An event in Ottawa hopes to bring support to a threatened building, and a struggling community
Across Canada, communities are slogging through an economic downturn. Industrial cities are particularly hard-hit during such times: when their primary means of employment collapses, it often leads to moments of profound soul-searching. Saint John, NB is one such case: a city trying to find itself in the midst of tumultuous times. There are some in the area who want to find opportunity in this situation, but it’s the question of “how” that’s at issue.
One victim of the economy, located in the city’s historic uptown core, is the Paramount Theatre. With the bulk of the community’s cinemas having moved to the eastern sides of the city, this South End theatre, which sits on one side of the green and leafy King Square, closed several years ago, and was sold in 2005. Its current owner intends to tear down the building and turn the space it occupies into a parking lot.
Not everyone agrees that this plan is what’s best for the Paramount Theatre, or the community in general.
Enter Michael McDonald and a band of eager activists. A writer, artist and filmmaker, McDonald is leading the charge to transform the dilapidated structure into an artistic and business hub – one that would play a lead role in revitalizing the city’s cultural and economic identity. Their goal: to buy the Paramount, the first step in that transformation. McDonald has been working with Uptown Saint John as a kind of spokesperson on the project, and that organization has done much of the due diligence on setting up the parameters for the concept. In the meantime, “Save the Paramount” and Uptown Saint John are paying the owner $2,700 a month just to keep the building standing. But there’s a catch: a looming March 31st deadline, after which Uptown Saint John will make a decision on whether to continue the fight, or drop the issue.
Thus far, “Save the Paramount” has held a successful fundraiser, bringing $10,000 to the cause. You can often find them selling buttons that say “I *heart* The Paramount” and building conversations on the issue. They’ve even produced a short documentary with New Brunswick filmmaker Greg Hemmings, and are working on a larger story with the CBC.
News of this effort reached Jonathan VanAmburg, an “ex-pat” Saint Johnner living in Ottawa. VanAmburg came up with the idea to host an event in Ottawa on March 3, 2012, at that city’s Mayfair Theatre. Together with McDonald and a host of New Brunswick filmmakers, they hope to raise awareness and raise funds for the effort to “Save the Paramount.”
I spoke with Michael McDonald and Jonathan VanAmburg on February 12, 2012.
Alex Willis: Michael, in late 2011, you put together a video titled “Save the Paramount” with Greg Hemmings. In that video, you called the act of saving the Paramount a “no-brainer”. Why do you think this is the case? Why should people care?
Michael McDonald: Saint John is a very historical city, but it also has a history of tearing down iconic buildings that could be used for other things. As for this being a no-brainer: I really think this revival Art Deco building helps define the feel of the uptown. More importantly, it can help play a role in redefining the economy of that area. A lot of industrial economies go through rapid and tough changes, and when it shifts, many areas are forced to reinvent themselves in order to stay alive. One way is through art and culture. Art and culture economies change municipalities. We have this beautiful building sitting on King Square, bookended by the Imperial Theatre – another successfully restored theatre – on the other side. The City went to great efforts to save the Imperial, a theatre that was on the Vaudeville Circuit that extended up from New York. It was one of nine theatres in this Uptown area – we used to have a bona fide theatre district! And we still can. My “grand delusion” is to have this district return to life in some form. There are people out there that say, “We don’t have the demographic to support it.” My response to those people is, “We will never have the demographic if we don’t support it.”
Jonathan VanAmburg: Over the last generation, starting in the 1970s, you’ve seen a decreasing population in Saint John. People are either moving to the suburbs, or moving even further away. Our hope is that this place will play a role in revitalizing the city, in bringing people back to the city. Even if it were just for people in the South End, it would be beneficial. But there’s also the element of business: it is a viable moneymaking venture.
AW: Tell us a little about the video you put together, and what else has come out of it.
MM: Greg’s a passionate supporter of this cause: he really loves this story. I was in King Square, selling pins for the campaign, and Greg came up to me and said, “This is a documentary. I’m going to pitch this to the CBC.” So he did, and the CBC loved it, and they wanted us to develop it. They wanted to know whether it would be a guaranteed happy or sad ending – some sense if we would succeed or fail. We said we weren’t sure which would happen, but one or the other would happen for sure within 10 months. I said to Greg, “it would be great if we could get into the building for the shoot.” The present outside look of the building, you see, is quite forgettable: the building is just a box, and the façade was crumbling and neglected and they ended up removing it entirely for safety reasons. So we got into the building itself. We jimmied a crane into the big theatre space, and turned on the power, and the house power actually came on. All the lighting you see in that video is from the lighting, that the emergency power gave us. I wanted to show to people that the inside of the place was still amazing – that the energy is still unbelievable in there. It was a total mess inside but it still has a real sense of energy and integrity. I wanted to capture that feeling.
