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This is a recent picture interior of the Westdale theatre. A place have seen many a film in…
I attended this cinema many times when I was a student in Montreal 1986-88
Here be some great period images
There is a picture here.
Friday, March 09, 2007
THE DEATH OF VENUS
Category: Movies, TV, Celebrities
by Dimitrios Otis-contributing writer
Gazing around the dim interior of the Venus Theatre, Michael Turner is sad. The Vancouver author has been told the longtime porn palace in the Downtown Eastside will soon be demolished.
A shabby curtain partially obscures a few men sitting on metal chairs on the flat main floor of the cavernous auditorium. On the big screen is a fuzzy video image of bluish skin, beaming out from a large, antiquated floor projector. Turner has returned for a last look. He first came here in 1978. He was underage and the experience made such an impression on him that he used it as the opening to his novel The Pornographer’s Poem, which won a B.C. Book Prize in 2000.
“I was in Grade 10 when I first went to the Venus Theatre,” Turner tells me. “It was a wet November night and I was with one of my best friends. We had a desire to see what lay behind those tiny adult film ads in the Province newspaper’s sports section.”
What lay behind those tiny ads were giant celluloid bodies writhing in lurid colour, and there have been a lot of them since the Venus Theatre started showing sex movies in 1970. But the building and much of the block will soon be yet another condominium development.
Most of us have passed by the grimy washed-out pink stucco structure at 720 Main St. Far fewer have dared enter, especially since tales of drug use, low-track prostitution and public sex inside the theatre have surfaced, including an award-winning expose in this paper in 2004.
So as word got out in the fall of 2006 that Vancouver-based Porte Realty had bought the property, along with most of that entire block, there was little lament. Porte plans to restore three buildings at the corner of Main and Georgia streets that comprise the Hotel Pacific. They will become non-market housing, and the Imperial will make way for nine floors of market condos with a standard main level of retail. People may gripe about yet more condos going up in the Downtown Eastside but there will surely be line-ups to buy in. Throughout its long history, there was rarely a line-up at the Venus.
News of the redevelopment was noticed by heritage researchers, who belatedly noted that the building the Venus occupies is actually an original vaudeville theatre, called the Imperial, which opened in 1912. At a meeting of the Vancouver Heritage Commission on Dec. 11, 2006 at city hall, the “history/heritage value” of the Imperial building was considered. But the commission merely recommended “the commemoration of the historic Imperial Theatre in an appropriate form.” One translation of that recommendation could mean merely putting up a plaque.
But the Imperial is one of the last examples of Vancouver’s original theatres on the East Side, and spaces like it are much needed by arts groups in the city. A few blocks away, the Pantages Theatre is being restored to the tune of $10 million. Why no save-the-Imperial campaign?
“The Imperial’s fate was sealed by the time the developer walked into city hall,” says heritage advocate and historian John Atkins, referring to the power of the Vancouver Heritage Register in determining the preservation or destruction of an old building in this city.
Adopted in 1986, the Vancouver Heritage Register cannot legally protect a structure but it does have various processes and incentives that go a long way towards keeping a heritage building up. The three buildings of the Hotel Pacific that Porte will restore are all on the heritage register. The Imperial/Venus building is not. “You are starting from a losing position,” says Atkins.
The City of Vancouver website states that in forming the register, a study team looked “at every street in the city to identify notable buildings.” Atkins refers to this as a “drive by” and suggests that “a pink porno theatre on the East Side obviously didn’t impress the surveyors.”
Why is the Imperial building worth preserving? “For one thing, it’s still standing,” he says.
But he’s one of the few people willing to speak up on the building’s behalf. When the Venus comes down and the new tower comes up, maybe someone will open an adult DVD store on the retail level and call it The Venus in tribute.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. The Imperial Theatre began life proudly, built for the Canadian Theatre and Amusement Company in 1912. George B. Purvis was architect and proprietor was J. J. McDonald. According to an Anvil Press publication The Door Is Open, by Bart Campbell, the Imperial “alternated vaudeville acts and movies,” and legendary performers such as Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers played there.
Unfortunately the downward spiral began early. Shows moved on from the Imperial quickly. The popular local wife-and-husband acting team of Isabelle Fletcher and Charles Ayres started a stock company at the theatre but failed to produce a hit. Archived newspaper articles blame variously the competition from the more established Avenue Theatre across the street (now demolished), the shift in locale of the entertainment district north to Hastings, the rise of motion pictures, or some mysterious jinx.
