hen Donald Porter resurrected the distinctive vertical neon sign after he purchased the former Geneva Theatre a few years ago, it was a little like turning back the clock. It reminded people of a bygone era when the West Street movie house was ‘the’ place to watch a movie.
Many will remember the plush red curtain that covered the screen until the movie started or standing for the national anthem prior to the big show. Going to the Geneva was a time-honoured tradition in Orillia that started circa 1939 after Leslie Gregory purchased the building for $4,000. He spent an estimated $65,000, according to Packet archives, transforming the building into a modern theatre befitting the era.
He trumpeted his plans in a Packet article: “Orillia will have the best theatre for a town its size and it will be the first theatre in Canada which can be equipped for television,” said Gregory, who also built theatres in Hamilton and Leamington. “Of course, it will be air conditioned so that it will be cool in summer and warm in winter and Dunlop pillow cushion seats will be installed throughout. It will be built to seat 800 to 850 persons and the most modern, indirect lighting will be used.” He also noted a stage and dressing rooms would be included.
When it opened, it was, as kids might say today, the bomb. Many citizens have fond memories, sitting next to their high-school crushes in the balcony, watching the big-screen hits of the day – often, people would joke, many months after they debuted in larger cities.
In 1972, The Godfather, it is said, played almost all summer. At times, people would begin queuing up for the biggest movies at the West Street box office and the line would snake down West Street and around Colborne Street with movie lovers eagerly awaiting a chance to see the latest offering.
So, it is fitting that the grand old building is being placed on the city’s Heritage Register list for “undesignated properties of cultural value or interest.” It is undoubtedly of cultural value to many and it is gratifying to see Porter breathe new life into the tired old building. He has transformed the old theatre into a multi-purpose event venue and banquet facility and has lovingly restored the building while preserving many of its charming attributes.
He has more plans in store for the building. He plans to replace the “cheap” bricks and restore the façade to its opening-night splendor. He also hopes to install five plateglass windows, further enhance the marquee and wants to see the box office operational. When that work is complete, the property could be designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The Municipal Heritage Committee, in a report to council Monday night, said it “believes there is merit in the cultural heritage substance of the property and its place in Orillia’s heritage/history. The committee would like to support, in principle, the intent of the owner in his proposal to replicate the original façade, and eventually consider moving forward with designation at a later date.”
That would be appropriate for the Geneva, which holds a special place in the hearts of many long-time Orillians. Today’s Cineplex monstrosities are all the same and have the charm of a cavernous airplane hangar. The Geneva, with all its faults and foibles, was a one-of-a-kind movie house. Kudos to Porter for investing in the building and, more importantly, in preserving this unique part of our heritage.
— The Packet & Times