In a way, it seems appropriate that when David Cheoros thinks back to the first time he stepped into the Garneau Theatre, he remembers the building, not the film he was there to see.
“I lived here as a student in ’91,” he recalls. “I remember going to some of the summer blockbuster-y things here because I was renting a room just two blocks away. I remember that sort of ‘popcorn in a big ol’ theatre,’ but not what the movie was.”
That might be because this sort of movie-going is a chance to immerse yourself in a space and atmosphere that’s as indelible as whatever gets projected onto the screen—maybe more, depending on the film. That’s what the Garneau Theatre offers those who cross beneath its lit-up marquee and enter. It first opened in 1940—designed by architect William Blakey and opened by theatre-operator Bill Wilson (who also opened the now-gone Roxy Theatre)—and today the Garneau stands as one of the two ancient fortresses that guard our city’s most interesting cinematic offerings (the other, just a handful of streets and avenues away, is its older sister: the Princess Theatre opened a century ago). The Garneau in particular marks the only remaining early-modernist theatre in Alberta; it was designated as a Municipal Historic Resource in 2009, which means it can’t be demolished, and any changes to the structure have to replicate the character of its original structure.
Cheoros is the current executive director of Metro Cinema, the non-profit that presently calls Garneau home and runs the bulk of its film programming. Stationed in his office in the building’s top floor, he’s reflecting on the space’s importance, both to him and to the community.
“I grew up in a relatively small town without this kind of historic thing,” he recalls. “I only had the multiplex experience until heading into university. This was an eye-opener—this and the Princess.”
That’s partly because of the content—in Metro’s hands, the Garneau anchors its programming in the art-house, the oddball, the indie and the worldly cinema unlikely to screen elsewhere in Edmonton. But partly it’s the building itself: watching red curtains pull back to reveal a screen in a gently gigantic cavern of a room feels like a ritual, one belonging to a long-past era.
“Certainly what differentiates the Garneau is a sense of nostalgia, even if it’s something you never experienced as a kid,” he continues. “There is certainly a harking back to a previous era, which, given the movie experience in contemporary terms is very solitary one—a screen at home—kind of kicks you back into a more communal experience.”
All of that was on Cheoros’ and the Metro staff’s mind when the building’s 75th anniversary popped onto their radar. For about a year, they’ve been sifting through ideas to angle a weekend of programming set to celebrate the milestone. The result is a four-day swath of films and events that looks to celebrate the building’s historic origins as well as its current place as a community hub. There are screenings of The Great Dictator and excerpts from the serial Flash Gordon (both released the same year the theatre opened) as well as more modern fare like What We Do In The Shadows and Amy, the Winehouse doc. There’s also a few events to serve more community: like its semi-regular Saturday Mornings All You Can Eat Cereal Party (the pyjama-clad among you are heartily welcomed as classic cartoons play out on the big screen). There are also a series of ghost tours being offered, where you can descend into the bowels of the building and see another shade of the Garneau’s history.
Of course, operating a 75-year-old building has its issues. As we talk, Cheoros’ office boiler is open, beside him, for repairs. Outside the building there’s a decided lack of parking around the space. But those are the costs of preserving a piece of history, something that increasingly feels like a rare occurence in Edmonton. And some of those issues are just the double-edge of an asset, like location: not much parking, but situated near transit, university, and in an established neighbourhood.
“I think there’s a few things that Metro does that are pretty essential to an overall conversation: we are the place that you can go to see films you’re not going to see anywhere else in the city,” Cheoros says. “Plus a bunch of guilty-pleasure favourites, and some curation of very carefully considered juxtaposition of films. But if nothing else, our program guide should provide a kind of inspiration for people, even those people who never set foot in our door: [that] this is fantastic cinema from all over the world that you’re probably not hearing about unless you are combing the web every day. That’s a tribute to what Pete [Harris, Metro’s programming manager] does, and some of our guest curators do, in unearthing some of these gems.
“Also, in curating a locale, both for local filmmakers and film programmers—we host a dozen film festivals over a year, of one kind or another; we try to be a go-to location for people to première their films—there’s that sense of being a meeting place of the local community,” Cheoros continues. “And to be honest, with everything that’s happening with venues elsewhere in the city, increasingly it’s just really important to have this as a place to gather, for a variety of purposes.”
Fri, Sep 18 – Mon, Sep 21
Past Forward: The Garneau Theatre at 75
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Full schedule available at metrocinema.org