An interesting Chinatown connection emerged in the 1920s when Chinese businessmen turned the Imperial into a Cantonese opera house. Wing Chung Ng, UBC doctoral graduate and professor of history at University of Texas at Austin, studies the history of Cantonese Opera in Vancouver and provided key information from the local Chinese-language newspaper The Chinese Times: “According to a theatre ad on Sept 1, 1921, a group of nine Chinese merchants acquired the use of the former Imperial Theatre and turned it into an opera house for troupes from China. The first such company arrived in Vancouver on Sept. 5 and started performing on the evening of Sept 9. The troupe was called Lok Man Lin, and its season lasted till February of 1922.”
But by 1927, the Imperial was no longer an entertainment house of any kind. It had been re-christened a “temple”-first the Pyramid then the Emanuel-as suited its new purpose as a Pentecostal church. Unfortunately, God also wasn’t a smash at the venue and by 1932 it fell into the City of Vancouver’s hands as a result of tax arrears.
The Imperial then narrowly avoided demolition. A 1943 Vancouver News-Herald article reported that city council considered replacing the Imperial with three stores, “but when it was figured that to tear down the old building and erect the stores would cost around $10,000 the plan was declared uneconomic and dropped.”
The Imperial postponed its date with destiny, only to be resurrected rather ignobly as Walsh’s Auto
Parts and Wrecking. A 1941 local newspaper article by Ernest Walter floridly relates that “where now stands a grimy-faced lad, beating a mudguard into shape with a hammer, the heroine once stood and shrieked, ‘Unhand me, Colonel Cordite!’”
Dismantling old cars onstage occurred daily for an unprecedented 27-year run. When it ended in 1967 the theatre was left a greasy relic. But amazingly the old Imperial was reinvented once more.
The City of Vancouver Archives hold a single sheet of typed information on the Imperial, which lists use as a “Chinese moving picture house.” As for the date, the anonymous researcher only noted, “at one time; when, don’t know.” But indeed a man named Henry Chow had bought the building with plans to show old movies from Hong Kong. A full renovation was done. Barry Godfrey, the late Chow’s son-in-law, recalls that Chow “did show the Chinese movies, but it only lasted a month or two.”
So Chow changed plans and the Night & Day theatre was born in 1970, given over to adults-only 16mm films. Cinemas dedicated to skin flicks were still spreading across North America and this was the first one in Vancouver. By comparison, the venerable “art house” Pacific Cinematheque didn’t open until 1972. In a curious mirroring of the building’s vaudeville-and-movie roots, the Night & Day also featured exotic dancers performing on stage between reel changes.
The films themselves were amateur at best, often starring San Francisco hippies. One such film, entitled Dirt Bike Banger, is so drearily awful, and has so little sex (which is simulated anyway) or even nudity that one wonders how even the most titillation-desperate patron could have tolerated it. The best part is the opening shot of a motorcycle being parked.
Yet the customers still came, and when the theatre was renamed Venus in 1978, it had its own in-house logo, which proudly showed at the beginning of the movies, along with a strip of film that declared “good clean sex.” By the mid-‘90s management installed video equipment, though Godfrey notes that as late as 2000, when he sold the business, he was still showing films occasionally, “because our regular customers liked some of them.”
It was the “tiny ad” campaign of the Venus that caught the eye of a certain precocious future writer. Powerful as young Michael Turner’s triple-bill experience was, he didn’t return for another 20 years. “This time it was to make sure I got the opening of The Pornographer’s Poem right” he tells me. “Just being there-closing my eyes and taking it in-brought back more than expected.”
Turner describes in his novel how his fictional counterpart encountered the Venus: “I step into the light. The silver light. Hundreds of seats. The backs of 10 heads. Silhouetted_ I still can’t see. But I end up front-and-centre. A mystery to me. To this day.”
Porte Realty spent $5.16 million acquiring six properties in the 700 block of Main Street. One property not for sale was the small red brick building beside the Venus. Leo Chow has operated his Brickhouse bar in the back for 15 years, proudly calling it a “non-trendy local tavern.” As the Venus’s closest neighbour, Chow has seen it all. “It’s the end of an era whatever people think of it,” he says, admitting he does have “a problem with the drug activity and shady people” that have been more frequent in recent years. As for his upcoming spiffy new neighbours as potential patrons of the Brickhouse, Chow is undecided. “The condos are sort of like a mixed blessing. Places like the Venus are what make these areas edgy and create a certain mystique. Hopefully this will not change the dynamic.”
The edgy little secret of the remaining adult movie theatres is that while they show strictly “straight” porn, the clientele is largely men seeking the sexual company of other men. But the Venus is different. Not only is it rare enough as a survivor but its particular locale has made it into a specialized zone of social interaction.
