New New York: theatre a celebration of cultural heritage

New New York: theatre a celebration of cultural heritage, by Mark Leiren-Young, was originally published in the Vancouver Sun on December 3rd, 2013.

CLICK HERE to watch a video posted by the Vancouver Sun titled York Theatre is Opening to a Sold-Out Crowd

Storied East Vancouver venue reopens with fresh twist on Christmas Pantomime

Two of the most common complaints about the city’s cultural landscape are that Vancouver lacks venues and history. The resurrection of the York Theatre, later the New York which sort of makes this the “New New York” is good news on both fronts.

The venerable venue opened on Nov. 3, 1913 as the Alcazar Theatre with a production of the comedy Too Much Johnson, but for the last few decades the story of the York has been not enough Benjamins.

Just over a century later the Commercial Drive theatre is reopening with no Johnson but plenty of magic beans, as the Cultch takes over the venue and reopens it with Theatre Replacement’s 21st century twist on a Christmas Pantomime, Jack & the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto.

The Alcazar became the York in 1940 serving as the home of the Vancouver Little Theatre Association for over 50 years (where it featured performers like Dave Broadfoot, Joy Coghill and Bruno Gerussi) before spending its senior years as a rental house for music acts, a movie house and, most recently, a Bollywood cinema known as the Raja.

But despite various attempts to reinvent the venue, the theatre was constantly scheduled for demolition and redevelopment until the York was literally saved by the proverbial good neighbour.

“This wonderful man named Tom Durrie, who lived across the street from the York Theatre, formed the Save the York Society in the early ’80s,” Cultch executive director Heather Redfern told the Sun. “He watched that building and has been sort of the caretaker of the vision of saving it. He raised a huge stink every time it was ever threatened.”

Redfern said the last time the building was on the market, the Cultch tried to raise the funds to buy it.

“That didn’t work out. It was purchased by a developer who then wanted to knock it down and put up five town houses, so Tom came to me in desperation and he said, ‘We have to figure out how we can save this thing. It’s life or death here.’”

A demolition permit had been approved and the York (a.k.a. the New York), the Raja and the Alcatraz appeared to be doomed.

That’s when the Cultch called in the cavalry in the form of the late and much loved Downtown East Side activist Jim Green.

“I talked to Jim. Jim talked to Bruno Wall from Wall Financial. We all went down and looked at it.”

In 2008, after convincing Vancouver City Council that the York might have historical significance — at the time it wasn’t designated a historic site — they earned a 30-day “stay of demolition.”

“In that month we put a deal together and a package together asking the city to give it a historical status.”

Many kilometres of red tape later, construction finally began. Asked how it feels to see the theatre reopening, Durrie told the Sun, “I can only say that it is miraculous.”

Durrie’s passion extended beyond the York’s proscenium arch — the traditional stage style that’s one of the defining architectural features.

“Having attended shows there in the early ’70s and then visiting the place numerous times over the years, I fell in love with it. It’s a small room and a small stage but there is an undeniable charm about the place. People who performed and worked there in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s still speak fondly of it.”

His favourite York memories include watching Janet Wright in “a very powerful production” of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and David Berner in 1000 Clowns, which Durrie called “very fine.”

Charles Demers, writer of the East Van Panto, is humbled, excited and honoured at the chance to create new memories at the “New New York.”

“It’s a thrill that in a city that seems to be losing cultural heritage left and right — from the Pantages to the Ridge — the York was saved at the last minute. We’re deeply indebted to everyone who made that possible, politically and economically. As an artist as well as just being someone from the neighbourhood I’m super excited to have a venue like this reopening in the hood.”

For Redfern, the choice of a pantomime for the grand reopening was perfect and, perhaps, even inevitable.

“When I was a kid, I used to go to the York Theatre and I saw a panto there in the early ’60s. It always felt like the right thing for me because panto is this beautiful blend of community and professional artists. That’s what the York has been in its history — this wonderful intersection of art and community.”

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