The Patricia Theatre, one of Powell River’s most cherished and celebrated landmarks, is the subject of a new documentary short film.
Capturing the historic theatre’s essence is A Theatre Near You, a 22-minute film that receives its world premiere on Sunday, October 15, at the same theatre it is telling the story of.
The film is about the old movie house, past and present, and the mill-town employees it was built for by original owner Bobby Scanlon in 1913.
Named after Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Patricia of Connaught, the theatre has never been seen as just a building. Instead, community residents use words such “she” and “old gal” to describe it.
“It's kind of that wacky old relative who’s always in your life and tells you weird stories and has some skeletons in her closet,” said Powell River filmmaker Claudia Medina.
A Theatre Near You is produced by Vancouver-based Gab Films and directed by Andrew Muir.
“The title tells us two things,” said Muir. “It’s a film about a local theatre and the idea of a local theatre, which is something that has been disappearing.”
Endearments showered upon the Patricia might more appropriately be given to a person and, on the corner of Ash and Marine avenues, “she” has lived and breathed vaudeville, silent movies, the talkies, live theatre and concerts.
Given that the theatre is the oldest grand dame of Townsite, she is treated with affection, revered and bestowed with great pride. Many people have grown up and grown old with her.
“My first movie was the Towering Inferno; my parents took me because they couldn't find a babysitter” said Medina. “I was only about four or five and I just remember them getting me to lie down and saying, ‘Don't watch the movie.’"
The Patricia is a bit shabby and needs some freshening up, according to its steward and co-owner Ann Nelson, but still has life in its old bones and some stories left to tell.
The words “near you” in the documentary film’s title suggest how closely attached Powell River feels to the theatre, according to Muir.
“The story is motivated by a desire for people to think about the importance of heritage in Canada,” he said.
The Patricia is over a century old and, as locals have been told over and over, is the longest continuously running theatre in Canada.
A lot of story is packed into the short film, but the filmmakers have succeeded in documenting more than a town’s affection for the Patricia, and more than a history.
In the first scene of archival footage, a narrator sits in a plush living room chair and says, “In a way, the story is brand new. In another way, nobody can remember its beginnings. It stretches over a long time and across a vast sweep of country and it involves a lot of people.”
Filmmakers spent a year making A Theatre Near You and Nelson and her son Brian are featured prominently. Muir said they worked hard to make the film something that would faithfully represent the Patricia and the community in an accurate and honest way, and also tell the story of Ann and Brian’s work to preserve it over the last 15 years.
How long the Nelsons’ management will last was a question raised before City of Powell River’s committee of the whole on October 3. Nelson told the community she is not done yet, but that perhaps it is time to give the community and city a nudge toward a succession plan.
For now, she is still in her place taking tickets on most nights, furthering the reputation of the theatre through vehicles such as the new documentary, and keeping its allure fresh and relevant.
“As Ann says in the film, if we lose contact with our heritage then we lose reference points as a society,” said Muir.
When Muir and cinematographer Greg Bartels first came to Powell River in September 2016 to meet Nelson, she said they had a notion it was going to be a little documentary about a little town and its little theatre.
“We had an intuition that there was a deeper story,” said Muir. “There would have to be because it's still there, and a lot of old movie theatres are gone. Why it is still there was interesting to us.”
The film turned out to be the story of the town, not only its history as a mill town but also its remarkable sense of community.
“Powell River Company was huge in Canadian politics because it was huge in the Canadian economy,” says Nelson. “The film is not just the celebration of the love affair between a community and its theatre.”
Muir said community is much stronger in Powell River than in other places around the province and Canada. That was a big part of the story, as was why the theatre survived more than a century, he added.
While the premiere screening of the new documentary is the highlight of the October 15 event, there is more to the program. According to Nelson, the filmmakers and sponsor Telus wanted it to be part of a larger entertainment package.
Nelson said there will be live music during the pre-show, as well as intermission and presentations by filmmaker Tai Uhlmann, Powell River Digital Film School instructor Tony Papa, Tla’amin Nation elder Elsie Paul and former mayor Stewart Alsgard.
The event will also feature Uhlmann’s award-winning film For the Love of Dolly, which has never screened in Powell River, Medina’s Carving Reconciliation, Papa’s 1000 Voices, One Single Passion and three Powell River Digital Film School student shorts.
Ulhmann said she still feels enchanted by the old Hollywood splendour of the Patricia Theatre, including its murals, velvet seats and lights.
“It makes this small-town feel more expansive and full of opportunity,” said Uhlmann. “The door is always open.The theatre itself tells a story, and A Theatre Near You tells some of that story.”