The Downtown Eastside has long been an open market for hard drugs as well as women who are addicted to them. And since the Venus is an accessible and extremely dark space nearby, it has become a haven for both of these activities. While the male action takes place on the main floor, the prostitutes work the balcony-their efforts highlighted by flares off the occasional crack cocaine pipe.
The conditions for the working girls in the balcony was covered in the 2004 Courier feature. The Venus’s off-the-street environment protects the prostitutes from the danger of violence from predators in anonymous cars, but according to prostitution activist Jamie Lee Hamilton, that security is offset by male patrons taking excessive liberties with vulnerable hookers. “Too often the house girls of the Venus were subjected to abuse and degradation,” she says. “While I’m not unhappy to see the Venus finally close. I am concerned over what the future may bring for these girls who will now be forced out onto the street.”
For now, a unique and vital culture, however illicit, thrives inside the Imperial building, drawing together elements mainstream society wants hidden-pornography, gay cruising, prostitution and drug use. Is the proprietor who turns a blind eye uncaring or merely facilitating a needed function in society?
The current Venus owners are a married couple from mainland China with no particular interest in adult movies. When I first began researching the Venus several years back, the husband, Dong Xu, quickly asked if I wanted to buy the old stockpile of adult films that previous owners had left behind. (I am now an expert on the divergent sociological underpinnings between Million Dollar Mona and Hundred Dollar Wife.)
Yet if there is a potential hitch in the developer’s plans, it is not city hall but Dong Xu. With translation help from an employee named Philip, Dong assures me he has “four and a half years left on our lease” and everything is business as usual.
But heritage advocate John Atkins has resigned himself to the Imperial’s fate, a reminder that “lack of historical context lets buildings get overlooked.” He hopes to at least document the inside of the Imperial before it goes. “A proper survey of the interior would probably uncover more of the original design than people assume is there,” he says.
While the stigma of porn may have led heritage arbiters to overlook the Imperial Theatre, it is true that most of the interior and the exterior of the building were long ago stripped of their original features. The Heritage Commission underscored this in its statement of regret on the “loss of the remnants of the historic Imperial Theatre Building.”
“Built heritage” is the focus of most formal heritage groups, and the city’s heritage register also bases evaluations on the physical structure. But the quality of “heritage value” is also defined as having “historical, cultural, aesthetic, scientific or educational worth.” According to some, the Venus has much of this second kind of heritage, one not so much reliant on the architecture as the unspoken layers of personal meaning for people who function within it.
Turner notes the full flowering of that culture on his last visit to the Venus. On a tour through the building we find ourselves in the original projection room with the two Eiki 520 Premier projectors abandoned on a table and aiming their lenses toward the screen below where Turner and friend sat over 25 years ago. “What we saw in the Venus that night provided us a private language that we continue to use to this day,” Turner comments.
For him, the Venus is about the “sexscapes” he saw during his final visit. “The place is in a state of disrepair, no longer functioning as a site for viewing stuff on a screen, but one where people turned tricks in the balcony, while others sat around and watched. I had never seen anything like it. It might sound revolting to some, but that’s what I’ll miss when they tear this building down. Not the building, but the behaviour. What went on inside it.”
See related story “Ed Wood’s final film discovered at Venus Theatre”
published in Vancouver Courier on 03/07/2007
This theatre has sadly been demolished as noted by others.
This info was on another website.
The Imperial opened on Oct. 14, 1912 with the Sheehan English Opera Co. (“chorus of 40, orchestra of 40”), which performed Il Trovatore, The Chimes of Normandy and The Bohemian Girl. Tickets were 50 cents to $2, at a time when you could get into other theatres for 10 cents.
Like many theatres it suffered during the Great Depression and was converted into Walsh’s Auto Wrecking in 1938. Walsh’s moved out in 1967, and in 1970 it was converted back to a movie theatre.
Pics are here of the demolition.
Here is a recent picture of this theatre which has now become a starbucks
This theatre was built on the site of the (1867) Star Theatre, a much smaller legitimate stage that predated the 1880 Grand Opera House.
You can see this clearly in postcards of Market Square.
I believe it was built around 1908 or 1910.
It was a long narrow theatre with two balconies and a full size stage. HPL special collections has an interior picture
There is a picture of the proscenium arch on page 128 in John Lindsey’s book TURN OUT THE STARS BEFORE LEAVING
There is an amazing album of pictures of this theatre here.
Click on visual database about half way down on the left
Type in the words “Palace Theatre Hamilton” into the search box.
and four pictures of the Palace will appear.
You can download them, you just can’t reproduce them or post them anywhere without permission from the archive.
Is this the same theatre? Was it later called the Capitol?
