By Michael Bromby, Durham College Journalism Student
“Oshawa in the 1920s was never fancy,” says Louise Parkes a former city councillor. Then the Regent Theatre opened.
Louise Parkes is one of many individuals who contributed to the history of the Regent Theatre throughout its years of operation.
The elegance and magnificence of Hollywood came to Oshawa when Famous Players Canadian Corporation opened the Regent Theatre in 1921.
Judy Garland, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were the stars of many films at the Regent Theatre. The theatre had sold out shows almost every night, according to Jennifer Weymark, an archivist at the Oshawa Museum.
Weymark says the Regent Theatre brought in a sense of community.
“It gave them opportunity, it had a chance to do musicals and movies,” says Weymark. “Those who came got the chance to be part of the larger world in ways they couldn’t before.”
Leon Osier was the general manager of the theatre during the 1920s and into the 1940s. Frederick Kinton was hired to be the first projectionist in Oshawa after he returned home from the First World War with wounds which later caused to his death.
During the Second World War, Osier began playing videos and clips about the Second World War on the big screen. Communities across Canada sent materials to make guns and ammunition which included tin foil, and scrap metal. Osier helped the Canadian men by allowing people to donate their recycled metals which were sent overseas to help the war.
“They collected tinfoil for the war efforts, so it became a community hub,” says Weymark.
As the times changed, more brand name cinemas such as Cineplex moved into Oshawa, which took business away from the historic theatre. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Regent Theatre struggled to make money. The theatre closed its doors in 1989, but was given an adrenalyn rush in 1997.
In 1997, four local business men purchased the theatre from Famous Players Canadian Corporation and turned it into a night club. The night club, Adrenalyn Rush, never took off, despite being in the heart of downtown Oshawa.
In 1999, the owners closed the night club and applied for a permit to have the theatre demolished.
“The theatre was threatened with demolition and supposed to be a parking lot,” says Parkes.
The historic building was almost replaced with asphalt but Heritage Oshawa got involved. Louise Parkes, a member of this committee, decided this was not going to be the end for the Regent.
“We all have passion projects and this is one of mine, saving the theatre,” says Parkes.
Parkes moved to Oshawa with her family in 1988 and remembers seeing shows at the Regent throughout her childhood. The theatre became a passion in her life and she wanted to see it grow.
Parkes is the owner of Parmac Relationship Marketing in downtown Oshawa. She also helps her husband Darryl Sherman run Wilson Furniture in Oshawa.
Parkes wanted to have the old theatre turned into a performing arts centre. The city turned her down and sold the theatre to Mike Burley, a 21-year-old man who was given a five-year contract in 1999. Burley owned Hourglass Theatre Productions and used the Regent Theatre as a space to host his group.
“The opportunity was lost, which motivated me to come onto council,” says Parkes.
Parkes was elected as a city councillor in 2000, she continued to advocate for the theatre. She brought in Janis Barlow, who specializes in the design management of theatres across North America.
Barlow wrote a report to the city explaining how this was the best location in Oshawa for a performing arts centre. However, the bad luck continued for the Regent as the city council voted no.
Parkes became frustrated with the city council and began working with councillor Kathy Clarke to find a different approach in saving the theatre.
“You have to do things eventually or else people are going to leave the city,” says Parkes. “When I came on council there was not a new public building in Oshawa for 26 years.”
Burley failed to keep the theatre open due to the cost of running it. The city bought it back in 2001. It remained closed because the theatre needed construction work before it could be re-opened.
To bring life back to the theatre in 2007. Parkes and Clarke got the city to negotiate a deal with theatre expert Glyn Laverick of Toronto.
Laverick was the CEO of the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. He has worked with Oshawa theatre company Dancyn Productions which is run by Joan Mansfield. Laverick made her his artistic director at the Regent Theatre in Oshawa during his time of ownership.
The city agreed to give Laverick $700,000 to re-construct the entire building, but it had to be complete by the end of 2008.
“Glyn Laverick restored the front and made it into what we see today,” says Parkes.
The theatre opened in October of 2008, however, Laverick failed to meet his deadline. During the movies or live performances, construction equipment was visible throughout the theatre.
The Regent failed to take off once again, and it closed in January 2009. Laverick failed to complete work on the theatre and contractors were left without money. Lawsuits were filed against Laverick. Complainants owed the contractors money for work, many said they lost up to $200,000.
Parkes decided to focus on her business, which she shares with her husband Darryl Sherman, and gained the courage to go back to school.
“It bothered me every day of my life not finishing school, so I decided if not now when?” says Parkes, who completed her degree in history at Trent University in Oshawa. She is planning on going back for her master’s degree in history later this year.
While Parkes was furthering her education, a new owner took over the theatre.
The city was in possession of the Regent Theatre and decided to sell it to the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). The remaining construction was completed and the theatre opened once again in 2010.
“The city and the University have made an effort to change the downtown and bring culture and art back,” says Weymark who has been with the Oshawa Museum since 1999.
UOIT uses the Regent for lectures and educational studies for students, while also putting on throwback movie nights featuring “Barefoot in the Park”, and live performances such as “Abbamania and Night Fever”.
One of the live performers coming to the Regent Theatre is Canadian singer Shania Twin, she has spent 20 years of her life impersonating Shania Twain. However, this is her first time performing in Oshawa.
Donna Huber currently lives in Cobourg, Ont. but is on a tour across North America. She is performing at the Regent Theatre on March 4th but this show is going to be special for Huber.
“It hits close to home, I have a ton of friends who are always asking me when I am going to play close to home, and now I am,” says Huber. “I am excited and I hope we pack the place.”
Shania Twin is just one act you can see at the Regent Theatre. Other upcoming shows in February include The British Legends musical on the 16th. For Family Day weekend, the Regent hosts Treehouse’s Splash n’ Boots.
The land where we stand is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.
Durham College‘s newspaper, The Chronicle, launches a new feature series called The Land Where We Stand, about the hidden stories that shape our region.
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Veterans Affairs Canada, November 27th 2017.
Dancyn Productions Theatre Company,