Kensington’s historic Plaza Theatre set to make a new mark on the community

This legendary theatre has a new operator who has given the building a refresh, while keeping the essence of this historical space very much alive, as they introduce a new movie theatre concept to Calgary.

By Krista Sylvester | September 20, 2021 |5:58 am

Kensington’s historic Plaza Theatre has a new operator, Fatima Allie Dobrowolski, who plans to create a community hub while blending the past with the future.

Photo: Right submitted, Left Shutterstock

It’s time to try something fresh. 

Blending a rich historic past with an innovative future is the goal for Fatima Allie Dobrowolski, the new operator taking over the iconic Plaza Theatre in Kensington after it shuttered earlier during the pandemic. 

The 86-year-old theatre is loaded with history, memories, and special moments and Dobrowolski is excited at the chance to capture some of that magic with a fresh twist of new ideas. 

Dobrowolski, originally from London, never thought she would end up in Calgary, but when she met her Calgarian husband in Sierra Leone, all of that changed. Now she resides in Kensington with her husband and two kids — only a few blocks away from the Plaza Theatre. She told us that they chose this neighbourhood because she was immediately drawn to the connectivity of the community. 

“When I would walk along in Kensington, I always thought (the Plaza) was really interesting. It has a lot of character.” 

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Using her background in music and film, blending it with her business pedigree and love for the cinema, Dobrowolski hopes to bring guests an experience they won’t forget. 

Remembering the past

Not many Calgarians may realize that the Plaza Theatre dates all the way back to 1928! It was then that it opened as an auto garage, before trading dirty tools and grease stains for popcorn and film reels in 1935. 

“It was the third neighbourhood theatre after the “Crescent Theatre” and the “Isis Theatre,” and it was the only theatre located in the Kensington area,” says Heritage Calgary executive director Josh Traptow. 

“It counts as the longest-standing, longest-serving theatre. It’s a landmark in the Kensington community and it’s been a go-to movie theatre for Calgarians over the last many years.” 

The Crescent Theatre, which was demolished over sixty years ago, was located along Centre Street near 16th Ave. NE. That theatre was built in 1913, but by the late ’50s, the theatre was converted into a liquor store. 

The Isis Theatre was located at 1st St. and 11th Ave SW, though it stopped operating as a movie house by the ’60s. 

Traptow points to the theatre’s historic characteristics that make it so unique. 

“I think as soon as you said Plaza Theatre, people automatically thought about Kensington,” he says. 

“Even its architectural design with the Art Deco style, mixed with some Spanish Colonial Revival influences just made it unique, not only in its architectural style but also in being such a landmark of the community of Kensington.”

Checking in with the present 

Most recently, the Plaza was operating as a movie theatre, but the pandemic wreaked havoc on the independent theatre, causing owner Mike Brar and his family to have to close its doors last August. 

The notorious indie theatre was known for hosting various festivals, including The Calgary Underground Film Festival, Fairy Tales and more. It was also a popular spot to dress up and watch the cult classic ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ 

The owners hoped that someone would take the theatre’s lease over and keep it as a movie theatre loaded with history, character, and potential. 

Traptow is thrilled the space will remain a theatre. 

“I think it’s great to see that it will continue as an independent movie theatre with a new lease on life and will hopefully be there for many years to come.” 

Luckily, the stars aligned for Dobrowolski, who has a vision and is reimagining the space as a community hub. The theatre is currently undergoing renovations to open later this month or early October. 

A future full of potential 

Dobrowolski has big plans for the space, and it involves merging the best of the past with some innovations for the future. 

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m from the UK, but you rarely knock things down in the UK… so you’re always renovating,” she says, adding she will keep the unique aspects that make the theatre iconic while updating the things that need the most attention. 

Her vision is for the theatre to become a community hub, a space where people can connect and meet for coffee or do some work while waiting for a film. What once housed a concession, will soon be home to a cafe-style setting. 

There will be a food truck out front of the theatre year-round, with a variety of pop-up chefs serving different foods throughout the year. Gone are the days you can’t bring your own food and drinks into the theatre; with the food truck out front, the movie experience will include so much more. 

“We want it to have that community feeling. What we’re doing is kind of new for Calgary, but it does exist in other places — and it’s been successful,” she explains, adding the theatre will be open all day so people can just stop in and work, have coffee or meet with friends. 

“You don’t have to just be seeing a film. You can show up, have some food, coffee or maybe a happy hour drink, and just hang out. We’re really excited.” 

The theatre is finishing up its renovations before its set to open its doors to the community. 

Dobrowolski says there will be more renovations in the future, but the essence of the building will be captured and saved. 

Traptow commends Dobrowolski for keeping the quintessential spirit of the theatre alive. 

“This is an excellent example of adaptive reuse of a heritage building continuing to adapt and evolve based on the needs of the owner and the community,” he says, adding it’s great to see the theatre move forward while maintaining its historical elements.

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Krista Sylvester

Reporter at Calgary Citizen

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