Uptown, downtown

By Stephanie Foster

"My tarot card reader told me this was the move," says Pete Harris about his most recent career change.

Over the past five years Harris managed The Globe Cinema, The Plaza Theatre and now manages The Uptown Stage and Screen. After two years of renovations, the Uptown is finally re-opening on Aug. 18. Through a love of independent film and what he calls "pure luck," Harris has become a vital figure on the Calgary independent theatre scene. Despite his travels, Harris isn’t as restless as he may seem.

"This is the last move," he says. "I feel confident I’m going to be at the Uptown for the rest of my career."

Harris may plan to stay still, but moving forward is a priority for the Uptown. While a less dynamic manager might rest on the laurels of nostalgia, Harris and his team are brimming with ideas for the grand old place. Built in 1951 by Calgary oil tycoon Jacob Barron, the Uptown may be the best example of Art Deco design in town. The impressive building boasts a 474-seat main theatre, as well as a 354-seat upper theatre/stage, which can accommodate film screenings and live performances.

To enter the Uptown is to be transported to another era. Harris speaks of a day when audiences would smoke in their seats during a movie (quel horreur!). Although Harris refers to the Uptown’s history with great affection, he is just as eager to discuss the Dolby Stereo Surround Sound, the diner they plan to build off the lobby and a whole host of other ideas.

"We’re going to showcase first-run art house film downstairs," says Harris. "Upstairs, we can run film and then augment that with bookings for other forms of entertainment."

This includes the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writer "Screenwriter Series" (Sept. 26-Oct.1) and the ninth annual $100 Film Festival (Nov. 16-19). The Uptown also features various forms of live entertainment.

"We also plan to show short Canadian films before every feature because it works within the format of art house better than anywhere else," says Harris.

As he did at the Plaza, Harris plans to feature revival film screenings. And in true family spirit, he loves the idea of showing The Godfather on Thanksgiving. He also plans to capitalize on the cult appeal of films like Fight Club and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Harris’ familiarity with the local film scene makes him eager to take chances, but he admits film programming is a gamble.

"If you get a film that ends up scoring good box office, you get that rush," says Harris. "If you don’t, then you learn from it."

Harris is also excited about the burgeoning Calgary film scene and expects that with the Uptown reopening and Calgary International Film Festival in September local film buffs will finally be able to see more interesting, less mainstream films. While art house fare is what the Uptown will show, there is no sense of righteousness in regard to the programming at the multiplexes.

"We’re not saying our films are better, but they are different. Maybe a bit more challenging to watch."

Harris hopes people will make an evening of the Uptown, seeing a film and then going next door to the Venus Café to chat. Harris believes this kind of relaxed atmosphere is what keeps art house theatres going strong.

"The reason movie houses haven’t died, despite video, cable, et cetera, is because it really is a social experience," he says.

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