For years now, Toronto's far west end has been something of a dead zone when it comes to movie-going. In the stretch between High Park and Mississauga, there is exactly one multiplex, the Queensway Cinemas in Mimico. The only other option, for a long time, was the historic Kingsway Theatre on Bloor Street near Royal York Road, a mouldering outpost of the now-defunct Festival Cinemas repertory chain. When the chain folded in 2006, the Kingsway went dark, seemingly for good. Two years ago, however, a former architect named Rui Pereira leased the theatre, renovated it, and, despite tense negotiations with investors, quietly re-launched it. Though he didn't know it then, it was the first step in the creation of a burgeoning west-end movie-house revival.
The latest comeback story is the Humber Cinema at Bloor and Jane, set to re-open Apr. 29 after having been out of commission for nearly a decade. It, too, is Mr. Pereira's baby, and the affable 44-year-old has big ambitions for the 1940s-era space, which he describes as more architecturally significant than the city's other remaining single-screen cinemas. "The Kingsway, the Bloor, the Fox - those are all really just neighbourhood houses. The Humber was a neighbourhood house, too, but it was built on a bigger scale and was always more of a premiere theatre," he says. "With the [re-launch] we're trying to replicate that post-war era of movie-going, which really has been lost in Toronto."
According to Paula McInerney, who runs the nearby McLellan Jewellers and chairs the Bloor West Village BIA, everybody in the local business community is "very excited" about the Humber's return, and the hope is that it will bring more pedestrian traffic to the neighbourhood. Ms. McInerney has lived in the area all her life, and she has fond memories of going to the Humber as a kid to watch movies like Beach Blanket Bingo. "I miss it big time. It was a really elegant theatre," she says. "And though I know the rage now is for big-box theatres, I prefer a theatre you can walk to."
Mr. Pereira, who worked at the Humber part time during his college years, hasn't had an easy job of renovating the space. When Cineplex Odeon abandoned the Humber in 2003, the interior was completely stripped. "They took everything," he says. "The seats, the screen, the projector. Plus there was water damage in the lobby, a broken furnace…" Undaunted, he and fellow architect Ivan Martinovic (who is a financial partner in both the Kingsway and the Humber) decided to invest "several hundred thousand" in a complete refurbishing. So far, the theatre - which Mr. Pereira describes as having "a kind of nautical look, with lots of curves" - has a new screen, sound system and projector, as well as all-new seats, candy counter, and accessible bathrooms. The last step before the grand opening is to install new carpeting.
In one of Mr. Pereira's few concessions to modernity, the decision was made to retain the "twinned" format Cineplex Odeon introduced in 1975, which saw the 1,200-seat space cut into two smaller theatres. "It just makes better financial sense to have two screens," he says. At the launch, only the smaller upstairs auditorium - which has about 300 seats - will be open; the 500-seat downstairs auditorium will debut a couple of months from now. "It's a work in progress," Mr. Pereira admits. "We're doing all the work ourselves, and it takes time." Looking farther ahead, the ultimate goal is to add two smaller, more intimate screening spaces (of about 60 seats each) to an unused portion of the back of the theatre. But that's still a long way off.
The Humber will differ from the Kingsway in several ways, most notably in the kinds of films it can show. According to Mr. Pereira, the Kingsway has always been slightly hampered in that it isn't permitted to screen anything playing at the 18-screen Queensway directly south of it. (The Queensway's owners, Cineplex Odeon, are so large they can pretty much dictate the rules of distribution.) Consequently, the Kingsway exhibits mostly art-house fare or second-run mainstream fare, which fits well enough with the area's mostly elderly population. The Humber, however, is far enough away from any multiplex that it can show whatever it wants, and Mr. Pereira intends to screen mostly younger-skewing blockbusters. The debut feature, for instance, will be Fast Five (a sequel to The Fast and the Furious, starring Vin Diesel), and three weeks later will be Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
In some respects, Mr. Pereira is an unusual saviour; by his own admission, he's "not a big movie guy." As he explains it, his interest in the movie biz has always been more architectural and social. "I like the excitement of people coming to see a show. The films themselves can be … almost throwaway. It's the going out that's [fun.]rdquo;
Indeed, Mr. Pereira argues that "the going out" aspect of movies has been sorely undervalued in recent years - not so much by the public, but by fellow single-screen exhibitors such as the Bloor and the Revue. Those theatres charge discount prices in the hope of luring more customers, but Mr. Pereira - who charges $12, about the same as the multiplexes - thinks they've got the wrong attitude. "These old theatres are now very rare and they should be considered premium spaces," he says. "They're an alternative to the big-box experience. It's the same as when you go to a fancy restaurant - you pay more for the experience, not less."
The more Mr. Pereira expounds on the subject, the more animated he gets - it's clearly something of a sore spot for him. "I have people coming in [to the Kingsway]all the time complaining about the prices. I had this one old lady come in and say, 'Seniors' prices at the Revue are only six dollars,' and I said 'Well, you're quite welcome to get on the bus and go see a movie there.' I totally told her that!"
Special to The Globe and Mail