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FEATURE The Regent Theatre, Part 2: The comeback story

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Despite its illustrious history, the Regent Theatre had seen better days by the end of the 2000s.

After reaching its end as a movie theatre in 1989, the theatre had, for the most part, sat dormant over the next two decades.

The City of Oshawa took ownership of the Regent in 2001 at the urging of the Oshawa Folk Arts Council.

A potential owner came in but flooding issues drowned that idea almost immediately, and the theatre quickly became a shell of itself.

When it became clear the city wouldn’t be able to make a successful go of it, council began looking for somebody to take the theatre over.

In came Glyn Laverick, also the owner of Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall at the time.

After purchasing the building in 2007, Laverick was given a condition of having it operational by the end of 2008.

Investments were made, and the theatre reopened in October 2008 – three months ahead of schedule.

Shows featuring acts such as Hedley and Colin James had solid attendance.

But there were still many problems with the nearly 90-year-old theatre, and Laverick was continually only given temporary building permits.

As the months went on, a number of companies put liens on the building, claiming they were owed thousands of dollars.

In 2009, shows became less and less frequent, and a scheduled fitness expo ended disastrously.

Show organizers claimed the facility was in disrepair, while Laverick said he wasn’t paid.

But at the same time, there was a silver lining starting to emerge.

Rumours were rampant the University of Ontario Institute of Technology was looking for space in downtown Oshawa and the Regent Theatre could be a possible location.

It didn’t take long for rumour to become fact, as UOIT officially took over ownership in November 2009.

It was envisioned as a mix of space for the university’s Faculty of Criminology, Justice and Policy Studies, and a venue for community and cultural events.

“When you consider the number of universities in Canada and the U.S. that have located in city centres, we know this is a natural area for post-secondary studies,” said then UOIT president Ronald Bordessa. “In addition, with the new building to be located only steps from the new Durham consolidated courthouse, professional services, social services, and other agencies, our Communication, Criminology and Justice, Legal Studies and Public Policy students will benefit greatly from hands-on, real-world exposure to their fields of study.

Plans were put in place to welcome students the following September.

The iconic Regent Theatre, a huge part of Oshawa’s history, would soon see the beginning of its road to redemption.

Only a few weeks before the renovated theatre opened, it was announced the Ontario Philharmonic, formerly known as the Oshawa Durham Symphony Orchestra, would call the Regent home.

But UOIT is in the business of educating the young professionals of tomorrow, not running a theatre.

The school brought in Kevin Arbour to serve as general manager.

Arbour is well-respected and established in the theatre business, having previously worked at the successful Whitby Courthouse Theatre.

As his background was mostly in the non-profit theatre sector, Arbour explains he is “used to doing a lot with little budget,” and finding efficiencies in running things, making the Regent a perfect fit.

“They basically gave me the keys and said ‘let us know what you need,’” Arbour recalls.

He knew it would take some time for the new Regent Theatre to establish its place in the industry.

“It’s about building a brand,” he states. “We did about 40 shows the first couple of years.”

As the years have gone by, the Regent has become busier and busier, hosting around 140 events in 2018, and having more than 90 confirmed for 2019 so far.

A challenge facing UOIT  as owners was the fact the building hadn’t received the greatest care in the previous 20 years.

“There’s a lot of maintenance,” Arbour explains, adding there still remains a great deal of work needed to do on the building.

In 2013, A new roof ceiling was installed in the main lecture/theatre area, which is a recreation of the original when the building opened almost a century ago.

New washroom facilities were just installed backstage as well.

A look at upcoming shows at the Regent Theatre highlights an eclectic array to satisfy the palettes of entertainment seekers.

In February alone, the theatre has hosted famed mentalist The Amazing Kreskin, iconic Canadian children’s entertainer Fred Penner, and tribute concerts to Frank Valli & The Four Seasons and Bruno Mars.

This Saturday, Feb. 23, Canadian rock legends Prism will take the stage.

Classic rock acts have been a boon for the Regent, as shows featuring acts such as Harlequin, Chilliwack, Kim Mitchell, and The Five Man Electrical Band have all proved highly successful.

Lighthouse, who is fronted by Durham Region resident Dan Clancy, has played numerous sold-out shows over the years.

They are returning in April to play alongside the Ontario Philharmonic.

Arbour says being the official home of the Ontario Philharmonic is a huge feather in the theatre’s cap.

“It’s really high-quality musicianship. If you want to see the best musicians around, come to the orchestra,” he said.

Most shows at the Regent Theatre are independently promoted.

“We don’t book a lot of shows directly. It takes a lot of money,” Arbour says.

Over the past eight-and-a-half years, Arbour says the theatre has slowly but surely built its reputation.

For him, the key is bringing in quality acts that customers want to see.

“I think the word of mouth comes from the patrons,” he says.

But it is also important to have that good reputation with performers.

“You gotta keep the artists happy, and they’ll recommend you, then you bring in new producers,” he says.

Having the best “sound system in the GTA” doesn’t hurt either, he adds.

As with any business, there are challenges.

The Regent Theatre is an intimate setting, with a maximum capacity just over 600 seats.

“There are artists we just can’t get. They want a 1,000 seat venue,” he explains.

Plummeting album sales means a less consistent source of income for musicians as well, which affects their touring habits.

“They want a lot of money or they just stay home and sell their albums online,” Arbour says.

Concerts are not the only form of entertainment to be seen at the Regent.

The theatre’s classic movie nights have become a big hit, paying homage to its 70 years as Famous Player location.

Arbour says it’s a trip down memory lane for many patrons.

“People tell me this where they came for their first dates. Old women tell me they used to usher here in the 1950s and the 1960s,” he says.

The theatre also hosts comedians, discussion panels and lectures among other events.

As increasing the vibrancy of the downtown has been identified as a priority for city officials and the community at large, a thriving entertainment venue in the city’s heart will no doubt help the effort.

The Regent Theatre was once likely weeks away from demolition, and considering its state now, that is a comeback story all of Oshawa can be proud of.

BEHIND THE WRITING

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

The second edition of this Fourth Estate on the Regent Theatre has a much positive spin, which is always a pleasure to write.

In the late 2000s, the famous theatre was on the verge of demolition after years of misuse and falling into disrepair.

In 2009, UOIT was literally the knight in shining armour for the theatre, purchasing it to serve as a downtown facility for students, but also as a venue for community and cultural events.

With the university being in the business of education, it was clear they’d need to bring someone in to run the theatre-side of things.

Since 2010, general manager Kevin Arbour and his team have slowly but surely built the theatre’s brand and reputation.

After hosting approximately 40 shows in the first couple years, there were 140 there last year.

Just this past holiday weekend, the Regent hosted iconic Canadian children’s entertainer Fred Penner and a tribute show to Bruno Mars.

With the revitalization of Oshawa’s downtown well underway, a thriving theatre will no doubt play an important role in that transformation.

So I encourage all residents to take in a show at the Regent Theatre, especially if they never been before, and see what a comeback story is all about.