Oxford Theatre marks 80 years of silver screen magic

On a Monday evening, March 1, more than 700 Haligonians don their finest to queue down Quinpool Road at the corner of Oxford Street. Latecomers wait in the cold for hours for the second showing of Theodora Goes Wild, starring Irene Dunn and Melvyn Douglas. Admission is 30 cents for adults, 15 cents for children.Mayor Edward Cragg reads congratulatory telegrams and presents flowers from dignitaries, including the Canadian Universal Film Company and theatres in Florida, Saint John, the Valley, and Charlottetown. It’s the grand opening of the Oxford Theatre.
It isn’t the only theatre in town, or the biggest one. There’s the Vogue on Gottingen Street and the Paramount, Orpheus, and Capital theatres on Barrington Street. But the Oxford is the jewel in a rapidly growing West End district, surrounded by a soda fountain service, jewelry store, gas station, and taxi stand. It will outlast them all.
The Halifax Chronicle and Halifax Herald newspapers cover the opening extensively, dedicating several pages each. Stories rave about its design and state-of-the-art technology, with lengthy technical detail no writer would include today.
The Herald notes the building’s “severe but extremely modern simplicity” and the only use of “a built-in arc lamphouse using Suprex carbons” east of Montreal. That’s why the picture looks so good. The Chronicle calls it “one of the best built and most attractive modern constructions in Halifax.” The columns are surrounded by prominent ads from the builders (H. Davis, contractor) and suppliers of the plumbing, lights, upholstery, and everything else.
The papers praise every feature: the faux marble exterior, “faced in large squares of shining black vitrolite and banded with black and white tile,” “the tri-cornered marquee, with its numerous glowing lights,” the brown wainscoting, tubed lighting, “terraza tiling in shades of red, black and brown,” deep-pile carpeted stairways, Chinese red leather seats, rose velour window covers and screen curtains with gold-coloured lining and even the fireproof walls and tasteful bathrooms.
The building is owned by brothers Sidney and Jack Mintz, local men. “[The theatre] represents the faith that we have in the steady progress of Halifax,” they announce. Halifax Theatres Ltd. operates the Oxford and William Gates manages it—the same company and man who run the Orpheus.
The Oxford has since changed hands several times, experienced redecoration and facelifts, seen countless staff come and go, had its seating capacity significantly reduced, been immortalized in two graphic novels (Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly and Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks), and served not only generations of moviegoers but also community organizers, filmmakers, and those in need of a cool venue for very special days.
In the summer of ’73, Bill Long, manager of the Oxford, has some time to kill before intermission. He unhooks the velvet rope barrier and starts skipping.
Two giggling teenagers join him from the concession stand. One is Carol Bruneau, who will become a beloved Halifax novelist. She will remember her year working part-time at the concession stand as a time of laughing fits, during which she and her friend often sneak to an empty room to get it out of their systems. They are paid every other week in little brown pay envelopes: $15.60 each.
Saturday matinees are the craziest, a massive sugar-fest of kids leaving little handprints over the glass covering the candy. And they have to clean the weird orange goop out of the popcorn maker. The Oxford has the best popcorn and they flavour it with orange fat from gallon containers. “Heart attacks in a can,” they call them. One day the popcorn machine explodes and the orange goop is everywhere.
But it’s the time of Bruneau’s life and the staff members are unreasonably close: ancient 40-year-old box-office workers invite teenage coworkers to their weddings. Bruneau will remember their names forever: Mrs. Langille, and Bev who isn’t quite so old.
Bruneau watches movies for free and her friends do too. Jesus Christ Superstar and The Sting are the best. She’s been going there since she was a kid. Her aunt lives right on Oxford Street and used to take her.
On the afternoon of November 24, the old marquee reads: “Mary & Joe Say ‘I Do’ A Modern Love Story.”
Mary is Mary Kelly and Joe is Joe Willock. And one thing they didn’t want was a cookie-cutter wedding. They needed an unusual setting. Citadel Hill came to mind, but the rental costs a fortune.
When they saw White Christmas at The Oxford with Mary’s family, they were all caught up in the usual magic. “There was a former usher there, who’d worked in the thirties and had free passes for life,” says Joe.
Mary’s sister suggested they get married at the theatre. Joe loved the idea immediately; he’s a bit of a movie buff with a penchant for epic, otherworldly adventures. Mary always loved the building. The theatre has a built-in aisle that would provide a great view of the service. Everyone knows the place. So they went ahead and booked it with the latest owners, Empire Theatres.
They continued with the movie theme, sending out a marriage “trailer.” On the big day, pre-show trivia rolled before the big event featuring questions about the happy couple and photoshopped slides of them honeymooning in iconic locations across the globe.
They keep the concession stand open and guests buy sodas and treats. The bridal party hangs out in the ladies room while the groomsmen stay behind the screen checking out vintage projection equipment. It’s like the 1930s back there.
Mary walks down the aisle to “A Thousand Years,” from the Twilight movies. “Terrible movie, great song,” says Joe. The curtains open, revealing a pre-ceremony video. Joe’s sister reads an (unintentionally raunchy) excerpt on love from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
The couple takes the stage, say their vows, and are serenaded by a barbershop quartet singing “All You Need Is Love” on their way out. It’s a scene from Love, Actually.
Carol Bruneau still goes to The Oxford on occasion. It looks different yet enough the same to take her back. She remembers the projectionist who never said anything, just went into the booth at the start of the night and left it at closing time, like a phantom. Memories are woven into the walls, the décor, the lights.
“It was so atmospheric,” Bruneau says. “The Oxford is such a wonderful anomaly. Going there feels like an event.”
Cineplex Cinemas Oxford is the corporate name now. Nobody calls it that. Its new owner is the largest motion picture exhibition company in Canada, with 162 theatres, some with 24 screens. Cineplex has kept the Oxford as a single-screen theatre.
Sarah Van Lange, company spokesperson, says she can’t yet say how Cineplex will celebrate the Oxford’s 80th anniversary in March 2017. She says that although Cineplex is “approached from time to time with a variety of different opportunities for the Oxford, we don’t have any plans to share at this time.”
For those who hope the magic is preserved, Van Lange (who also has fond memories of going here as a student at King’s) is reassuring. “We work hard to be a good caretaker of it and respect its role in the history of the city.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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