Pre­serv­ing his­tory

Packet & Times (Orillia) - - OPINION -

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

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