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Westdale Theatre: The community theatre that could

When Hollywood producer Fred Fuchs moved to Dundas four years ago, he took his wife Mary Pat to a movie at the Westdale Theatre. He had no idea this would become more than an evening out.

The couple had just returned to the Hamilton area; Mary Pat’s hometown.

Waiting for the film to begin, they noticed the peeling paint, and the sprinkling of broken seats. Then Mary Pat said the immortal words, “Wouldn’t it be great if someone bought this movie theatre and restored it?”

Last month Fuchs moved shoulder to shoulder through the throngs of curious open house visitors, munching popcorn and sipping craft beer as they peeked inside every inch — yes, even the washrooms — of one of the city’s most remarkable feats of rejuvenation.

Less than two years ago, Fuchs and a group of other local volunteer visionaries set up a charitable organization, bought the deteriorating building for $1.7 million, fundraised towards the $4.6 million budget, hired staff (with Annette Paiement, the former Founder and Director of the AGH BMO World Film Festival as executive director) and captured the imagination and support of the local community along the way.

The group actively supported Heritage Designation — a step most developers shun because of the prohibitive and costly restrictions.

But with the original blueprints to consult, The Westdale Theatre Group was determined to bring the much-loved building back to its Art Deco glory, right down to the original colours of the auditorium walls.

“We want to do it right,” said Fuchs. “This has been here more than 80 years and we want it to be around for another 80,” he said.

Built in 1935, the theatre was touted to have “every modern device to add to your comfort and amusement”, which included “Dunlopillo seats, the latest air condition… and R.C.A Victor Photophones High Fidelity sound reproduction”.

It was designed by two of our city’s most prolific architects: William James Walsh (with landmark legacies such as the Hamilton Armouries and the former Dundas District High) together with W. Bruce Willard, whose portfolio included Parkdale Elementary School.

The only major deviation from the original theatre’s layout was the change in the number of seats. At one point, the theatre could hold 500 people for a single screening but that number has been dramatically trimmed down to around 300 to accommodate comfier seats (with cup holders and ample leg room), a viewing area for those with mobility issues, and most notably the removal of two front rows to allow for a stage.

The installation of a stage makes the Westdale Theatre live up to its name by becoming a performance theatre as well as a medium-sized music venue. To do this, an event-ready sound system, acoustic wall covering, and theatrical lighting were all added. Executive director Annette Paiement noted that the split between films to theatre would be roughly 70/30.

With true movie inspiration, it seems that if you build it, they really will come as Artsfest — Waterdown’s popular music and arts event — is renting the Westdale for its 3-day festival this June.  The theatre is now on the wedding venue map too, with one already booked for later this year.

Many of Hamilton’s leading philanthropists had contributed and lent their support, but Fuchs was adamant that the Westdale be accessible in every way. Membership at $10 a year gets you in for $9 a show (the price for kids, students and seniors) with admission for non-members at $12.

Upcoming screenings are a mix of classic favourites, such as the 1927 silent movie Sunrise, to Jackie Chan in Police Story, right up to current films like Mary Poppins Returns and Green Book.

“We’re not elitist,” Fuchs was at pains to emphasize. “We’ve built this with the public’s money and we respect that. This is for everybody.”

He’s no stranger to making dreams a reality. Fuchs has fundraised and project-managed his entire career. That’s what producers do. And he’s won plenty of accolades, including Emmy awards, as well as working on Oscar-winning movies with Francis Ford Coppola, and Al Pacino.

At the CBC, he supervised top TV favourites such as Little House on the Prairie and The Tudors. Although no longer in Los Angeles, he’s still in demand as an executive producer and is currently involved in a movie project featuring veteran actor Anthony Hopkins.

Fred Fuchs, one of the members of The Westdale Theatre Group

But stars of a different kind aligned for this venture.

“Five years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible,” he said. “The cultural renaissance here made the difference.”

That – and a large measure of true inspiration.

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