Armond Theatre renovations marching along
Ferdy Belland and friends continue labour of love on beloved landmark building in downtown Cranbrook
“I feel like I’ve won the lottery, really,” explained Cranbrook arts-impresario Ferdy Belland about the ongoing Armond Theatre renovations underway by he and his partners Spencer Kerr and Casey Wright.
“This is the third partnership I’ve been involved with over the past decade that’s attempted to move forward with the Armond Theatre, but due to various reasons the previous attempts didn’t work. For the last half of the 2010s I’d be walking along 10th Avenue, moping sadly every time I went by the poor old grey Armond building and say, ‘okay, this is our version of the Temple of Karnak. This isn’t even a museum piece. So sad to see the grand old theatre, which has so much sentimental value for at least three generations of Cranbrookers, sitting there helplessly.”
Built in 1952 on the site of the old pre-war Cranbrook Auditorium (a famed Vaudeville venue), the Armond Theatre was Cranbrook’s main cinema (and one of the prime nightlife features of the downtown core) until 2000, when parent-company Landmark Cinemas opened the multi-auditorium Columbia Theatre cineplex in the Tamarack Centre. The Armond was closed as an unviable relic of a bygone era and remained empty, dark, and silent for the next two decades. And then serendipity arrives in November 2019.
“Spencer and Casey (owners of Casey’s Flashing and Roofing) called me up out of nowhere, without warning. They had the resources to invest in a new business, and they believed the Armond Theatre – of all things – would be a good project. And they chose me because I was the knob who kept babbling to them ad-nauseum about the cultural and artistic potential of the Armond Theatre being reborn in such a way,” Belland said. “So whaddaya know? Now I had to finally put my money where my mouth is. Gratitude? That doesn’t even begin to explain it. I am in awe, and I am in their debt – in soul, if not exactly in pocket. After long years of wishing and dreaming, it’s finally happening. Spencer and Casey are good men, and good friends – and I couldn’t ask for better partners. This would not have happened without them. Everyone needs to know that, and respect them for it.”
Along with having abundant zest to preserve a treasured city icon, Belland also brings three decades-plus of diverse international experience in the music industry as a performing musician, concert promoter, arts journalist, and broadcaster / podcaster, among other polymath talents, as well as his in-depth carpentry and construction background. He well understands Cranbrook’s need for a mid-sized entertainment venue, as a business owner and musician – and just as a citizen of Cranbrook itself.
“Everyone’s ecstatic about it. And I mean everyone. It’s not just me. Far from it. Once we knew we were green-lighting ourselves to go ahead, the first person we informed was my good friend Galen Olstead, the general manager of Key City Theatre – and someone involved directly in earlier Armond partnership attempts. It’s absolutely important for the Armond to nurture a symbiotic relationship with our fellow Cranbrook venues, those smaller than us and those larger than us,” he said, adding that while a certain duplication of services can’t be avoided, each venue handles different-sized audiences, and different types of events fit better into certain styles of facilities.
“Galen was ecstatic. He was thrilled to see our idea finally taking concrete shape. He understands the socio-economic benefits – downtown revitalization and beautification, the tourism economy upsurge and the boost for the local arts and culture scene. He’s been a strong mentor and ally.”
The new Armond won’t just feature live music but also live theatre, comedy, dance recitals, spoken word events, academic lectures, public-school events, corporate conferences, national conventions, weddings – you name it.
“It’s like a Swiss Army knife with 80 blades,” said Belland. “All my colleagues in the cross-Canada performing-arts worlds are delighted. There is a dearth of venues around town for audiences between 100-400 people. Cabaret-style bars with dedicated stages used to be commonplace and are almost non-existent now. It’s all hit and miss. A lot of touring acts always end up gigging in Fernie or Nelson, smaller towns which have better artistic infrastructure, so this fills a local gap.”
Belland and his partners will be echoing (but not copying) the old-school Art Deco aesthetics of what the Armond looked like way back when in the 1950s, but the end results will be an attractive, enticing atmosphere all its own for the 21st Century.
