COLUMN: Restaurants come and go, but The Civic is forever

Brian May writes about the theatre’s longevity in a changing city

A few years back a former mayor greeted me on Baker Street and we chatted about this and that. As we did he mentioned stores from bygone eras that I wasn’t even aware of. He was being deliberately historical and sure enough, when he mentioned Macleods I perked up. Macleods was located where Pharmasave is now and it was like a London Drugs, just without the drugs. Anyway, what our ex-mayor revealed was that by mentioning old businesses he could gauge how long someone had lived here and that gave him perspective.

My own perspective is more limited. When we first moved from the Big City, we said “let’s try this for two years and if we don’t like it we’ll move to … Kelowna.” We never made it to Kelowna. At its essence Nelson hasn’t changed much but that’s an interesting perspective too. There weren’t as many restaurants but the ones that were here were real good. There weren’t as many people but it was still hard to find a parking spot. And arts, sports, politics, and community development were all pursued with passion. We loved it. We stayed.

Certain constants are woven through the fabric of this place but, as the ex-mayor pointed out, the landscape has gradually changed. Over my own decades here I’ve seen how both long-time residents and newcomers respect the authentic. We don’t tend to bulldoze and franchise. Instead we try to improve what we have to keep the scale of a liveable community.

When I moved here the biggest cultural development was the revitalization of the Capitol Theatre and the biggest cultural event was the premiere of Steve Martin’s Roxanne at The Civic Theatre. None of us can imagine Nelson without what that Capitol Theatre brings to us every year but the impact of that 1987 movie may be more subtle.

Our wee city was an actual character in that movie. It painted a picture of a stable, friendly, and energetic community that attracted people to move here for decades. It also gave me my first memory of The Civic. Somehow we got seats for the premiere but there were around 700 somewhat less comfortable seats back then. Sitting in the middle we sensed that the audience wasn’t really watching the movie. Instead we overheard everyone whispering “Ooo, look, the All Things Dead store. Ha!” or “Hey, I saw them film that scene!” We were immediately charmed.

Over the years, new restaurants came and went, the Co-op grew larger, and the railway station was renovated into the tourism centre, but the Civic Theatre was always there. At different times I waited with everyone else in town for Titanic to finally get on the screen, I mulled with friends in the lobby during the intermission of the epic Dances with Wolves and I saw umpteen kids movies, live concerts, magic shows, and every James Bond movie with every version of James. At the time, The Civic seemed like an old and classic theatre but it was just over 50 years old. Now it’s 82 and it’s still a physical and cultural cornerstone for the community.

Unlike many of the stores the ex-mayor was mentioning, The Civic isn’t going anywhere. Instead we’ll evolve. The same art deco building to meet friends at before a movie, same quirky lobby, but outfitted with state-of-the-art technology in three theatres to host diverse and innovative community programming and cinema. It will never be that big city multiplex because it will always have that history behind it and that unique Nelson area perspective guiding it forward.

This week the Civic Theatre Society board will do the same: gather to look at our history and then bring some of those perspectives to our plans to move forward. Then, over the next while, we’ll start to involve the community in helping us build on these values one piece at a time. And when we do we may be combing your memories for stories about The Civic. But until then, the Elton John bio Rocketman is playing this coming week and we’re going. So, we’ll see you at The Civic.

Brian May is on the Civic Theatre board. Large Popcorn, Extra Butter appears now and then.


The Nelson Daily News of June 22, 1987 recounted the premiere of Roxanne at the Civic Theatre. It’s one of Brian May’s earliest memories of the theatre and of Nelson.

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