Some nice recent pics of the inside here…
This theatre looks very similar to the Tivoli Theatre in Hamilton…
I wonder if it was the same architect?
Not sure if these lincs will work… There are pictures of the Palace on the Ont Achives website.
if this doesn’t work then goto
and search using the words Palace Theatre Hamilton.
One last Palace Story for today.
Back in the mid 80’s there was a teacher I knew from Elizabeth Bagshaw Elementary in the East End. He was a theatre guy who did Gilbert and Sullivan musicals with the kids in the school which later was given to the Catholic Board and became the current Bishop Ryan High School.
He had a standing deal with Theatre Aquarius to pick up their sets and scenery which were often thrown out after productions.
He had a big storage room at the school which was full of scenery. I used to borrow this stuff for my own theatre porductions. Also in this store room he had an 8 foot long chunk of the Palace’s balcony Railing, which he had fished out of the dumpster… I wonder if it surved??
What should have happened is that one of the two theatres should have been retained and subdivided internally as a multiplex. This is what happened to very similar Thomas Lamb theatres like the Loews in Montreal, the Uptown and Imperial in Toronto.
I know for sure that the two theatres (Palace and Capitol) were torn down in 1973. There are very sad pictures in HPL Special Collections taken from the Spectator building next store of the roof coming off the Capitol. Also the Palace’s entire front section was demolished. The Beauty salon is a whole new construction from 1973.
Somewhere I have a file with all of the photocopies of the clippings I did twenty years back when I first got interested in these fine lost buildings.
If this had happened then the Palace might have lasted until the late 1980’s as a cinema, likely closing at the same time as the Century and Tivoli (September 1989).Both of the theatres ended up owned by the same company who was not affiliated with Famous Players or Odeon (later Cineplex).
The advantage of this is that it could be reversed. Both the Imperial in Montreal and Toronto were restored this way. Even the Mtl Loews (which is a cool health club gym) survives as single auditorium.
Well Joe Buttinski’s the bar that most recently occupied the Capitol Theatre’s lobby has gone out of business this past few months. I remember that Grapes and Things lasted somewhat longer.
The Palace was regularly used for Stage shows.. (HTI used to do musicals there in the 50’s and 60’s)… The feeling was that the big theatres had had their day. Jackson Square cinema hadn’t opened in 1973 but the Odeon 2 right across the street was the death of the Palace.
The parking lots where both auditoriums stood must have made some money over the years
The extraordinary history of this theatre originally known as the Belsize is told here
I found this… Looks like it is in danger of being torn down
Also known as the york. I would like to see interior pictures.
Also the Downtown, the Grenada, the Grand Theatre and the Grand Opera House were all the same theatre. This can be confirmed by photos at the Hamilton Public Library special collections on the third floor.
The Capitol and Place were built four years apart (1917 and 1921)..
Both were designed by Thomas Lamb, who designed thousands of theatres across Britain and North America. There is a section on him in John Lindsey’s book TURN OUT THE STARS BEFORE LEAVING, also in the book about the Elgin and Wintergarden. The recently demolished Uptown in Toronto was another of his theatres, as was the Capitol in Ottawa.
Lamb designed theatres for many of the vaudeville chains including BF Kieth, Alexander Pantages and Marcus Loews. He had an office in NYC and took commissions from whoever had the ability to pay him.
Sadly both the the Capitol and Palace ended up being owned by the same company that demolished them both in 1973 when Hamilton Place opened.
One last comment. I saw my first ever rock concert here in 1978. The band FM with Nash the Slash – featuring the hit song PHASORS ON STUN. I went and bought their LP BLACK NOISE as a result of this concert.
There is one photo of the Main Street marquee in the Hamilton Public Library special collections dept. circa 1978.
Interior pictures are at the Ont Gov archives.
Also this theatre was built by Fred Guest in 1924 and he considered it his flagship cinema. Even though movies were the main attraction it had a full stage.
The theatre was gutted and turned into apartments in 1984. I walked past this everyday on my way to high school at the time.
This was an elaborate and ornate theatre with a balcony and opulent dome, and gorgeous wood paneling everywhere. It sat aprox 980 seats had entrances and two separate marquees on both King and Main Streets. The box office was in the middle of a long corridor between the two sets of doors. It also had a huge crystal chandelier.
In its final years it was home to Starvin' Marvin’s Burlesque (Strippers) 1972-73, then Rep Cinema (99 Cent Delta) 1977-1980, and finally when the seats were gone as a flea market (1980-1983).
A little more info. This was also known as the Italia Cinema from 1938 to 1969 when it closed.
There are photos at the Ont Archives of the exterior/interior.