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Empress Theatre doomed?
Article mis en ligne le jeudi 14 avril 2011

 
Photo: Ingrid Wissink

An information meeting attendee enters the office unit of the historic Empress Theatre at 5560 Sherbrooke West.

The last hope for the historic theatre’s survival may lie in investments from the private sector, as governments remain wary of committing new money.

The Empress Cultural Centre (ECC) continues its optimistic fight to save the Empress Theatre, despite a disheartening lack of government support. Twelve years after the first efforts to have the centre reopened, the building remains in pitiful condition.

In an effort to inform citizens and stakeholders about the current state of the struggle to save the theatre, ECC board president Paul Scriver held an information meeting last Thursday, April 7.

Projet Montreal’s Peter McQueen and NDG’s NDP candidate Johanne Corbeil were present, as well as members of the Renaissance Empress and Art Deco groups and area residents.

Scriver outlined the essential tenets of the board’s current objectives: preserve the physical space and prevent further deterioration; ensure “proper use” with a focus on live performance; procure funding; communicate with stakeholders (including anyone with an interest in the space); ensure financial stability, which he deems the hardest part.

“The theatre is caught in a catch-22,” he deplores. The board cannot acquire funding if there are no revenue-generating activities planned in the space. Yet no activities can be held until expensive, lengthy repairs are done. Furthermore, repair costs, now estimated at $12 million, will grow each year as the freezing-thawing cycle of winter progressively decimates the roof and unheated interior.

The situation is a frustrating one, yet the board hopes that a mixed-use model may provide a solution. Under this strategy, community groups and the private sector could make use of the space together, providing funding and keeping the ECC’s performing arts mandate intact.

Board member Anthony Di Giorgio optimistically reported having “interesting conversations” with some potential local investors, who could benefit from revitalization of the neighborhood through theatre attendance.

Last fall, some speculated that the building would be expropriated for development into luxury condominiums.

The office space is rented each year to the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, providing some revenue, the Black Theatre Workshop and Geordie Productions. Performing groups from various ethnic communities have expressed interest in using the space.

Attendees were frustrated by the city’s indifference on the issue. “Some of the money that went to the NDG Cultural Centre could have gone to the Empress,” suggested one, since the centre still appears to have a dearth of events in its upcoming season.

The ECC has been managing the theatre ever since it was accorded a special long-term lease by the city in 1999. The building had been closed since it was gutted by fire in 1992, ending the reign of the Cinema V repertory theatre. Built in 1927 as a hub for vaudeville performers, the Empress became known as the ‘Royal Follies’ in the 1960’s, a venue for cabaret and live jazz.

The theatre is the last remaining Art Deco Egyptian-style theatre in Canada.

The ECC intends to hire students for outreach and fundraising efforts this summer.

 

[ Ingrid Wissink ]





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