“We’re not going to build some boring drywalled cube and call it done,” said Belland. “We want the new Armond to look like it’s been around for a lot longer than the 2020s. The balcony-mezzanine is now reopened to main lower-floor amphitheatre, so it’ll be one long, vast space as it once was, before the theatre was twinned. The main floor will be an open hardwood dancefloor, since there’s not too many places around where 300 people can shake their booties and boogie down, but when certain events call for seating, we’ll bring in elegant lounge-tables which can be stored offsite when unneeded. This will allow the Armond the flexibility to host a wide variety of events. The upstairs mezzanine will have a dedicated saloon bar and fixed seating. We’re exploring opera-box seating and balcony extensions that overlook the stage and lower dance floor, and hopefully the architects and engineers will tell us that our dreams can truly be built to code!”
A lively performing-arts facility also serves as an additional lure to the downtown, Belland said.
“It’ll be a big punch in the arm that Cranbrook’s nightlife really needs. There’ll be a big boost to neighbouring licenced establishments and restaurants. And the overall increase in walk-through traffic through the retail sectors in the downtown core will be more than good.”
As the new Armond Theatre will be a licensed venue (“We need to keep the theatre civilized!” quipped Belland, with a humorous wink), he looks forward to partnerships with local businesses such as Fisher Peak Brewing for beverages and The Heid Out & Fisher Peak Brewing Company for catering.
“We don’t have room to build a dedicated commercial kitchen within the theatre,” Belland explained, “so when we need catering for certain events, we’ll leave it to the professionals like Heidi Romich who know what they’re doing. I mean, I can’t even spell ‘vichyssoise,’ let alone cook the stuff. When we describe the Armond as a community venue, we’re doing our best to be sincere about it, and part of that sincerity is maintaining a hands-across-the-water attitude when working with fellow businesses. And if we have a thriving local brewery just a block away from us, why wouldn’t we feature their beer on tap?”
Another benefit to the city business scene from the Armond rebirth is the enticing establishment of a mid-sized convention centre which could partner with established meeting rooms / facilities across the city and form, in Belland’s words: “a cluster-destination of cool, funky, attractive venues that are within walking distance of each other, where one could host all types of afternoon and evening programming and entertainment – combining the RecPlex, the Key City, the Studio, the HeidOut, the Fire Hall, and others. A Mining symposium? Sure! A Sci-Fi / Comic Convention? You betcha. An ‘ithra’ festival of the Society for Creative Anachronisms? Hey, tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1399! That’s an exciting avenue we’ll be exploring once we get closer to opening day.”
One of Belland’s many notable achievements is manning the bassist’s position in the band of Bif Naked, the internationally renowned Juno Award-winning platinum-selling pop-punk celebrity icon who’s been Canada’s Sweetheart since the mid-1990s.
Bif, who recruited Belland into her band out of nowhere (a story unto itself) recently shared her enthusiasm for the rebirth of Cranbrook’s artistic soul on her global Twitter feed: “So utterly stoked for Our Ferdy Belland, whom has the lovely role of being The King of Cranbrook / Managing Director of the Armond Theatre! Can’t wait to see it rise like the true Phoenix it is! Go Ferdy!”
When asked to comment on Bif’s statement, Belland said: “Bif’s awesome. She’s way too kind, really. ‘King of Cranbrook?’ Hardly! More like ‘Court Jester of Cranbrook.’ Maybe ‘Assistant Janitor of Cranbrook?‘”
All kidding aside, saving one of the last remaining landmark structures in Cranbrook’s downtown core is close to Belland’s heart.
“There was far too much short-sighted, unfettered developmental action in Cranbrook a half-century ago,” he said. “I’m well-aware that commerce makes the world go round, not unworkable hippie-dippy idealism, but there are kinder methods to achieve money and success than just uglifying the town for future generations. All those long-ago wrecking balls and bulldozers not only scarred up the overall aesthetics of the downtown core – which was downright gorgeous, up until the end of the 1960s – it scarred up the community psychology as well. That’s not exaggeration. Through the rest of the 1970s and all through the 1980s there was a very real, grim tension that coloured the daily emotions of too many Cranbrookers, and too many young kids in the post-bulldozer era grew up angry and resentful at this horrid Soviet town they were unlucky enough to be born and raised in.
