraged by financial troubles and by the failure to carry out an elaborate renovation plan, the association sold the theatre in 1977 to Mr. Kashmir Siddoo, a Vancouver developer and property owner, who leased the facility to the Patel brothers for the purpose of showing movies. The Patels also ran a highly successful grocery, featuring East Indian and other ethnic foods, on Commercial Drive.
Save the York Theatre Society
In 1981, Mr. Siddoo announced that he intended to demolish the building in order to construct an apartment block. In response to this the Save the York Theatre Society was formed and a campaign to rescue and restore the theatre began. Public response was very favourable and Mr. Siddoo agreed to forestall his redevelopment plans. Subsequently, he seems to have lost interest in these plans, and the theatre remained dark and unoccupied.
The Save the York Theatre Society created a plan for a restoration of the theatre itself with the addition of new building on the Commercial Drive frontage of the property, to include enhanced audience amenities, dressing rooms, and offices. A proposal was submitted to the Department of Canadian Heritage (then Heritage Canada) asking for a portion of $1,890,500, the total cost of purchase, restoration, and new building in 1981. The project was not approved.
Theatre goes dark
The theatre sat dark until the late 80’s when two young men moved in (it was still owned by Mr. Siddoo) and used it for rock band rehearsals and, eventually, a punk rock and mosh pit venue. They removed the seats and leveled the main floor. Eventually, complaints from the neighbours necessitated their ceasing business.
The Raja Cinema
In 1996, the theatre was purchased by Shafik Rajani and his brother Azim, owners of the Raja Cinema on Kingsway and a number of other businesses on south Fraser Street. They carried out extensive renovations, including restoring the rake on the main floor, installing new seats, greatly enhancing and enlarging the washrooms, and equipping a new concession area. The name was changed to the Raja Cinema and, for the first few years at least, attendance at East Indian movies was vigorous and the business operated successfully. Then, in the mid to late 1990’s and early 2000’s, attendance dropped off and the theatre was dark most of the time. The property is went up for sale in October 2006 at an asking price of $952,000. It was sold in October 2007 to EDG Homes Inc. and Vintage Development Corp. Having no interest in the preservation of the theatre, the developer’s plan is to build eco-friendly townhouses on the site. Demolition could begin as early as May 2008.
John McCarter’s design of the Alcazar Theatre showing sightlines 1913
Restoration and Renewal
In 1981, the Save the York Theatre Society created a proposal for a revitalization of the theatre. This involved a restoration, with seismic upgrading, of the theatre itself and the addition, on the Commercial Drive frontage, of a new three-story building to contain offices, dressing rooms, and enhanced audience amenities. Designs were created by Downs-Archambault Architects, and estimates for structural work were submitted by Haebler Construction. Ian Pratt, UBC theatre technician, submitted an estimate for equipping the theatre. We believe that this project is still viable. Copies of the original blueprints are available, and Haebler Construction has agreed to bring the original estimates up to present-day prices and standards. A draft agreement with the Vancouver East Cultural Centre guarantees the sound operation of the restored facility.
Specifications and Measurements
The York Theatre is a traditional proscenium style theatre with fly tower. The auditorium seats 500 with the balcony and orchestra. The construction is re-inforced concrete pillars with clay-tile walls. The roof is constructed of heavy timber trusses.
Proscenium. opening: width 28 feet (8.53 metres) height 22 feet 6 inches (6.86 metres)
Curtain line to U.S. wall: 24 feet (7.32 metres)
Stage floor to under grid: 40 feet (12.19 metres)
The existing dressing rooms are located under the stage, a common practice in small theatres of the time. The restoration plan calls for new dressing rooms in the new building adjacent to the stage. Also in line with theatre construction of this kind, wing space is severely limited. This problem has been addressed to the extent possible by the addition of stage right wing space in the new building.
The new frontage (see cover sketch) would create a draw and a new focus for the already highly popular blocks of Commercial Drive, with its numerous restaurants, coffee bars, green grocers, and shops. In fact, the new concession area of theatre could offer daytime coffee and food service, providing the public with an introduction to the activities and offerings of the theatre. In addition to the focus on resident companies, the theatre would also be available for rental. There is a need in the city for a theatre of just this size, usable for plays, musicals, film, recitals, etc.
As we say, it is a miracle waiting to happen.
Proposed street front of the restored York Theatre
Downs-Archambault design 1982