Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/9/2015 (2465 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
hen the long-vacant Park Theatre on Osborne Street reopened in 2005 with Erick Casselman at the helm, it was a DVD-rental and coffee shop with, as he puts it, a "soda-pop feel." It was a warm, inviting space at the time, to be sure — but it felt a little confused about what it wanted to be. Mostly because, at 6,000 square feet, it had the potential to be anything.
Ten years and a couple of business plans later, and the Park Theatre has found its place in the city. It’s now among Winnipeg’s busiest venues, hosting nearly 300 entertainment events a year. It’s a pre-eminent music venue that supports touring and local bands from across genres; in 2014, it won a Western Canadian Music Award for Venue of the Year.
On the eve of the Park Theatre’s 10th anniversary weekend — which will be feted with four nights of music — Casselman is thrilled his venue has not only been able to survive, but thrive.
"It feels great. It’s a win, right? We were told we wouldn’t last a year when we first opened. So to get to that first five-year milestone and now 10, it’s great. It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s become a go-to place for Winnipeg — at least, I like to think so."
The Park’s popularity can be credited to Casselman and his team, which includes head technician Matthew Mayor, marketing and talent buyer Kevin Mozdzen and front-of-house manager Courtney Kernested. They work tirelessly to ensure they are doing everything they can to make the venue the best it can be. They collaborate with artists, and they take feedback seriously.
It’s important and often thankless work. Venues such as the Park Theatre are the cornerstone of a vibrant, sustainable local music scene. They are so much more than just rooms. These are the places where we discover our new favourite bands, where we bond over the shared experience of live music. These are our hangouts, our clubhouses. From First Avenue in Minneapolis to the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, these spaces are where music happens. Without them, there’s no scene.
The Park Theatre’s evolution from coffee shop/DVD rental/occasional event space to full-fledged venue came at a crucial time. In 2007, the 200-seat Collective Cabaret in Osborne Village became an American Apparel. The Royal Albert Arms Hotel — Winnipeg’s most legendary punk rock venue — began its slow, painful death. And when the West End Cultural Centre underwent its major reconstruction in 2008, both the Park Theatre and the Lo Pub — which shuttered in 2012 — picked up the slack.
Casselman, who won a WCMA for talent buyer of the year in 2012, never envisioned himself running a music venue. "I knew nothing about music," he admits. "I wasn’t in the music scene. It was a complete left turn for me."
Call it a baptism by fire. It wasn’t long before the venue’s tiny thrust stage — outfitted, adorably, with work lights from Home Depot — had to be replaced by a proper stage as well as lighting and sound system. A dedicated tech in Mayor, who became a full-time employee of the venue two years ago thanks to the steadiness of the business, is also a boon to the Park. "It’s not super-common to have a full-time tech unless you’re at Manitoba Theatre Centre or the concert hall," Mayor says.
In 2013, the Park’s esthetic was finally updated to reflect the direction in which it had moved. The interior is now more lounge-like and contemporary, done up in golds and greys. The static seating — left over from its past life as a movie theatre — was ripped out in favour of a few sleek booths. The Park’s capacity is now 340 people for a standing show, 250 for a sit-down, with better adaptability.
Music, after all, isn’t the Park’s only bread and butter. Comedy shows have also become a big part of the venue’s programming, thanks in large part to Mozdzen.
Casselman hasn’t just watched the Park Theatre become what it is today. It’s the product of sweat and sacrifice. When he and his ex-wife, Melanie, bought the building in January 2005, he naively thought he’d be open for business in May of that year but had to redo everything — the roof, the electrical, the plumbing. He had to start from scratch with a 6,000-square-foot frame.
What he’s done with that blank canvas is no small thing.
"I put my life into this place," he says. "And I’m happy I did. To think where it’s come in 10 years, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, next to my son."