The Plaza Redux: A dear old friend get a new lease on life with historical designation

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It felt like an early Christmas present when news came in mid-December that the Plaza Theatre was slated to become a Municipal Historical Resource.

The iconic movie theatre in the Kensington area is one of my favourite places. Like many, I feel a strong connection to this northwest Calgary landmark.

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Members of city council’s infrastructure and planning committee have voted to preserve the Plaza and the historical designation needs only formal approval at a forthcoming regular city council meeting. It means the building, sometimes described as Art Deco meets Spanish Colonial, can be adapted for new uses or sold, but cannot be torn down or fundamentally altered.

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It’s very good news for a dear old friend.

Originally built in the late 1920s as an auto mechanics shop, the Plaza underwent renovations and reopened on Jan. 10, 1935, as a movie theatre, screening the comedy/romance Mr. Skitch, which starred Will Rogers.

A historical plaque shows the original notification of a movie at the newly opened Plaza Theatre in 1935. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

The Plaza served as a community movie theatre until 1950 when it changed ownership and began running second-run features and art house films. In 1976, the Brar family, who still own it, bought the Plaza and began showing Hindi and Chinese language movies on weekends. A year later, the family struck a deal with Flemming Nielsen to provide mid-week repertory cinema fare. It was a big success. Nielsen ended up leasing the whole space, expanding his repertoire to fill the week and removing some of the theatre’s seats to add a live theatre stage in the spring of 1984.

My own history with the Plaza began in early 1984 when I was hired to work on Cinemascope, a publication that carried the listings for the rich mix of classic, indie, cult and international films. We were headquartered next to the Plaza above Cafe Calabash, now home to Modern Steak Kensington.

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The job included writing and editing, plus answering phones, counting the cash from the previous night’s show and helping Nielsen compile his movie listings. The perks: a free movie pass for two and all the popcorn I could eat. Heaven

Cinemascope evolved into CityScope, a bi-monthly city magazine. I moved on to other magazines before returning to work for CityScope in the early ’90s as editor. The magazine had moved into renovated offices above the movie theatre. It was cramped but the lively crew made it fun and the free popcorn was even closer at hand. That publication later evolved into Avenue magazine, which I also worked on, but it no longer carried the Plaza listings.

Over the next few decades, the Plaza developed a solid reputation for first-run art house films and for hosting film festivals, including the Calgary Underground Film Festival and GIRAF. Live theatre continued there until 1998

However the movie business began rapidly changing with the consolidation of film distribution companies and the inexorable rise of streaming. Sadly, four months into the pandemic in 2020, the Plaza announced it was struggling and closed its doors, posting a “For Lease” sign on the marquee.

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Fatima Allie Dobrowolski in the restored Plaza Theatre on Jan. 13, 2022. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia Photo by Darren Makowichuk /DARREN MAKOWICHUK/Postmedia

Then came a miracle straight outta the movies. Fatima Allie Dobrowolski, a British transplant who was raised on repertory cinema in London, took over the lease in 2021 and began to upgrade the beloved landmark

When the Plaza redux opened on Jan. 14, 2022, I was delighted. The theatre itself remains largely untouched, but there’s a beautiful new candy-floss-pink lobby and a cafe serving coffee, tea and some of the best popcorn in town, available all day, no movie ticket required. There’s Sidebar, a tiny jewel of a speakeasy shaking up great cocktails, and the neighbourhood’s best hangout patio in front for warm days and evenings.

This combination of old and new has helped the Plaza retake its role as the heart of Kensington and as a place to connect with others. I slide into my favourite seat there as often as possible and urge others to go, too. Even though the building has received historical designation, the community at large needs to support the Plaza for it to remain a viable business.

Dobrowolski says single-screen independent movie theatres across Canada are struggling, noting, “It’s not a business for the fainthearted.” Multiplexes have first dibs on first-run movies and once they’re done with one, independents get last-minute notice that it’s available, leaving little time for promotion. She estimates that between 35 and 57 per cent of her ticket sales go to film distributors.

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Instead of raising ticket prices, Dobrowolski is focused on building an experience around the movie, with convivial spaces to enjoy food and drink before and especially after the movie, when we all want to chat about what we’ve just seen — rather than just glumly shuffling out of the mall post-show. For example, when she was finally able to screen Barbie at the Plaza, movie-goers could opt to buy a ticket package that included Barbie- or Ken-themed cocktails and popcorn.

Despite the challenges, she’s focused on the future, buoyed by the support shown by heritage planners, by movie lovers, by neighbours, by the knowledge that there may be grants available — such as for boosting the power supply to allow for A/C — to keep the Plaza going.

Going to the movies is a wonderful part of city life. It’s an outing, an occasion that provides a sense of community. Sitting in a warm, dark theatre with other people, munching a bag of buttery popcorn and sharing the sounds and sights of a great movie on a big screen remains an irreplaceable, magical experience.

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