Edmonton’s Roxy is gone, but its spirits are safe

Jan. 14, 2015, backofthebook.ca

By Frank Moher

The Roxy Theatre in Edmonton burned down in the night on Tuesday. I grew up a few blocks from the Roxy, so it was where I saw my first movies. That was early enough — in the ’50s and ’60s — that the movies were still preceded by black-and-white newsreels, or so my 59-year old memory thinks it remembers.

It was a big deal the first time I was given a few coins and allowed to go to a Saturday matinee at the Roxy by myself. Well, not by myself — with my friend Kevin McKenna. But the point is, without my Mom or Dad or an older sibling. Just me and Kevin. We survived.

Movie theatres inspire these sorts of memories in us — precious, glistening — which is why we are so moved when they die, whether that death is by routine closure or, as in the case of the Roxy, conflagration. But for some of us, the loss of the Roxy is doubly grievous because we also created theatre there. One of the coolest days in my life was when the musical play I co-wrote with Edmonton performer Rhonda Trodd, Supreme Dream, was in rehearsals at the Roxy, which had by then become a live theatre venue, and our names went up on the marquee above the doors.

The conversion of the Roxy into a live theatre had been a welcome reversal of the practice, in Edmonton and elsewhere, of turning live theatres into movie houses. Many years earlier I had arranged a small party of theatre friends to attend the final showing of anything, ever, at the Strand Theatre on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton. I wanted to go not because it was the Strand, but because it had once been the Pantages, a vaudeville house, part of the large chain of Pantages houses throughout North America. That had been well before my time — the only live performer I ever saw there was Reveen the Impossiblist — but it was a storied era in my hometown’s history, and I was mournful that the theatre was going to be lost forever and thought it ought to be given a proper sending-off.

It was in most ways a desultory event — my friends and I were pretty much the only ones in the theatre for a showing of a not-very-good movie, The Silent Partner, starring Christopher Plummer. But the manager — apparently also a sentimentalist — had got the old fire curtain back in working-order and he dropped it at the end of the film, just as it had been dropped after performances in the vaudeville days. It was beautiful, painted with some al fresco scene, and when we were allowed up on the stage later, we discovered that the reverse side of it was covered in the autographs of performers who had appeared at the Pantages — hundreds of them.

Somebody should dig up that old fire curtain — I’m told it’s in storage somewhere in the city — and get it hung at the Citadel or down at Fort Edmonton Park. There’s no telling whose signatures you’ll find on it.

And that’s the other reason we cherish these theatres, and mourn them so deeply when they go — because of all the evanescent performances they contain. It’s not just that we have memories of them — we may have no memories of them, as I have no memories of performances at the Pantages, and only a few of ones at the Roxy; I had moved from Edmonton by the time it became a live venue, and so saw shows there only when I was back in town, working. But they feel as if they still contain those performances, floating, in the air. They become a great concatenation of artistic energies and spirits, and when they are torn down, or burn down, and the roof collapses and the theatre is suddenly open to the sky, those spirits fly away, forever lost.

Or so it feels.

But of course, they’re not lost. They remain alive, and lit, in the minds of those who saw the performances — if not you, then thousands and thousands of other people. Those spirits are safe. I know I will hear stories of performances at the Roxy for many days to come, and in those moments, when stories are told, those performances will live again. And if the old movie theatre in Nanaimo, BC in which my colleagues and I produced plays for a number of years ever burns down or is demolished, we will surely be sad (though we did not mourn its predecessor, an even older movie theatre, when its roof fell in after too many years of rain; that place had been a bitch to run). But we will know that the work we did there is safe inside each of us, and the audiences who saw it. It is not lost.

So, to my friends in Edmonton: Feel grief at the loss of the Roxy, and don’t let anyone tell you that’s inappropriate. And then find a way to honour its memory, as my friends and I honoured the memory of the Pantages, and then help Theatre Network find its new home. They’ll almost certainly need money; they may need your elbow grease and encouraging words from time-to-time too.

Because there are new spirits waiting to be brought forth, and let to float in the air.