A new era begins for Oliver Theatre

By on April 12, 2018

The Oliver Theatre has been sold and new owners Lyle Miller and Kandise Ife will take over on April 26. (Vanessa Broadbent photo)

The Oliver Theatre has a history of being a family-run business and on April 26 its new owners will carry on the tradition.

Lyle Miller and Kandise Ife moved from Maple Ridge to Oliver a year ago, partly to be closer to family, partly to get away from the city.

The couple owned a business – a store in downtown Vancouver – and wanted to try their hand at being business owners in the South Okanagan.

They were looking for options when the theatre “grabbed their attention” and both coming from grocery backgrounds, it was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

“This is an all new adventure for us,” Miller said. “It was an out-of-the-box thing that you would never think of. I’ve talked to a few friends of mine and they said the same thing: ‘you’re doing what?’”

Miller said some of the experience working in grocery will transfer over; he’s not worried about running the theatre’s concession at all, but he predicts the projection equipment will come with a bit of a learning curve.

But Miller and Ife will have some special help. They’ll be working with their eight-year-old daughter, who is “over the moon” that her parents now own the theatre.

“I don’t know if it’s for the movies or the snacks, but she’s down to work with us and she’s excited,” Miller said.

The theatre’s history of being family-run dates back to its opening in 1946.

Alex Gough built the Oliver Theatre in 1946 and operated it until its sale in 1964. Here, he works in his office in the theatre. (Photo submitted)

Alex Gough from Kimberley, B.C. had experience screening silent films in mining communities including Gold Bridge and Hedley. He wanted to mature from projectors in community halls to a real cinema, and so the Oliver Theatre was built.

Gough’s daughter, Marilyn Dowler (then Gough), remembers the opening film, Great Expectations, an adaption of the classic Charles Dickens novel.

“I didn’t see all of Great Expectations because I was six, but I was there,” she said.

Over the years Dowler ended up seeing a lot of films, her favourites being musicals, especially Singing in the Rain and Oklahoma.

The theatre also used to showed serials, with a new segment shown each week, as well as news.

“They would talk about what was happening in Toronto or what was happening world-wide if there was a war somewhere,” Dowler said.

The Goughs lived in an apartment in the back of the building, built a few years after the theatre’s opening and Dowler spent a lot of time playing in the theatre while her parents were working.

“Sometimes when Dad was cleaning or fixing something in the theatre, one of my girlfriends and I would bring our dolls in there, we would take them up on the stage and the little dolls would dance.”

The building was different during Dowler’s childhood. She remembers a crying room for mothers with babies where the ladies washroom now is. There was also large sawdust furnace in the basement, which heated the whole building.

“When it was very, very cold he would go down during the movie and check it.”

In her teens, Dowler worked at the theatre, first at the candy counter, which she hated because of the ever-lingering smell of popcorn, and later as an usher, which she enjoyed a little more.

“It was fun” she recalled. “You got to see the movies but you stood up for the whole thing though.”

But with the invention of 3D films, her job became a little more difficult – especially when a horror movie was showing.

“You’d be taking somebody down the aisle and you’d be watching with your flashlight to make sure you’re not falling, and then you turn around and there’s 3D needles coming at you. I remember ducking once.”

Dowler enjoyed working for her father, but she remembers him being “very strict.” It didn’t always take a lot to get kicked out of the theatre; gum wasn’t allowed, neither was putting feet up on the seats, and kids that tried to sneak in without paying were always “tossed out.”

But sometimes the problems her father had to deal with were a little stranger. Dowler remembers how a fellow named James Duncan, who she says was only a few years older than her, would bring a raw onion with him, and eat it during the film.

“It was just like an apple,” she said. “Dad didn’t think too much of it at first until people complained, so James couldn’t eat any more raw onions.”

Marilyn Dowler’s father, Alex Gough, built the Oliver Theatre in 1946. She remembers spending much of her childhood at the theatre. (Vanessa Broadbent photo)

Over the years, running a theatre became tiring and eventually Gough felt that it was time to sell the theatre.

“He wanted to retire,” Dowler said. “It gave them freedom. He was tied every night.”

So in 1964, another family took over the theatre: the Lesmeisters. Luke Lesmeister ran the theatre for 12 years until his son, David, took over in 1976. Now, 42 years later, David and his wife Christine are ready to pass it on, even more so Lyle and Kandise.

“We’re really happy,” Lesmeister said. “I think they’re going to be a really good fit for the theatre.”

The building had been on the market for months and Lesmeister was hoping it would go to someone that would go to someone equally passionate about preserving its history.

“That was a major concern but once we met them we instantly knew that they were the right people to buy it,” he said. “I have a feeling that any changes they do will be positive.”

Miller and Ife officially take over the theatre on April 26, but the Lesmeisters will stick around for a month to help them out.

Then, for the first time in over four decades, the Lesmeisters can enjoy having no obligations. So far, their only plans include “relaxing a little more” and “taking it easy.”

But for the new owners, the work is just starting. However, Miller and Ife plan to keep the theatre mostly the same, just with a bit of a “facelift.”

“We’ll make some adjustments but not many,” Miller said.

Those adjustments will include new paint, additional lighting and hopefully a bit of decorating. There might be more posters or old photographs highlighting the theatre’s history going up in the lobby at some point.

They want to preserve the theatre’s history rather than change or update it.

Miller said that when the Lesmeisters gave him a tour of the building he was shown a spot of graffiti on the wall upstairs that read “I worked here February 1948.”

“It’s something I’ve never seen,” he said. “There’s doodles and stuff on the wall up there from 40 years ago … I plan on lacquering it and keeping it the way it is because it’s just the neatest thing.”

It’s that history of the building that the new owners have noticed people love most about the theatre. It seems that everyone they talk to has a personal connection to it.

“The stories they have from the theatre is just amazing,” Ife said.

“If it’s not from when they first went there, it’s something about their kids or grandkids or that they worked there,” Miller added. “So many people know the background of that place, like how the stairs are creaky, but that’s the way the building is and we love it.”

Along with the nostalgia most locals feel for the theatre, Miller and Ife hope to continue its tradition as a family business.

It’s too early to say if their daughter will be the next owner, but it’s a thought.

“We’re going involve our daughter in some roles and hopefully one day she’ll want it,” Miller said. “We’ll see.”

VANESSA BROADBENT

Regional Reporter

(Photo submitted)

(Photo submitted)

(Photo submitted)

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