A Look at the Oliver Theatre Photo-story

Using still images, local music and the voices of the Oliver Theatre's owners Dave and Christine, the Projection Project presents this short look at the tenacity of a vintage small-town cinema.

Decades of entertainment: how a small-town cinema in southern British Columbia has kept its doors open since 1947
In May 2016, my husband Curtis Emde and I spent two sunny days in Oliver, a small town in the southern Okanagan. We were there to meet Dave and Christine Lesmeister, the owners of the charming local cinema, The Oliver Theatre.
It seemed like the whole town had laid out the red carpet for the three of us (we'd brought our four-month-old son on his first road trip) before we even arrived: the Lesmeisters had put us in touch with Rhoda Brookes of the Oliver Tourist Association, who in turn found us complimentary accommodation in a beautiful 40-foot motorhome courtesy of Sven's Trailer Rentals. The company's namesake himself delivered the RV to our site and greeted us in person (the site had been donated to us by the river-side Centennial RV Park, which is just down the hill from the theatre). After Sven had driven off, we discovered he'd left a bottle of locally-made Jackson-Triggs Merlot on the kitchen table for us.
Next, we stopped by the Oliver Archives and talked to Collections Manager Julianna Weisgarber. She brought out vintage materials on the Oliver, as well as the requisite white gloves to handle the nearly sixty-year old original photographs of the cinema. She also dug up articles on Alex and Dolly Gough, the founders of the theatre (David Lesmeister’s parents bought the Oliver from the Goughs in the sixties. Just over a decade later, Mr Lesmeister Sr sold the business to his son and his wife Christine. See projectionproject.com for more information on this history). Like everyone we met in Oliver, Julianna was cheerful and supportive of our project.
Soon it was time to swing by the Oliver itself and meet the Lesmeisters face-to-face. We found them to be modest, soft-spoken and kind. Christine had invited a young local musician named Trevor Allen to join us. At the front of the auditorium, Trevor took out his acoustic guitar and tuned up. He then, almost shyly, told Curtis he'd come up with a couple of original pieces that he hoped would be suitable for our project. With Curtis holding a microphone towards him while Christine sat in one of the front rows listening with her eyes closed, Trevor played both pieces beautifully; the wonderful acoustics of the big room sending the music soaring. One take each. Just like that, we had our soundtrack.
We were producing a short-form slideshow profile of the theatre, but we were also shooting a sequence at the Oliver to include in our full-length documentary Out of the Interior: Survival of the Small Town Cinema in British Columbia. This required me filming Curtis wandering around the projection booth (and even scrawling a cartoon on the wall and signing it! This seeming act of vandalism was, however, encouraged by the Dave & Christine: it's been a visitor tradition for decades). We were at a bit of a loss because we had an infant with us. Dave kindly agreed to hold the little one while we ducked upstairs to get our shots.
We didn't hear any crying, so we pushed our luck a bit with the time, filming as many details of the projection booth as we could. When we finally did come downstairs, Dave cheerfully walked towards us from the auditorium, carrying a smiling baby. Everything seemed ok. Then I noticed that his shirt was almost completely soaked. Our son had spat up all over his erstwhile babysitter (and looked a little sheepish about it, too). We apologized profusely. Dave just smiled and said, "…don’t worry. I have grandchildren. I'm pretty used to this." Besides, he went on to say, he lived just a couple of blocks away. Running home to get changed and back in time for that night's movie would be no trouble whatsoever.
We didn't stay for that movie. We had a 40-foot trailer to enjoy, after all. And after a busy day photographing, we just wanted to sit outside with our child and enjoy the warm, early evening spring sunshine. Dave and Christine did insist, however, that we take a box of popcorn with us. Complimentary, of course. It was delicious, and went surprisingly well with the Merlot.
The next morning, as we were heading north on Highway 97 towards Penticton for the next round of interviews for the documentary, we allowed ourselves the satisfaction of knowing we had a cool little slideshow featurette in the can. But, more importantly, we also had the satisfaction of knowing we’d discovered a place we knew we would return to.

By Silmara Emde

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