For 60 years, the Toby Theatre has survived the changing landscape of the film industry, through videos and DVDs, but with the advent of digital and the end of the celluloid film era, does this Invermere landmark have a future?
Current owners and caretakers Elizabeth and Ron Peters certainly hope so. As of November, the Toby Theatre has been in their devoted care for 42 years. But because their much-anticipated retirement happens to coincide with the newest — and perhaps most insurmountable — challenge in the history of independent theatres, they will be looking to sell in 2013.
“They say 10,000 theatres worldwide will be affected,” said Ron.
The technology to switch from celluloid to digital movies rings in at a hefty $100,000 to $150,000, down from what it was a few years ago, but still more than what your average independent theatre can manage. With less and less 35 mm films available with every passing month, it’s only a matter of time before production dries up completely and digital is the only option.
But the Peters won’t be walking away empty-handed — they will be carrying with them four decades of priceless memories, and a fabulous chandelier.
“One of the first things we did was we bought the chandelier,” Elizabeth reminisced. “We thought the people who were coming would be talking to other people about what was new at the theatre.”
Elizabeth and Ron became the third owners of the Toby Theatre in 1971 after they moved to Invermere from Calgary just four months after being married. They bought it from Steve and Kay Capowski, who also owned the drive-in theatre in Radium Hot Springs at the time. The Capowskis had acquired it roughly four years earlier from the original owners Morley Hogan and Billie Morgan, a brother-and-sister team, but it was Morley and Billie’s husband Clint who were the original visionaries. After a trip to Golden, they were inspired by Golden’s Yoho Theatre and decided a theatre in Invermere was exactly what the town needed, and modelled the Toby after the Yoho, but tragedy occurred around the time they were building it when Clint died in a drowning accident in Lake Cartwright. Nonetheless, Morley and Billie pursued his dream and the Toby Theatre opened its doors for the first time in 1952, complete with projection equipment purchased second-hand from the Lux Theatre in Banff.
When the Peters took it over 19 years later, “there was not much in it,” Ron recalls. A jet spray machine provided two fountain drinks — orange or grape, and the upstairs living quarters were unfinished.
“There was no heat up there so the first year we slept at the front of the theatre on a piece of plywood on four five-gallon pails,” he said with a laugh.
Eventually they were able to move upstairs and turn their attention to the theatre itself. After the chandelier came new lights, a finished stage, new drapes for the screen, and a larger concession.
With the onset of video in the early ‘80s came more modifications. Cabinetry was added in the foyer and some theatre seats were removed to create storage rooms, transforming the Toby Theatre into a full-blown video store with occasional films running on long weekends.
“People were so fixated on video rental that most people had stopped going to the theatre,” Elizabeth said.
A theatre owner who happened to be visiting from Revelstoke told them he had gone into the video business and it was a good move.
“So we thought we’d give it a try and it worked out well, kept us going for 15 years,” said Ron.
But when DVDs were introduced in the early ‘90s, it proved too costly to carry both formats. Luckily, the new technology coincided with a renewed interest in theatre.
“People were wanting to go out again,” Elizabeth said. “We just sort of went with the flow.”
They switched back and have been operating just the theatre ever since.
The duo has worked tirelessly to supply family movies to the Columbia Valley community, staying away from anything with extreme violence or language. Even the 2012 blockbuster comedy Ted, about a teddy bear that comes to life, didn’t meet their high standards.
“If it’s excessive, even if it’s a PG-14, if it’s excessive in language, we still stay away from it,” Elizabeth said, “because a movie that’s two hours long and has 225 swear words, to us it’s not acceptable.”
The filming of Alive in the Purcell Range in 1993 remains a definite highlight. Ron recalls sitting with a local youth in the theatre’s video store who asked him who was starring in it. Ron replied that Ethan Hawke was, but that he wouldn’t know him to look at even if he ran him over with a truck.
“This guy comes walking over to me and says, ‘Well, I’m Ethan Hawke,’” to which Ron joked back: “Proved my point!”
Another favourite memory from the Alive filming took place during a private screening for the entire cast and crew, when a cast member, Jose Zuniga, struck up conversation with their two teenage daughters who were working the concession.
“They were always down in the dumps that they never lived in a house,” said Elizabeth. “He said, ‘Well, where do you live?’ And they both looked down and said, ‘We live here at the theatre.’
“He said, ‘Well, I’d give my right arm to say that I grew up and lived in a theatre! You guys are so lucky,” laughed Ron.
“And that changed their whole perspective,” added Elizabeth. “That was the end of it; the girls were proud of where they lived, it never was a problem again.”
Their youngest daughter went on to graduate from the Vancouver Film School and eventually became the manager of the program she graduated from.
The most popular movie they ever played?
“E.T. — we ran it twice a day for a week and the last day they were still lined up from here to the book bar, we couldn’t get them in,” Ron said.
When the Peters came across the Toby Theatre’s first-ever booking sheet at the Windermere Valley Museum earlier this year, they discovered that Calamity Jane and Sam Bass was the first movie to ever play at the Toby. So in July, to mark the theatre’s 60th anniversary, they displayed the movie’s old poster on the same date it first played 60 years ago.
“Looking back, we should have been documenting it all, but were so busy working,” Elizabeth said.
Inside, the theatre is brimming with memorabilia: the animated character of Roger Rabbit adorns both sides of the screen, once earning the Peters an autographed poster by Who Framed Roger Rabbit? director Robert Zemeckis, after he visited the theatre unbeknownst to them (“it was delivered down from Panorama”); two fleets of model airplanes that were donated by a customer, Earl Hanson, hang in formation from the ceiling; and just below the screen sits a classic Heath kit colour organ, where a display of colour lights flashes along to the music.
“That’s an antique, that’s 40 years old,” Ron said proudly. “Took me probably a couple of weeks to put it all together.”
“That, and the chandelier, are going with us,” said Elizabeth with a smile.