From movie theatre, to psychedelic music venue, to Russian cultural centre, the century-old building at 2114 West Fourth Avenue has hosted an eclectic set of musical events and gatherings.
Kitsilano Theatre: 1913-1955
Located at 2114 West 4th Avenue, just west of Arbutus Street, the Kitsilano Theatre was built in 1913 by architect John Y. McCarter and re-modeled in 1922 by H. H. Simmonds. By the late 1920s, the theatre was owned and operated by Joseph Langer, whose theatre circuit included the Windsor, the Alma and the Kerrisdale. In 1930, Famous Players acquired the theatre as part of a chain of suburban cinemas that operated from 1930-1955.
What could you watch at the Kitsilano Theatre? Kitsilano audiences flocked to the 1,000-seat theatre to be entertained by a combination of live performances, movies and cartoons. The early years featured silent films accompanied by organ music (a $15,000 Robert Pipe Organ was installed in the Kitsilano Theatre in 1921), followed by “talkies” and cartoons in the 1930s, and eventually, colour films. In November 1925, movie-goers paid ten cents to see The Iron Horse – “a drama of love and adventure during civilization’s march towards the West”, and in December 1938, they took in a live magic show and a screening of the romantic comedy My Lucky Star (the first 300 children to arrive also received free candy bars). By 1955, the theatre had shut its doors, one of several that closed that year due to the rise of television.
Russian Community Centre: 1958-present
In 1958, the Russian Community Centre was searching in Kitsilano for a permanent facility to host events – as well as a social centre to unite Russians from across the city. They acquired the old Kitsilano Theatre under an agreement with Famous Players that it would no longer be used as a movie house. The membership collected $10,000 in donations for the down payment and donated their time and labour on weekends to revamp the building. It took six years to complete the renovations, including enlarging and raising the stage, ripping out the theatre seats and reflooring the main hall. “The men would start working early on Saturday morning, and the ladies would arrive later with food and refreshments. At the end of the day, they would gather together to talk about the progress and what was to be done next” (from the RCC’s website). In the years after the hall was completed, the Russian Community Centre (RCC) hosted regular functions and activities including performances of the balalaika orchestra, choirs and dance groups, a children’s language school as well as bazaars, plays, and lectures on Russian literature and history. However, by the late 1960s, membership had fallen and the RCC began renting the hall to cover maintenance costs.
By the late 1960s, Kitsilano – and in particular the area around Fourth and Arbutus – had become a hotbed of countercultural activity and hippie culture. In 1966, the hall became one of the venues of “The Afterthought” – an infamous psychedelic concert series organized by teenage concert promoter Jerry Kruz. According to Kruz, the Russians “were having problems renting out the place because of a backlash of local paranoia about communism, so they were more than willing to rent to me on a regular basis. The fact that my heritage is Ukranian also helped.” The venue hosted Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and a host of local folk and rock acts. According to one writer, the Russian Hall “is cited by many as a primary reason the hippie scene revolved around Kitsilano (cheap rent, large houses, and a world-class beach also helped).” But the hall also attracted some unwanted attention from the city’s law enforcement: “To police and city officials in Vancouver, including hippie-hating mayor Tom Campbell, the hall on West 4th Avenue was nothing but a cesspool of drug use occupied by dirty beatnkis” (from The Georgia Straight).
A New Era
A new day dawned in the 1970s for the Russian Community Centre. With funding from the multiculturalism programs of the federal and provincial governments, it was able to present more programming and attract a new generation of members.
Why Does This Place Matter?
This is one of the last of the suburban cinemas from the Famous Players chain of the late 1920s; the Alma, Victoria, Windsor, Broadway and Grandview have all been demolished. Today the Russian Cultural Centre continues to hold concerts, Russian dance classes and food fairs that are open to the general public and encourages anyone interested in Russian culture to join its activities at the hall. The RCC Balalaika Orchestra invites new members to join, providing instruments and instruction. The RCC also continues to rent its space to a variety of other groups, including Just Dance, a weekly, multi-generational dance event.
On March 23, 2013, VHF presented the Places That Matter plaque at the Russian Community Centre’s Annual Russian Spring Bazaar. We celebrated with Russian food, crafts, music and dance. See the facebook album.
Nearby Places That Matter