By Dave Flaherty / The Oshawa Express
Correction – The first name of the General Manager of the Regent Theater, Kevin Arbor, was incorrectly stated in the print and earlier online versions of this article.
Located on King Street in downtown Oshawa, the Regent Theater is one of the city’s most historic buildings with an equally interesting backstory.
While the venue is known to most city and region residents as one of the top entertainment spots in the GTA, the building was once protected from destruction – but more on that later.
According to information on the Heritage Oshawa Committee Theater’s website, construction of the Regent Theater began almost exactly 100 years ago in March 1919.
There is some disagreement about when the theater opened exactly, but documents state that the Regent Theater’s opening night was October 16, 1919.
The opening performance was “The Prince Chap” with Thomas Meighan and a Mack Sennett comedy “You Wouldn’t Believe It!” with a special orchestra directed by Jack Arthur personally.
There was a large audience of all reports and hundreds were turned away at the door.
The theater was owned by Famous Players and designed by J. McNee Jeffrey, a well-known Canadian theater designer.
The client was Norman McLeod Ltd. with an initial construction cost of $ 100,000 ($ 1.353 million in 2018).
The entrance to the theater was bordered on each side by commercial shop fronts.
The main shield was vertical and hung from a mounting mechanism on the roof, with a square canopy suspended from the wall on chains.
The original sign was replaced in 1950 by a large Famous Players marquee, which enabled a romanticized film advertisement with large metal letters on a white sign.
Though it was designed as a movie theater, current general manager Kevin Arbor explains that it wasn’t known if moving images would simply be a fad, so a stage 36 feet wide and 22 feet deep with an orchestra pit was added .
Remains of the pit can still be found deep inside the building.
According to the Oshawa Heritage Committee, the theater had innovative features at the time, including air conditioning, which consisted of fans that blow air over blocks of ice in racks.
The building was completely framed of steel, including the ceiling, while the outside was made of red brick.
The ceiling details consisted of medallions depicting mythical motifs.
When a new ceiling was installed in 2013, Arbor said the design was “almost a replica of the original”.
It is also reported that the Regent was the first theater to offer its guests a “perfect view” and the “acoustic properties were considered excellent”.
According to a 2007 article in The Oshawa Express, there was originally space for 1,160 guests.
In the 1960s this was reduced to 868 seats to make room for a concession counter, a larger lobby and the new marquee.
The Regent Theater was one of many in the center of downtown, and the 2007 article states that it was “the largest, most posh and popular.”
It remained a famous player until financial problems led to its closure in 1989.
After seven decades of persistence, the Regent Theater was about to enter the rockiest timeline in its history.
After sitting empty for nearly a decade, the theater was converted into a nightclub called Andrenalyn.
However, there were problems with underage drinking, violence and vandalism and the city ordered Andrenalyn to be closed for 90 days. It was never opened again.
In 1999 attempts were made to reopen the theater as a live show location, and a company signed a new five-year deal to acquire it.
However, while preparing to stage the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a water pipe burst and soaked the theater in 20 feet of water, according to the 2007 Express article.
The current company would soon be released from its contract.
Within another year, it seemed like the Regent Theater could only become a reminder of a bygone era in Oshawa.
The building was on the verge of demolition, but Heritage Oshawa managed to secure the regent’s historic status.
“The city saved it from demolition, it was within a week of demolition,” explains Arbor.
In 2001 the Oshawa Folks Arts Council expressed interest in reopening the Regent as a live theater and began using the city council to buy the building.
With just under six to five votes, the city approved the plan to purchase the building for $ 700,000.
The famous Regent Theater was now the official property of Oshawa City.
However, the Folks Arts Council was unable to raise the funds required to rejuvenate the regent, and he continued to fall into a state of disarray.
“It just got worse,” former councilor Maryanne Sholdra told The Express in 2007.
A light of hope came later that year in the form of Glyn Laverick, the then owner of Danforth Music Hall in Toronto.
The city agreed to donate $ 700,000 to Laverick to renovate the building, but wanted it to be reopened to the public by the end of 2008.
At that time, the 25-year-old Laverick was described in a press release as a “British theater impresario”.
He said he saw a bright future for the Regent Theater.
“I think there is definitely an audience in Oshawa,” he remarked to The Oshawa Express.
Laverick went to great lengths to make the Regent work, but it just shouldn’t be.
After the reopening with a lot of fanfare in October 2008 – three months earlier than planned – the initial dynamic slowed down quite quickly.
While some shows were taking place under Laverick’s property, he was never able to code the building and kept adding temporary extensions to try.
In April 2009, as performances became scarce, it became clear that the city’s expansion would soon stop.
In addition, it was revealed that more than $ 200,000 were liens on the building, while other contractors claimed they owed payments as well.
Relations between the city and Laverick deteriorated further when the theater owner denied the severity of the work required to obtain an occupancy permit, and also criticized the local politics he encountered in Oshawa.
In August 2009, a story in The Express was supposed to highlight the seemingly sad state of the building.
A fitness contest organizer said he refused to pay after “seeing the drab state of the theater when he got there”.
It was noted that “not only was rubble everywhere, but scaffolding was left standing as if everyone had just left the place.”
The promoter also claimed that the heating was off, which left competitors in the cold, and in the middle of the night they were “kicked out” after refusing to pay.
However, Laverick countered that he had no choice because no payment had been made.
In comments to The Express, he also said, “Ticket sales for the event were significantly lower than the promoter told us. Less than 30 paying ticket holders came for the preliminary decision part of the competition. “
The then mayor of the city and now Ward 5 Alderman, John Gray, who delivered a welcoming message at the event, was not happy with the condition of the building.
“I got there at 3:30 pm this afternoon and what I saw wasn’t pleasant … it’s inexcusable,” Gray told the Express.
A photographer for the event was also critical.
“It is terrible for them to present a theater in this state,” he commented.
It seemed like a fitting end to an era for the Regent Theater that is best forgotten.
But not all hope was lost, for at that moment a potential savior was on the horizon, making plans to restore the historic theater to its old grace.
BEHIND THE WRITING
Like many Oshawa residents, my travels have taken me to the Regent Theater on King Street. On the surface, it was another in a number of high quality entertainment venues that I had come across in my journalistic career.
Others are the Academy Theater in Lindsay and the Lakeview Arts Barn near Bobcaygeon.
The Regent Theater is indeed a stunning venue and gem in downtown Oshawa.
Before I wrote this issue of The Fourth Estate, I had no idea how close the city was to losing this gem.
At that time, a decade ago, the building was dilapidated and barely used.
This came after City Council and Heritage Oshawa saved the building from possible demolition just a few years earlier.
Realizing that the Regent was on the verge of being abolished was shocking considering how great the building now looks and how well the shows are on there now.
It’s a bit unsettling to think about what would be in its place if UOIT hadn’t bought the building in 2010.
It was certainly a sore point for longtime Oshawa residents to see a building that they had likely spent part of their lives in such a state of disarray.
Not all stories have happy endings, but in this case it happened.
And next week I’ll be happy to keep telling the happy ending for the Regent Theater and how it was brought back to fame by Dave Flaherty over the past decade.