“It wasn’t just me who felt that or who was on the receiving end of the ugliness. More than ever before, most young Cranbrookers couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here after high school – and never return. Violence grew in the bars, the schools, and in the homes. Petty crime and serious crime spiked. Hard drug use exploded. Arts and culture, which were a huge component of everyday Cranbrook life in the pre-bulldozer era – theatre, jazz, so much more than most modern Cranbrookers might realize – were now, after the demolition dust settled, mostly ignored and shunned. It’s not easy to build glowing civic pride when there’s nothing pretty to put on the picture-postcards anymore. It’s not as if anyone was going to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over dynamic panoramic photos of the Highway Strip, or the Tamarack Mall – which is where civic investment turned to once the downtown was gutted. Luckily for the surrounding view, it’s not cost-efficient to bulldoze Fisher Peak. And you wonder why the entire province calls us ‘Dinktown?'”
Having said all that, Belland and his partners are optimistic for the future of Cranbrook, which they believe will be a bright one, fuelled by other enthusiastic, imaginative entrepreneurs, and their relationship with civic government is strong.
“It’s no good and it’s downright stupid to yell at whoever’s on city council or the city planning department these days about the unsatisfactory downtown shape we’re left in. That past destruction is not their fault. They feel the way we do, and they’re sincere about the concept of downtown revitalization. You cannot blame the living for the mistakes – or the crimes – of the dead. But it’s hard to build a house when you’ve been given nothing but charred lumber to use, and my heart goes out to the current civic powers-that-be. There’s not much left to work with, but the determination is there, and we now have these islands of vibrance popping up across the downtown core, and the best is yet to come. Cranbrook is a post-industrial town, just like any town its size across Canada in the 21st Century. And we’re trying to convince more doctors to move to town, right? As such, all these new, bright, colourful, culture-focused socioeconomic ideas need to be explored and embraced. Otherwise, we all might as well move to Vanderhoof.
“Look at all these smaller communities surrounding us that are on fire with bustling cultural vitality – Fernie, Kimberley, Golden, even Creston – all of whom are vastly outclassing Cranbrook in terms of downtown vibrancy and civic culture…but we’re called the ‘Key City of the Kootenays.’ Are we really? Why? Because we have the finest selection of fast-food restaurants and motels in southeastern British Columbia, surrounded by some distant pretty mountains? We need to live up to that ‘Key City’ title. And we’re not just whistling Dixie here. It’s not just us, with the Armond project, who believes this. Look at what Heidi Romich has done with her restaurant and brewpub – the first successful step in what I call the ‘New Cranbrook.’ Look at what Jesse Roberts and Fred Williams have done with the Fire Hall Kitchen and Tap – an empty, derelict building transformed into one of the coolest joints in town. Look at what Danielle Eaton’s doing with taking over the reins at Soulfood in the old Mount Baker Hotel – a hip, holistic eatery in a beautiful old brick building. Who doesn’t like that? Who knows what other people are planning? The entire Cranbrook community – all of us – needs to be vocal and passionate about preserving whatever legacy infrastructure that remains, however we can. Onwards and upwards. We have nowhere else to go,” Belland outlined.
“And I do believe the tide is truly turning, and a lot of it has to do with provincial and national socioeconomics; not just what’s happening inside corporate city limits. The town’s population has been growing dramatically over the last few years, and even the pandemic situation isn’t slowing it down much. For pretty much 40 years straight, 1975 through 2015, the town hovered around 20,000 people without a lot of significant rise or fall. And now that city life is unaffordable for so many, you have this sudden floodgate burst of emigration into the East Kootenay region – which is the last desirable region in the B.C. Interior that hasn’t been played out, the way the Okanagan and the West Kootenay have become. You’re seeing it in Fernie. You’re seeing it in Golden. You’re seeing it in Kimberley. Those towns are more attractive to most incoming new residents, for various reasons, but Cranbrook is now feeling the ripple effect. But when people finally drop anchor in Cranbrook, they’ve got to find something to do besides mope through the aisles at the Wal-Mart. Where are they going to go for hip entertainment? What’s there? Anything?”
Belland details the initial long, in-depth discussions he had at the start with Kerr and Wright before they shook hands on the deal and went to work at the Armond.
“We were sick and tired of watching the Armond Theatre rot for 20 years straight. There were three generations of Cranbrookers who held vivid, strong memories of attending shows at the Armond, back when there’d be a lineup all the way back to Rotary Park, trying to score tickets to The Empire Strikes Back or whatever, and those people all remember how the Armond was one of the central focus-points of downtown nightlife. Grab dinner at a downtown restaurant before the movie, grab a beer at a nearby watering-hole after the movie. Now there’s a generation of Cranbrookers who only know the Armond as an embarrassing derelict, just like how the old empty Super-Valu building was. There might as well have been ancient Egyptian mummies stored in there.”
