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FEATURE Oshawa’s Regent Theatre, Part 1: Highs and lows

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Correction – The printed version and earlier online version of this article incorrectly stated the given name of Regent Theatre general manager Kevin Arbour. 

Nestled on King Street in downtown Oshawa, the Regent Theatre is one of the city’s most historic buildings, with an equally interesting back story.

While the venue is known to most city and region residents as one of the top entertainment venues in the GTA, the building was once days away from being destroyed – but more on that later.

According to information on the theatre’s website provided by the Heritage Oshawa Committee, construction of the Regent Theatre began almost exactly 100 years ago in March 1919.

There is some disagreement on when exactly the opening date of the theatre was, but documents state the opening night of The Regent Theatre took place on Oct. 16, 1919.

The opening performance was “The Prince Chap” starring Thomas Meighan and a Mack Sennett comedy, “You Wouldn’t Believe It!” featuring a special orchestra that was personally directed by Jack Arthur.

From all accounts there was a capacity audience, and hundreds were turned away at the door.

The theatre was owned by Famous Players and designed by J. McNee Jeffrey, a well-known Canadian theatre designer.

The builder was Norman McLeod Ltd., with initial construction costs of $100,000 ($1.353 million in 2018 dollars).

The entrance to the theatre was bordered by commercial storefronts on each side.

The main sign was vertical, and suspended from a bracket mechanism on the roof, with a square canopy suspended from the wall by chains.

The original sign was replaced in 1950 by a large Famous Players marquee which allowed for the romanticized advertising of films with large metal letters on a white sign.

While it was designed as a movie theatre, current general manager Kevin Arbour explains it was unknown if moving pictures would simply be a fad, so a stage measuring 36 feet wide by 22 feet deep with an orchestral pit was added.

Remnants of the pit are deep within the bowels of the building to this day.

According to the Oshawa Heritage Committee, the theatre featured innovative features for the time, including an air conditioning system which consisted of fans blowing air over blocks of ice placed in racks.

The building was framed entirely of steel including the ceiling, while the exterior was composed of red brick.

The ceiling detailing consisted of medallions representing mythical subjects.

In 2013, when a new ceiling was installed, Arbour said the design was made to be “almost a recreation of the original.”

It is also reported the Regent was the first theatre to offer ‘perfect vision’ to its patrons and the “acoustical properties were considered outstanding.”

According to a 2007 article in The Oshawa Express, there was originally space for 1,160 patrons.

In the 1960s, this was reduced to seating for 868 to make room for a concession counter, larger lobby and the new marquee sign.

The Regent Theatre was one of a number in the downtown core, and the 2007 article notes it was “the biggest, most posh and the most popular.”

It remained a Famous Players until financial struggles led to its closure in 1989.

After seven decades of consistency, the Regent Theatre was set to enter into the rockiest timeline in its history.

After sitting vacant for almost a decade, the theatre was converted into a nightclub known as Andrenalyn.

However, there were issues with underage drinking, violence, and vandalism, and the city would order Andrenalyn to close for 90 days. It was never reopened.

In 1999, there was an attempt to reopen the theatre as a live show venue, and a company entered into a new five-year agreement to take over.

However during preparations to stage The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a water pipe burst, drenching the theatre in 20 feet of water, according to the 2007 Express article.

The present company would soon be released from its contract.

Within another year, it appeared the Regent Theatre could become just a memory of yesteryear in Oshawa.

The building was facing demolition, but Heritage Oshawa was successful in securing historical status for the Regent.

“The city saved it from being demolished, it was within a week of being knocked down,” Arbour explains.

In 2001, the Oshawa Folks Arts Council expressed interest in reopening the Regent as a live theatre venue, and began lobbying city council to purchase the building.

By a close six to five vote, the city of the day approved a plan to purchase the building for $700,000.

The famous Regent Theatre was now the official property of the City of Oshawa.

However, the Folks Arts Council was unable to raise the funds needed to rejuvenate the Regent, and it continued to spiral into a state of disarray.

“It just degraded,” former city councillor Maryanne Sholdra told The Express in 2007.

A light of hope arrived later that year in the form of Glyn Laverick, the then-owner of the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto.

The city agreed to provide Laverick $700,000 in grant money to renovate the building, but wanted it reopened to the public by the end of 2008.

At the time, the 25-year-old Laverick was referred to in a press release as a “British theatre impresario.”

He said he saw a bright future for the Regent Theatre moving forward.

“I think there’s definitely an audience in Oshawa,” he remarked to The Oshawa Express.

Laverick put a lot of effort into making the Regent work but it just wasn’t meant to be.

After reopening to much fanfare in October 2008 – three months ahead of schedule, the initial momentum slowed down quite quickly.

While some shows would take place under Laverick’s ownership, he could never get the building up to code, and was constantly extended temporary extensions to try.

In April 2009, as performances became more scarce, it became apparent the extensions from the city would stop soon.

On top of that, it was revealed there were liens on the building for more than $200,000, while other contractors claimed they were also owed payment.

The relationship between the city and Laverick continued to sour as the theatre owner disputed the severity of the work needed to secure an occupancy permit, and was also critical of the local politics he encountered in Oshawa.

In August 2009, a story in The Express would highlight the apparently sad state of the building.

An organizer of a fitness competition said he refused to pay after “seeing the dismal condition the theatre was in when he got there.”

It was stated “not only was there debris everywhere, but scaffolding was left up as if everyone had just abandoned the place.”

The organizer also alleged the heating was off, leaving competitors in the cold, and in the middle of the night, they were “kicked out” after refusing to pay.

However, Laverick countered that he had no choice because there hadn’t been payment.

In comments made to The Express, he also said “ticket sales for the event were significantly lower than had been indicated to us by the promoter. Less than 30 paying ticket holders arrived for the prejudging part of the competition.”

Then city mayor and now Ward 5 city councillor John Gray, who provided a welcome message at the event, was not pleased with the building’s condition.

“I got there at 3:30 p.m. this afternoon and what I saw was not pleasant…it’s inexcusable,” Gray told The Express.

A photographer for the event was equally critical.

“For them to present a theatre in that condition…it’s awful,” he commented.

It seemed a fitting end to an era for the Regent Theatre that may be best forgotten.

But not all hope was lost, as a potential saviour was on the horizon at that very moment, making plans to restore the historic theatre to its former grace.

 

BEHIND THE WRITING

The same as many Oshawa residents, my travels have taken me to the Regent Theatre on King Street. On the surface, it was another in a line of quality entertainment venues I had encountered in my journalism career.

Others include the Academy Theatre in Lindsay and the Lakeview Arts Barn near Bobcaygeon.

The Regent Theatre is indeed an impressive venue and a jewel in downtown Oshawa.

Before writing this edition of The Fourth Estate, I had no idea how close the city came to losing this jewel.

At this time a decade ago, the building was in disrepair and rarely used.

This was after city council and Heritage Oshawa had saved the building from potential demolition only a few years previously.

Realizing the Regent had been teetering on the brink of abolition was shocking, considering how great the building looks now and the quality of shows offered there now.

It is a bit unsettling to think about what would be there in its place if UOIT hadn’t purchased the building in 2010.

It surely was a sore spot for long-time Oshawa residents to see a building they had likely spent some of their lives in such a state of disarray.

Not all stories have a happy ending, but in this case, it did happen.

And next week I will be happy to continue to tell the happy ending for the Regent Theatre, and how it was brought back to glory over By Dave Flaherty the past decade.