The Geneva – A Work In Progress

By John Swartz

Stay with it to the end and find out how to win some cash.

As one drives by the old Geneva Theatre on West Street you may notice it looks different. Gone is the red brick which covered up the display cases for movie posters. A two story high window is back. The box office is too.

There is still some work to do, but the major part is done. Inside, well, inside is a mess. From floor to ceiling, front to back and side to side, everything that was done to it after the theater closed in 1982 has been ripped out.

Don Porter has big plans to restore the Art Deco features as close to original as he’s able to.

“The way this is going to look when we are done, it’s going to be a whole different feel. No more industrial feel. When people walk in here they go, “oh, I remember playing Bingo here,”  I’m never going to hear that again. Everything’s changing, it’s going to be a more intimate club and it’s going to be a better look,” he said.

The last event held at the Geneva Event Centre was March 7, 2020 when VK and the Legends of the Deep performed with headliners Reay. It was a great night with a full house and the inaugural fist public performance by Reay playing music from their excellent first recording Butterfly Tongue Revisited . The next time anyone will watch a performance is – we don’t know, and neither does Porter.

“I’m not in a hurry to open anymore. I was trying to open for February; I don’t think so. They are picking on bars and restaurants again and that’s not where the transmissions are coming from, but that’s familiar ground for them,” Porter said.

To be ready for February means someone is going to put in a lot of hours at a very steady pace to reinvent the place. Rather than chase a deadline, Porter’s read of the tea leaves means he can take some time and get the details right and there are a lot of details to attend to.

Renewal Details

Every light fixture was pulled out and is being replaced. Whether it’s for the stage, or just to see your way around.

New Art Deco Light Fixtures

“I won’t be using as much energy in this hall without the fluorescent lights, all the halogen pot lights are gone; it’s all LED, low voltage, dimmable,” he said.

Along the south wall he ripped out and replaced an air vent, raised it toward the ceiling, and will box it in, in a way a channel can be created for recessed lighting to create an effect on the wall, which he will duplicate on the other side as well.

“I’ve got color changing LEDs to go in this pocket so I can wash the walls with different colours,” he said. He’ll also stall sconces on both sides for accent lighting. The fluorescent lighting, which no one saw much of, except for playing Bingo, are gone and replaced with LED pot lights Porter can make it as bright as he needs, or just enough to let you find your seat without ruining the mood.

Stage lighting is being upgraded.

PAR Can Lamp

“I’m going to put some more PAR cans in the ceiling above the bands. It lights up the stage, lights up the people without me having these PAR cans in front of them lighting up the guy’s eyes so they can’t see. And then I want to have some lights across the front of the stage that shine up.” The latter is a concept which really is a throwback to the days of theater long before the Geneva first opened – footlights. Those disappeared from use in the mid-1800s. These days you can light every square inch of a stage – often with different colours, but in a club like the Geneva distance is a factor and to replicate the kinds of effects one could do in say, the Opera House, it’s like stepping in front of the sun for performers.

Speaking of colours, Porter was happy to show off one of his new toys.

“I got rid of the lighting controller I had and bought this one,” opening up a box to reveal what a first looked like a slightly larger than normal computer keyboard, except in place of keys are slide faders, pot faders and buttons.

Don Porter Showing Off His New Lighting controller

“I couldn’t fade a light and I couldn’t swing a light,” with the previous one he said. The old one was still pretty sophisticated. “With this I can do whatever I want, it’s more versatile than the other one. I can control my lights individually (instead of in banks). I can program as well. The audio (can be ported to it) for when you want the lights to go with the music, this will do it.”

The sound system has been dismantled too. The only piece of equipment being retained, the audio control board, is being relocated to the back of the room from the middle, but that’s not really as big a job as it used to be. The board is fairly new and uses computer cabling instead of the old style, bulky audio cabling.

“I watched Mike Brandon (who set up the previous audio system and usually ran the board), the thing is sitting there and he walks around with an iPad and he can control that mixer because it’s digital; because its controllable from a distance, it’s going to go here,” Porter said indicating the back corner.