AW: I grew up in Saint John and have a lot of memories of going to movies at the Paramount. Do you guys have any particular memories of the building?
MM: I was an “urban kid,” and I grew up in the uptown core. I was one of those little guys whose mom would give him $1.25, and he’d go to the B-films. You’d start with a Jerry Lewis featurette, and following it would be like a Vincent Price, “House of Wax” B-film. I really loved those. I remember times where there would be hundreds of kids lined up for movies at the cinema – and when you walked into those beautiful rooms, you had the sense that you were going to a real event. So yeah I saw a lot of great movies there, but it was that powerful sense of place in those rooms that sticks with me.
JVA: I do have a personal connection with the theatre itself: my wife used to manage the Paramount for some time. So let’s say I took advantage of some free movie passes. [laughs]
AW: You didn’t meet at the Paramount, did you?
JVA: [laughs] No, but we did have our first date there. I borrowed my mother’s car. “Evita” was playing, and my aunt came down from Grand Falls. They wanted to go to the first show to see the movie. So I needed to drop off my mom and my aunt at the theatre, then I had to go and pick up Lindy (now my wife), then we would take my mother and my aunt home, and then Lindy and I would go watch the second showing of the film. As we were driving them home, my mother and my aunt were in the back seat chit-chatting about the movie, and then about Lindy – how she was the manager there, and then into more personal stuff. Of course, this was all in French, which I have a poor grasp of. They didn’t know that Lindy understood them completely. They started comparing my previous girlfriend to Lindy, and thankfully, mom was much more impressed with Lindy than anyone I’d dated previously. [laughs]
AW: So who will this repurposed Paramount be for? Because it’s not going to exist as a movie theatre again.
MM: Cinema One is going to be a 450-seat venue. Who is going to feature there? There’s a massive, massive indie music and theatre market that is bypassing Saint John because there’s no suitable place for them to play. These are groups that are too big to play in the bars, but too small to play at the Imperial, which is a 900-seater. But there are so many young people out there who want to see these shows. Not only is the Paramount going to be equipped to show the higher-end acts that will move through town, but it will also be a cultural centre for the citizens of the city. We have a huge commercial district on the east side of town which features many huge box stores. Those kinds of developments just suck the life right out of cities. We need to bring back the heartbeat of the uptown areas: the neighbourhoods need this lifeblood flowing through the community. I think if you do that, you’ll see a lot of development around it: people will be coming to shows, so you’ll see restaurants popping up, retail and service industries will grow, and the real estate market will develop.
JVA: This would be a hub for young, university-age artists in the uptown area. Its goal would be to feature young and emerging talent from Saint John and New Brunswick, and to act as a complement to the Imperial Theatre. The Imperial focuses on mainstream, professional, and “amateur” performances by organized theatre groups. With this restored space, we hope there will be a new area created for young and emerging talent to “ramp up” to bigger and better things.
AW: You two bring up a recurring dynamic here: you’re contrasting a youthful sense of wonder with the “parking lot” vision of development. Is this a struggle between artistic vitality and a bloody-minded attitude towards culture?
MM: It is a constant battle. The city government of Saint John is extremely utilitarian in its approach to nearly everything. Time and again we’ve seen buildings and neighourhoods get torn down because they weren’t willing to support an alternative vision for those spaces. But I see the art and culture economy as an engine for renewal. You want people to move back into your municipality? You need to give them something to do, and a sense of culture. People need a vehicle to celebrate their lives and their happiness. Parking your car doesn’t really help that process. If you can back bring buildings like the Paramount, and the old Lyric Theatre which is also uptown, you have the chance to build the only theatre district of that size north of Boston. People see and enjoy distinctions like that: they move back to places for reasons like that. You develop your economy and your tax base by developing things like that. I’m a firm believer that a city with a strong arts and culture infrastructure can get its roads paved faster.
JVA: Also, having a parking lot there would not contribute to the culture of this area in the slightest. It would be kind of like staring at a smile by Lanny McDonald: there’s some teeth missing there. [laughs] We need more places to celebrate.
AW: Can you paint a picture for readers what a repurposed Paramount might look like?
