The importance of saving an iconic cultural space
By Mercedes Deutscher, Social Media Coordinator
“Unique, interdisciplinary, welcoming, historic, necessary.” –Devon Scott
“A home for strange shows.” –Tyler James Nicol
“Megachurch for Vancouver Indie Filmmakers.” –Joel McCarthy
I asked local artists to describe the Rio Theatre in five words. All tell different stories, but all still ring true. As for me, I could only use one word: Extraordinary.
It was 2012 when I first stepped into the Rio Theatre.
I was barely 16 and rarely left the seclusion of my home in Delta. I was on my high school’s spoken word poetry team, and we were there to support a teammate through the individual youth championships. I met artists from all over BC in a shroud of red and black, and exited to a line of people waiting to see a late-night screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Joel McCarthy, a local indie filmmaker, has a similar story.
“The first time I went to the Rio was to see Rocky Horror Picture show for the first time. It was a perfect blend of party and movie watching. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, but I was in love.”
“I finally got to see one of my all-time favourite bands (The Church) in concert,” said Devon Scott, bass player of local band River’s Divide, on her first visit to the Rio. “As soon as I entered the door, I was immediately enamoured with the atmosphere of the place. It was amazing to me that a theatre that can hold so many people can feel so intimate and personal.”
My love for the Rio has been magnified over the years by local improv and burlesque troupes; celebrities like Drew Lynch, Vanessa Carlton, and Greg Sestero; late night movies (that you can’t catch at Cineplex) with friends and lovers; beer and grilled cheese sandwiches.
For those who have contributed to arts at the Rio, the connection runs deeper.
“I performed there with my band River’s Divide last year, and the experience was unforgettable,” said Scott. “Getting to perform at the venue gave me the true scope of the historic value of the theater. Not only that, the staff were so wonderful to work with. It felt like a family.”
“Watching the Rio grow with its shows has been fascinating,” said Tyler James Nicol, whose various works include burlesque performances. “The ‘green room’ (which is red, by the way) in the back went from storage space, to tiny but efficient dressing room, and now has a renovated basement dungeon that I have seen personally filled with a few dozen half-naked glorious maniacs. It is the definition of an intimate performance space while still having the seating capacity to draw in shows from all over.
“The Rio will always have a big place in my heart. I had the hometown premiere of both of my feature films there and have thrown more events there than I can count at this point. There is no place remotely like it for indie film events; it is such an integral building for the people in the indie community here. I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life but one of the best feelings in the world is going to an event you’ve worked so hard on to organize and seeing the lineup for that event go past the sushi restaurant. It’s heartwarming to see that many people are there to support and enjoy independent film.”
All this in mind, when I heard that the property was up for sale, my heart sunk, as did the hearts of the lovers of the iconic venue.
“I’ve been thinking about the worst-case scenario and it breaks my heart,” said McCarthy. “You could burn down every building in Vancouver but the Rio and I would be less sad than if they tore down the Rio. It’s been such a huge part of my career I would feel pretty lost.”
I thought back to other fallen venues in the Vancouver arts scene. Seven Dining Lounge, a Mount Pleasant hub for comedians and musicians, fell victim to a $14 million buyout and now sits empty while developers plan out how tall the new condo building will be. Benny’s Bagels in Kitsilano struggles with a faint heartbeat as they await news on their closing date. While the Vancouver Playhouse still stands as one of the city’s civic theatres, its theatre company was forced to bail in 2012, leaving the venue for traveling or corporatized acts.
“To an artist, the Rio is an invaluable part of Vancouver’s arts and entertainment culture. I can’t actually think of a place other than the Rio where you can see a concert, a beloved movie, and a top-notch improv show all in the same week! It’s a special place that celebrates all forms of talent in our city,” Scott said.
“The City of Vancouver profits so goddamn much from the big American film,” said McCarthy. “They should invest in one of the few places that give emerging filmmakers a voice and help build up the careers of our local creatives. If our dollar swings high again and the service industry crumbles again, we have nothing here.”
Performing arts have become more competitive as a result. While unaffordable condos lie vacant across the city, artists face long wait times to produce their works in the dwindling number of venues, especially if they need more than five feet of stage space.
“The unique position of a full stage with a full-sized screen really gives a lot of options other venues aren’t built to support,” said Nicol. “There are many performers who simply wouldn’t be able to get a foot on the stage again without the Rio.”
I wasn’t alone in my desire to save this Commercial and Broadway gem. Something has to be done to save this venue. So, we mobilized, and the #SaveTheRio movement was born.
A petition was started online and managed to collect over 20,000 signatures within five days. With a community behind her, current owner Corinne Lea’s offer to buy the building was accepted.
However, Lea must have $3 million dollars by early April in order to be approved for the down payment on the building.
Over 2,000 backers have donated approximately $180,000, according to the Save The Rio Theatre Indiegogo page. Local businesses have donated gift certificates and Rio mainstays (like The Fictionals Comedy and Geekenders) have offered their shows for private events in exchange for #SaveTheRio donations. Those looking to invest larger sums into the Rio have been advised to contact Lea privately, and such donations have not yet been disclosed to the public.
The fight to save the Rio has attracted the attention of big Hollywood names, such as Kevin Smith and Ryan Reynolds. Both have publically advocated for the theatre to be saved and donated money to the cause.
“’I’m really excited to see celebrities using their voices to bring attention to the Rio Theatre,” said McCarthy. “I feel like they are fighting for us. So many people make it big and stop giving a shit about where they’ve come from and it’s inspiring seeing the endorsements of Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Smith. I’ve for sure become a bigger fan of their’s in the process.”
“I think it’s amazing!” said Scott. “Though I am not surprised to see highly-regarded people in the entertainment industry stepping forward to attract attention to this issue. Without venues like the Rio Theatre, perhaps many of them wouldn’t be where they are today.”
“Nothing gets people moving faster than attention back from celebs. It’s a rallying call from a bigger grandstand than most of us can manage,” said Nicol.
On March 30, Smith is teaming up with the Rio for “An Evening with Kevin Smith In Vancouver.” There will be shows at 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., with tickets ranging from $40 to $200. All proceeds from the shows will go directly into the #SaveTheRio campaign.
We won’t know until April whether or not the Rio will be purchased by Lea and saved from developers. For now, all we can do is wait with hope that the Rio will be saved.
“Just take notice of what makes the city beyond the buildings filling the skyline,” said Nicol. “The heart of this city is a diverse group of wonderful and complicated folks who need spaces to be creative. We need ruling to keep public performance spaces in our lives.”