The other major problem for a lot of old clubs is power on the stage. Having a tune die midway because – too many gadgets and not enough juice – won’t be an issue. Porter took advantage of changing air quality in the building and repurposed the wiring.

“What happened was, down in the basement, that air conditioning had 208 (volt), three phase running down to it. So a friend of mine is a electrician, he runs the maintenance crew down at the nuke plant at Pickering, he came over, untied the air conditioning, took the 208, three phase, turned into a 220, two phase to run the stage. I’ve got too much power there. It’s crazy. I’ve got separate circuits for every single plug on the stage. We did a proper job there,” Porter said.

These days, how could one not rip apart a building and not have in mind to upgrade the heating and water infrastructure to modern, energy efficient methods.

“We took out the 1939 air conditioning. It use to run on a heat exchanger that was water based. The pipe from the street comes like this (forms a circle with both hands). Back in the days when there was no water meters, it was great. Now you run a pipe like that from the street – I couldn’t imagine what it would cost to run it.”

Porter has also been renovating second floor apartments at the same time. He’s routing the building’s heating system, hot water radiators, to a heat exchanger on the return to heat the water going to the hot water heater for taps – thereby saving money heating water to shower with.

“We’re going to be changing the air handler as well because it’s undersized for this room. They used to have those two-stage things, there and there (pointing toward the north wall); remember them? they stick out of the wall? They’re gone because they really didn’t do anything,”

The bar is dismantled right now and will be reconfigured, re-wired and the back wall will be redone with mirrors in an Art Deco style. What most people didn’t see was the old ticket booth. It’s been restored, and it sounds like it was an expensive desire to renew the old glory and function of the Geneva.

“It cost me a good dollar to get this thing (the main water service entering the building) moved from there to there (a distance of about 3 feet) because when they went to the back flows after Walkerton everybody had to get this put in. I had to move from there to here because I wanted to use the box office again. I’ve already got a black granite counter top made, I have to put that in yet,” Porter said.

Most of the hallway behind the bar leading to the washrooms is untouched by the wrecking crew. It was the one area of the Geneva Porter had already restored to an Art Deco style when he first opened the club in 2016 and didn’t need renovating – well, except for part of the hall where the ticket booth is, that’s a mess.

A Work In Progress

“They put tiles on here (the wall), instead of fixing it properly. They had the tile on the floor and coming all the way up the wall. I knew there had to be a reason why there was tile there and I found out what it was,” Porter said. Ah, the good old days when repairs and alterations looked good with cheap materials like wood paneling and tiles, but no one ever thought of how it fit with what surrounded them. If there is one thing no one misses, it’s the aesthetics of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Back to the beginning, the exterior. You may have noticed the marquee. Maybe not, unless you passed by the day it was replaced last summer you might not it realize it’s new.

“I just had to spend $15,000 on engineering and bracketry to make that thing hang out front.,” Porter said. “Because it hangs over top of City property, you wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to get it. They didn’t make me, it was existing, but once I took down the other one, it was going to fall down. I didn’t know until I took it down how really rusty the old one was.”

So the support is new and it’s faced and ready for installation of a new sign.

“The marquee I put up there is a lot shorter, almost a foot shorter. It’s a high definition, fully programmable LED marquee.”

Some Back Story

The Geneva Theatre opened in October 1939. It was one of three movie houses Orillia had. The other was the Opera House, which ceased running movies in 1958 – but with digital technology can do so once again; and the Princess Theatre which used to be where O C Emporium Inc. is located now – it closed in 1942. Between 1958 and 1979 Orillia had only one movie house until Cinema Three opened.

On opening day in October 1939 the premiere movie was $1000 A Touchdown starring Joe E. Brown and Martha Raye. It ran for only one day and was followed by the entirely forgettable, The Under Pup  (which had absolutely nothing to do with puppies). Movies had short two or three day runs back then, so the studios were pumping out lots of forgettable movies with many forgettable actors in them. The second movie at the Geneva did have one notable star, Robert Cummings. He would go on to do The Devil and Miss Jones, Dial M for Murder and was Juror #8 in the original TV production of Twelve Angry Men – a role which Henry Fonda would later play in the movie.

