The Dunbar Theatre: A Vancouver Treasure

I am one of many people who have a sentimental attachment to Dunbar Theatre. For me, the theatre contains wonderful memories dating back to the 1970s when my dad used to live around the corner. I clearly remember the magic of my first trip to Dunbar Theatre when we sat in the balcony with a bag of popcorn, and watched a gentle movie about a dog named Benji.

It is remarkable to think of all of the historical events that have taken place since 1935 when Dunbar Theatre first opened, and to reflect on the number of people over the decades that have sat in the theatre and enjoyed the magic of cinema.

Dunbar Theatre is indeed a community landmark, which has stood the test of time.

Dunbar Theatre was built during the Art Deco architectural period by J. Howard Boothe, who ran it until 1941, when Odeon bought the theatre and made it part of a nationwide chain. In 1987-1988 Dunbar Theatre closed down and was taken over by Famous Players for approximately ten years. The theatre closed again, and this time it seemed destined to be demolished, however, the community adamantly rejected plans for redevelopment.

It is here that the current story begins. In February 1998, three university students, including young entrepreneur Ken Charko, the present day owner of Dunbar Theatre, approached the property owner and requested permission to operate the theatre as a summer project. Soon after, Charko leased the building and was the new owner of Dunbar Theatre. Eight years later his dream of running a theatre had doubled, and Charko was running two independent theatres when he became the operator of Varsity Theatre.

Charko has plans to upgrade the exterior of the theatre in the next two years. In the meantime, he has made a huge financial investment of over $300,000 in the facility. The old theatre seats have been replaced with extremely comfortable new wide seats that recline slightly, and have armrests that lift up if you wish to snuggle in close to your companion. The leg room is abundant; in fact, the theatre lost approximately 300 seats to accommodate the new ones. In addition, Charko has purchased the most advanced digital and 3D equipment in Vancouver. Dunbar Theatre shows first run films, it offers up the best popcorn in town (thanks to a top-secret ingredient

which brings one regular customer back on a weekly basis!), and ticket prices are lower than the competition (along with Tuesday night specials when all tickets are $8). Dunbar Theatre is available for private rentals for birthday parties and company functions.

Going to see a film is a social meeting ground where people emerge from their homes to sit together, and wait for the magic moment when the lights dim and all eyes focus on the screen.

Dunbar Theatre

Sadly, Vancouver’s independent theatres are a dying breed. The Varsity Theatre closed in January 2006, a victim of redevelopment. Neighbourhood theatres are in a high-risk category. Theatres are costly to run, leases can be high, theatres are located in prime locations where real estate is highly sought after, and independent theatres are in competition with megaplex theatres, home downloading and Netflix. Kitsilano’s Hollywood Theatre recently closed after 75 years in business, and people are once again hoping that Ken Charko will protect their beloved Dunbar Theatre from a similar fate.

Charko is in an advantageous position to represent community interests as he is running as a candidate for Vancouver City Council on the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) slate in the civic election. He has a reputation for being a smart, no-nonsense business owner who cares a great deal for his community. He supports the arts, small business owners, and community development. With voter’s support, Charko hopes to bring his thoughtful energy and commitment to Vancouver City Council.

Charko’s professional career includes serving on the Board of Directors for the Motion Picture Theatre Association of BC for more than ten years, promoting small business as the owner of the Dunbar Theatre, and developing national businesses including his current project, developing a national food service retailer called Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt, headquartered in Vancouver.

His community service includes volunteering for the Canadian Red Cross, the Olympic Committees, and donating time and resources to Vancouver Film School students who are working toward a career in the motion picture industry.

Charko is passionate about his work; he is aware of how important the theatre is to community, and he commits many hours to Dunbar Theatre.

Many memories are housed within the building, from first kisses, to a place where people met their spouse. Charko will keep the theatre going as long as he enjoys going to work, and as long as people continue enjoying motion pictures at one of the jewels in the crown of Dunbar Village, the Dunbar Theatre.

by Sarah Gordon  ~ photos by Clayton Perry

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