South Granville’s Beating Heart

On December 15, 1930, The Stanley opened with a screening of Lilian Gish’s first talkie, One Romantic Night. This was the beginning of a love affair between the city and The Stanley.

Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night, poster from show, Stanley Theatre on South GranvilleOriginal admission prices ranged from ten to forty cents, and included the feature, a comedy, a newsreel and a scenic. The Stanley was the only theatre in Vancouver where not one, but TWO Saturday matinees could be seen by young movie goers for the staggering price of ten cents. Cowboys lassoed runaway stage-coaches, railway-bound heroines struggled bravely, mustachioed villains snarled, and dashing heroes performed feats of derring-do to the amazement and delight of booing and cheering 1930’s audiences. The Stanley encouraged its patrons to participate in programming, soliciting comments and suggestions for upcoming features in its monthly program guides. In addition to films, the early days of The Stanley featured live performances: local talent shows were put on, and Vancouver Little Theatre staged productions. The Stanley was also the setting for a brief experiment in silver screen swing: after struggling in Depression-era downtown music halls, the Calvin Winter Orchestra and other musicians moved to The Stanley, playing nightly between films for a wage of six dollars.

During the Second World War, The Stanley theatre hosted fundraisers for the war effort, for example, actress Anna Neagle came from England to perform in a stage show together with local talents, an experience that was still vivid in her mind when Amy (Scriven) Brewster, the niece of Frederick Guest and manager of the Stanley from 1937 to 1945, visited her in England in 1986. A special service to families, “Honouring Our Servicemen Overseas”, was also mounted: before film screenings, photos of servicemen were displayed on the big screen, together with a tribute to their lives as civilians, a way to help local families connect and empathize with one another during the war years.

The Stanley Theatre

The Stanley Theatre is more than just a building. It is the heart and soul of our South Granville neighbourhood. It draws people into our community and it creates a unique experience that cannot be found anywhere else in the city. It gives us roots and provides consistency as everything around us is changing.

The Stanley Theatre’s rich history began in early 1930, when Frederick Guest, the owner of a chain of neighbourhood theatres in southern Ontario, came to Vancouver and fell in love with the city. Reportedly he described Vancouver as “an ideal spot, the sun always shines, or, if it does rain, you don’t get wet”. His rather romantic impressions of the city led him to decide that it was the place in which to construct his dream theatre, and creation of The Stanley was begun.

Guest hired Vancouver architect Henry Holdsby Simmons to design The Stanley. Simmons was also the architect of the Grandview and Olympia theatres, neither of which has survived to the present day—another reason to be grateful that The Stanley has been preserved as a heritage site. Simmons used tindle stone from Winnipeg, the same as that used on the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, for the exterior of The Stanley, and designed the building to utilize luxury materials available from local merchants, elaborate chandeliers, carpeting from Burritt Bros., and fine furnishings. He turned to Italy for the tiles on the front of the building and the exquisite ceiling dome. Guest wanted The Stanley to be a neighbourhood theatre of which the community would be proud, and we are 77 years later!

Welcome to the Theatre, to the magic, to the fun! Where painted trees and flowers grow, and laughter rings fortissimo, and treachery’s sweetly done.
Lee Adams, Songwriter

The legacy continues…

The 1940′s brought significant changes to The Stanley Theatre. Like many independent theatres, it was sold in 1941 to a larger chain, in this case Famous Players, who acquired it for $268,000. The Stanley’s glittering neon sign was also added in 1941, extending Vancouver’s version of the, Great White Way, a little further down Granville Street. One thing that did not change, though, was The Stanley’s community-oriented spirit. Amy Brewster recalls one cold and snowy February night when many of the staff were snowbound and the box office cashier was unable to open the safe. She allowed all the patrons in from the cold on a promise to pay for their tickets after the show, which every single one of them did.

Famous Players used The Stanley to screen “surprise Thursday previews” which often filled the theatre. Through the 1950′s and 60′s, however, the advent of television reduced the crowds at movie theatres, Famous Players, theatre chain shrank from 419 in 1954 to 196 in 1969. The South Granville neighborhood theatre brought in blockbuster shows to combat the competition, seats could be reserved at higher-than-normal prices for such hits as Around the World in 80 Days.

High-performance sound and projection systems and refurbished seating added to the attractions of The Stanley during the seventies and eighties. Audiences continued to be charmed by the theatre’s gracious atmosphere and decor which recalled another era, while turning out for such blockbusters as Star Wars and Poltergeist. Michael Murray, a resident of Vancouver since childhood, recalls the Stanley in the eighties as the nonpareil of Vancouver movie theatres, where the prevailing atmosphere of the place was something very special. Despite its cherished place in the hearts of Vancouverites, however, The Stanley, then the city’s oldest operating movie theatre, was shut down in September 1991 in the face of declining revenues. The early 90′s represent some of South Granville’s bleakest days.

Fortunately, the Stanley still had a pulse. It was purchased back from Famous Players in March 1997, and re-opened under the Artistic Direction of Bill Millerd’s Arts Club Theatre Company production of SWING in October, 1998. If you look in the new lobby you will find an endless list of South Granville merchants who participated in its revival. The neighbourhood wanted its soul back… we are happy to report she is alive and well.