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Vancouver pulls together to transform old movie theatre into church

The Hollywood Theatre on West Broadway, with a sign announcing its Church at the Hollywood reincarnation.

SHARON BARNES

A landmark movie theatre that has sat empty since closing nearly a year and a half ago has reopened – as a church.

The Hollywood Theatre, located at 3123 West Broadway in Vancouver, is now home to the Church at the Hollywood. Members banded together to restore the site over the past several weeks, and its first service was held on Sept. 16.

The theatre closed its curtains for the last time in May 2011. Owned and operated by the Fairleigh family since 1935, the single-screen theatre had become a favourite of locals for its double-header deals and old Hollywood feel.

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Business dwindled over the years, however, and the theatre was sold to Bonnis Properties Inc., an active investor in the city's west end.

This summer, Pastor Tim Horman walked past the theatre, as he often did, and thought: "I wonder if anybody is renting that space."

His UTown Church congregation had recently united with Point Grey Community Church, and the spaces they had been using – University of British Columbia classrooms and a location at 7th and Collingwood – were no longer big enough for their combined 200 members. The church contacted the theatre's new owners and a lease was signed in mid-July.

The new space felt like a "natural fit," said church spokeswoman Sarah Kift.

"The zoning for the building [allows for a] church, because it's a building that was built with a purpose of community gathering," she said. "Whether you're watching a film, or listening to a sermon, or enjoying worship service, the building is built for lots of people to gather together for a common purpose."

On Saturdays, dozens of church members pitched in to turn the old theatre around: One replaced a breaker and swapped out dim, red movie theatre lights for bright, 60-watt bulbs; another restrung the crystals of a large chandlier, from which some were missing.

Another member, a graphic designer, helped create a logo for the church, derived from the original marquee of the theatre.

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"That's the story for me, seeing how generous of a community we have," Ms. Kift said. "The fact that everybody, from both churches, was there on a Saturday, working together – it's done a lot for our community."

The opening of the church means, for now, the theatre has avoided the fate of other single-screen operations: The Ridge Theatre is slated within months to become a five-storey residential tower with ground-level commercial space, while Denman Cinemas will become a dollar store.

"Staying open is not the same as staying a movie theatre," lamented Leonard Schein, who operates Fifth Avenue Cinemas and the Ridge and Park theatres as president of Festival Cinemas.

"It's heartbreaking, but it's the reality of high property taxes and high land values in the city. The economics of running a multiplex is a lot better than a single-screen theatre.

"It's a shame that urban areas are going to no longer have the single-screen theatres that were popular for many, many years."

Ms. Kift could not comment on how long the church might have the space for, or what it may ultimately become. A call to Bonnis Properties Inc. was not returned by press time.

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News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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