WASAGAMING -- The exterior isn't much.
The Park Theatre is a log building, but the exterior is coated with a thick, chocolate-brown stain, more like a paint. It provides protection from the elements but mutes the magnificence of what's inside.
What's inside is all massive, gleaming, clear-varnished log work. It's like stepping into the old Minaki Lodge. Every slice made by drawknives to remove the rough fir bark seems more like a brush stroke. It's as spacious as an indoor pool, with its high-vaulted cathedral ceiling. Scandinavian log rollers were brought in to perform the exquisite hand-hewn log work. The theatre was built in 1936-37.
"We have people come in and say they don't even need to see a show. They just want to sit and look at the beautiful building," said Bev Gowler, who has owned the theatre along with husband Jim since 1976.
Many rural theatres face an uncertain future, with movie studios getting out of film and going completely digital by 2013. (Some industry people say this is not entirely accurate -- you might still be able to get film, but it will be cost-prohibitive.) Many small theatres can't justify the $60,000-$80,000 cost of converting to digital equipment.
Will Riding Mountain National Park's famous log theatre follow many rural theatres and close by year's end?
The Gowlers gave their answer June 22 when they premièred their brand-new $80,000 Barco digital projector with Dolby Surround Sound. Go big or go home. The Park Theatre opened its summer season with the double bill, Madagascar 3 and The Hunger Games.
"Congratulations!" one woman said to Jim in the lobby, eyeing him up as if he'd grown a foot since she last saw him.
Excitement was in the air at the première. One little girl ran in ahead of her parents and started to clap, not at the digital projector or stately log edifice, but at the giant popcorn popper. That popper, Jim explained, cost $10,000 but has paid for itself many times over.
Closing wasn't an option, said Bev. "There was no decision. It was either go digital or close."
The cost won't be paid off in the couple's lifetime, but they hope their family keeps the theatre going. The couple also owns the Spinning Wheel Gift Shop in the north annex. Son Trevor owns the TR McKoys (short for The Real McKoys) restaurant in the south annex.
"In order to pay for the building, we needed income from both sides," Bev said.
Another son, Scott, manages Aspen Ridge Cabins and its 27 rental units.
"It takes a family," Bev said. "They've all been brought up in this theatre."
Everyone pitches in at some time. Granddaughter Lauren has been running the projector since she was 13. She's 17 now, ran the new digital projector on opening night and will run it most nights this summer. She also helps out at the concession stand.
Jim is originally from Boissevain. As a kid, he spent every summer at Clear Lake, staying with his grandparents. When he turned 18, his parents bought a cottage at Killarney Lake, but it was too late. His heart was in Riding Mountain park. That's how he and Bev came to buy the Spinning Wheel Gift Shop. His primary income is from his sales company, Gowler Agencies.
The Park Theatre runs two shows a night and averages about 300 patrons a night. Some nights, the theatre is full. A lot depends on the weather.
Another thing about the Park Theatre is its size. It's cavernous. You wouldn't believe it from its storefront. It has 490 seats, the largest log theatre in North America. The upholstery was replaced in the 1950s with thick, sofa-like cushions. The original lights are styled as old-fashioned kerosene lanterns fixed to the walls with cast-iron mountings.
Considering its age, you might think there are constant repairs, but not so. "We stain the outside about every two years. Inside, we barely touch it at all," Jim said.
And the show always goes on, even in a power outage, the Gowlers said.