MM: We’ve talked with many stakeholders about what the building could be used for. I want to see Cinema 1 as a multi-purpose, seats-in, seats-out venue for local and traveling talent. It’s basically a room for hire, multi-purpose and multi-functional, with state of the art lights and sound. Cinema 2 will be a second-run theatre. If they just put me in that space alone, I would have the time of my life! The downstairs lobby will be a café. You’ll be able to walk by the Paramount, see through glass windows into the lobby of the theatre, which isn’t just a café but also a kind of coffeehouse-type space. You see, the building needs to function on multiple levels: having more than one performance space will be important for our community. We’re also going to be headed to Los Angeles to try to speak with Louis B. Meyer’s grandson, so we can perhaps use Meyer’s amazing film legacy as part of the name for the building, or even as the launching pad to construct a “Saint John Walk of Fame” outside it. This was the guy who went on to start MGM Studios, so it would be an incredible boost for us to have the Meyer family on side with this project.
AW: Jonathan, you’re from Saint John originally, but you currently live in Ottawa. What makes you so passionate about this cause when you live so far away? How do you feel you can make a difference from where you live, currently?
JVA: Knowing that it’s not just me! [laughs] There are so many Maritimers spread across North America, and there’s so many of us in Ottawa, and many of us hold a fondness for Saint John that I thought it would make sense to hold a fundraiser here.
AW: Tell us about the event, and what you’re hoping to achieve with it.
JVA: I had heard that there was an effort to revive the place, but I also heard that someone had purchased it, so I thought, “Oh well, too bad it’s gone.” But then I went to the Silver Wave Film Festival in November 2011, and while I was there, Greg Hemmings, from Hemmings House Pictures played a clip of his “Save the Paramount” film. After seeing the film and realizing that there was still an active interest in this cause, I thought, “Why not show some of these independent New Brunswick films in Ottawa?” It also occurred to me that the perfect venue for this would be the Mayfair Theatre. Here was a revitalized community-based theatre that was bought by the community and was being operated privately by a local group. Now, the focus of the Mayfair is on movies, while the long-term vision for the Paramount is a multi-use establishment. But it was an obvious point of comparison: people could come together, really make it work, and create a cultural space through local efforts. So all of that is driving the March 3 event.
MM: I got an email from Jonathan, who wanted to do something to help. Any kind of awareness could be a huge help, so I jumped at the offer to start an event. He proposed to show 3 hours of New Brunswick-made films – so not only to highlight independent films in New Brunwsick, but also to show the promo for our cause, and have a conversation with people. Greg got on board, and helped pick out some films to show, including his own “Sistema”, about the classical music education revolution in Venezuela, and my own science fiction movie “Magnifier”. I said to Greg how it would be great if we could use this issue to bring light to these small cities and small towns who are facing the same problems: the economy goes into a downturn, and they need alternate ways to survive.
AW: So you see this as part of a national story.
MM: Yeah, absolutely. And even an international one. We went to Chicago to develop this story as part of our documentary. We found a really cool Irish lady named Maureen Sullivan, from a rough area of Chicago named Bridgeport. She was part of an effort in that area to save a theatre named the Remova, which is an “atmospheric theatre.” This was a 1920s Spanish theatre, designed so that when you walked in, you felt like you were in a Spanish courtyard. It’s a beautiful building, and so many people in that neighbourhood would say, without any prompting, “if you help restore these old buildings, it will help the neighbourhood.” So Saint John has more than a few buildings that fit this profile, like the old General Hospital. Once it got ripped out, the whole surrounding area just died. It’s our job to get people on board, and embrace this philosophy.
AW: So you’re tapping into the sensibility of this community-based theatre – how saving it is such a great story. Are you hoping to turn some non-Maritimer heads in Ottawa, and bring them to this cause?
JVA: Yes, we’re going to reach out to Ottawa film lovers and many other members of the huge arts community here in Ottawa. There’s so much great stuff coming out of New Brunswick, but it doesn’t get much play in the national media. A lot of the filmmakers will be coming up from New Brunswick. Both Greg and Mike, who are part of this effort, will of course be there with their films. Brittany Sparrow, who did the hilarious film “Gamers: A Love Story” will be there. As will Arthur Thompson, who did “Hold Fast” and who worked with Tim Rayne in the production of “Hopewell”. That film will open the event. Many other directors will be there, and it should be an amazing time, and we hope to see all ex-pat Saint Johnners and Maritimers there.
For details on the March 3 event, visit:
The Facebook group for the event can be found here:
Donations to the cause can be found at the Uptown Saint John website: