The West Side’s Only Independent Movie Theatre.
On the landscape of full time independent movie houses, Dunbar Theatre is literally a sole survivor; it is the last of its kind in the city of Vancouver. There has never been any question that Dunbar is a very special community, and this is confirmed by the neighbourhood’s support of this well loved theatre, which opened in 1935.
Dunbar Theatre was built during the Art Deco architectural period by J. Howard Boothe; he ran it until 1941 when Odeon bought the theatre and made it part of a nationwide chain. It closed down between 1987-1988 and then was taken over by Famous Players for approximately ten years. Once again it closed, and this time it seemed destined to be demolished; however, the community adamantly rejected plans for redevelopment.
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, Ken leased the building and brought Hollywood magic back to Dunbar as the theatre’s new independent owner. Eight years later he also became the operator of Varsity Theatre on West 10th Avenue, which closed in 2006 due to redevelopment.
Ken mentions neighbourhood theatres are in a high-risk category – they 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 multiplex theatres, home downloading and Netflix. But this is a happy story, a success story and the Dunbar, as the theatre is fondly referred to, has stood the test of time and this is to be celebrated.
“Dunbar Theatre is a community anchor. Stong’s is the other major anchor and it is these two businesses that help make Dunbar different than other neighbourhoods.” Ken Charko
The Dunbar shows first run films and Ken personally screens all of them; on average the runs are two to three weeks. He opts for primarily family friendly films, reflective of this community’s movie going audience. Recent showings of Star Wars, La La Land and Lego Batman have been extremely popular.
WestJet Magazine has ranked Dunbar Theatre as one of North America’s five iconic movie theatres describing it as, “Delightfully retro, the theatre shows first-run films and is known for its comfortable, stretch-out seating and secret-recipe popcorn.”
Ah yes, the popcorn. Online reviews invariably mention the legendary buttery popcorn. And just why is this popcorn so darned tasty? Ken says he does not scrimp on quality. He invests in better corn, special salt and salted butter. Ken reveals that “off sales popcorn” is also very popular. People will drop in as they walk by simply because they are craving their favourite treat.
The concession stand is an important revenue generator. Charko jokes when he says, “I am a popcorn salesman.” All of his prices are lower than the chains, from the concession stand to tickets.
For Ken, this is a labour of love. It is his passion for films and for this community that drives him to keep running Dunbar Theatre.
He mentions that one of the pay-offs is being able to offer his staff good jobs. Ken estimates Dunbar Theatre has helped put approximately 1,000 people through university.
An astute businessman, he has come up with creative ways to utilize the venue. For instance, did you know it is possible to hold a private birthday party at the Dunbar? A full screen experience blows even the best home media room experience out of the water.
Companies rent the facility as a unique way to host customer appreciation events. Ken has also nurtured a good relationship with local schools. With the theatre’s ability to seat 350 people schools such as St. George’s School and Point Grey Secondary School have screened their own films relevant to the curriculum. One school watched a movie about climate change and brought in the director for a post-show discussion.
If you are a new mother and are craving a romantic comedy or drama, Movies For Mommies is designed for you. Movies run alternating Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. Mothers, their babies up to 18 months old and toddlers too are welcome in this kid-friendly environment.
What’s next for the Dunbar? Ken always has ideas brewing. He is contemplating an audio-visual upgrade and also has plans to replace the seating (have no fear, the spacious distance between seats will remain). He is also considering a VIP section in the theatre’s balcony. Another thought is to mount a film festival in September; he believes the community would embrace this idea.
In his unique position as the only full time independent movie theatre Ken says, “It defines who I am. I’ve got the greatest job.”
4555 Dunbar Street
Vancouver, BC V6S 2G7