Cummings has some interesting trivia attached to his name. He was taught to fly by his godfather, Orville Wright, and when the U.S. started licensing flight instructors he had certificate #1. During WW2 he became a flight instructor for the U.S., Air Force.

By 1982 Famous Players owned the Geneva and the Orillia Drive-In and put both up for sale asking $600,000 as a package.

It was reopened in the 2000s when a number of charities, lead by the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 34, took over to operate a bingo hall. That lasted several years, but was closed again for a time until Porter reopened it. The first event was an Orillia Youth Centre talent night on May 7, 2016.

While the Geneva has been closed it did get some use. Last summer, some of the movie Boy City was shot there. They created five sets using the stage, the bar, a bathroom and along one wall for a table scene. They also used the marquee in the movie.

“They brought a crew in, they cleaned the stage, lit the stage and did the entry scene. When you see them having the conversation in the bathroom, you’ll know right away it’s our bathroom because the bathrooms are stunning,” said Porter, who then set about restoring the mess he had created.

“They want to open it here,” he said. “I’ve got a 13 foot wide, 9 foot tall, high definition screen – and a high definition projector.”

The Grand Vision

So what’s it all for? Spending the money to restore. Does Porter envision it being the concert hall it was under his ownership? Or something else?

“We’re going to still do music. I built this place to do music, but it turns out music doesn’t pay,” Porter said. Right now he only plans to have bands performing one night a week. He’ll charge bands a nominal fee to cover operating expenses, rather than pay bands to come and play. In effect, the bands become the producers, rather than the Geneva.

“They get the door. If they can promote themselves properly, if they can do it they can actually make money. Nobody is in this for a charity.”

The problem was, despite bringing in some great bands from out of town, only a few of them sold enough tickets to cover the fees Porter paid. The ones he could count on turned out to be locals like Dr. Krane, the Polyester Slackers and Bleeker.

“They pull because of their attachments to the community,” Porter said. “It’s one of those things. It’s always a gamble, but I tell you, I sell Yuk Yuks and I sell 250 seats.”

And that, people, is where he’s headed. He’s going to open as a Yuk Yuks club and as a dinner theater club.

“I always got good reviews. When the comments go back to Yuk Yuks, they review me. What matters is what they think of where they play. I got really good reviews, so I got A list comics.”

“Laugh Out Loud (Yuk Yuks parent company) owns Mysteriously Yours Dinner Theater, which is a comedy/mystery/diner theater. Every week there’s going to be a dinner theater and a Yuk Yuks, one night after the other.”

That will cover three weeks of the month.

“One week a month I get for doing burlesque or maybe somebody like if Anvil wants to come in again, bigger bands, who want to come in and run a proper show,” Porter said.

The Toronto School of Burlesque travelling road show always had a good crowd (sold out each performance), as did the Old Dance Hall Players for their improv nights. Porter is talking with the people at Toronto’s Rockpile about creating a second venue/night for some of the bands they book. But it has to work with the size of club he’s creating.

“I do not want to try and compete with the Opera House and I certainly don’t want to compete with St. Paul’s,” Porter said.

What’s In A Name?

The process of creating a place for people to follow along with the renovation gave Porter an idea how to fill a gap in the idea department.

“The Geneva Theater page that I created on Facebook for people who follow these old theaters; in there I keep all my renovation pictures, and I keep stuff that pertains to it, the stuff I’ve found around the place, old tickets.”

“On that page, you’ll find the old newspaper clippings. Back in the day, they offered a $50 prize to name the theater. That’s a lot of money (in 1939). I was thinking maybe I should put it out to the people and see what they want to call this place.”

To that end he’s offering $250 to the person who comes up with a name for the club. Send your ideas to SUNonline/Orillia at with the subject header My Name Idea.

“You can’t really change the name of the building, it’s got the name in neon, but the bar that’s in the Geneva could have a different name. I don’t have to be Geneva this, or Geneva that, I could be whatever I want in the old Geneva Theatre.”

He’d like something reflective of some aspect of Orillia’s history, maybe as it relates to entertainment and entertaining, and also fits the Art Deco period and comedy club/dinner theater plan.

(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia and Images Supplied)


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