When Belland moved back to Cranbrook for good in 2012, he always knew the obvious multifaceted potential of the Armond Theatre, remodelled as a mid-sized performing-arts facility.
What else would it be?” he asks. “You’re not going to turn it into a muffler shop or a bakery or a Hot Yoga studio. We already have those fine amenities elsewhere in town. A repurposed Armond – which anybody could have tackled, really; I’m not special – would be a thriving sibling enterprise working in tandem with the Key City Theatre and the Studio Stage Door, which would rebound positive business energy back to those venues as well. We wouldn’t be working at cross-purposes with anyone or anything. We’re that missing, crucial ‘Goldilocks Spot’ between the two. There are always a lot of events passing or touring through Cranbrook, or even being generated in Cranbrook, that would draw those midsized audience sizes, especially in a town of 22,000 people – but where do you viably host them?”
Belland points out that the Armond Theatre repurposing concept is nothing alien, or exotic, or unfamiliar.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel, by any stretch of the imagination. We’re not stupid and we’re not crazy. There are dozens and dozens of proven, successful, sustainable examples of re-purposed cinemas, not just in British Columbia – but across Canada and across the United States – that have been re-tooled into multi-purpose arts and entertainment venues.”
Belland lists the Roxy Theatre in Revelstoke, the Castle Theatre in Castlegar, the Lido Theatre in Fort St. John, and the Civic Theatre in Nelson as notable B.C. examples. And in Vancouver there are the Stanley, the RIO, the Rickshaw, and the New York theatres.
“The community is very supportive of the endeavour,” Belland said. “There’s been so much love and support flowing our way from all points of the compass. All the way from city council to the Downtown Business Association to the Chamber of Commerce to the everyday citizens of Cranbrook. We are humbled and grateful for all the best wishes we’ve been given, and in a town where there’s traditionally been so much division and tension over any bloody subject under the sun, it sadly seems, it feels good that our endeavour is something everybody agrees upon and heartily supports.
“We’re taking this project slow and steady, and we’re being cautious and serious about our planning and our steps. We’re not in a hurry to fail. And if all goes well, we’ll have the theatre up and open to the public by the summer of 2022 – pandemic willing – and as long as we don’t hit any unforeseen hiccups along the way.”
Oddly enough – and to the relief of Belland, Kerr, and Wright – the current global pandemic tension hasn’t been a noticeable obstacle in the project’s development.
“We bought the Armond two months before the balloon went up and the State of Emergency was declared,” Belland explained. “At first, we were frightened, just like everybody else, and of course our hearts sank when the shutdowns and lockdowns were ordered by the provincial and federal governments. WHAT THE HELL HAVE WE DONE? and all that. But we knew it was going to take at least two years of hard work to even start wondering when opening night would happen. We had to conclude the purchase of the building. We had to undertake a comprehensive hazmat abatement. We need to address certain structural issues. We had to decide on what colour of paint we’d brush on the walls. What sort of flower arrangements will we need? A long, long task-list to check off before we could even think about booking any acts or planning any events. All of it.
“Then we noticed this weird parallel emerging between our project’s timeline and how the timeline of the pandemic seems to be playing out, now that there’s an end in sight and light at the end of the tunnel. I mean – speaking for myself: I can’t get vaccinated fast enough, if it means the world can lurch back to the abnormal we once knew and understood…wake me when it’s over!” he (laughs). “A lot of existing venues, small and large, are going to go under before the pandemic concludes, sad to say, which will leave the national music industry in one hell of an unprecedented lurch. So, it’s encouraging to know that there are current venue projects like ours that are steaming full speed ahead through the pandemic, and a new venue will be born even as others die. We’re keeping our hopes alive during these trying times, like everybody else is.”
Belland illustrates a very striking historical comparison to what was befalling humanity a full century ago.
“In the early 1920s, the world finally rose out of the horrors of World War One and the Spanish Flu. There was such a bursting worldwide wave of relief and joy that the rest of that decade became what’s known as the Roaring Twenties. I’m far from the only person, arts-industry or whatever, who believes that the modern world is about to experience another party-hearty 21st Century Roaring Twenties once the authorities blow the all-clear signal. And I believe every public event, from Cranbrook Bucks games to Kimberley’s JulyFest to Sam Steele Days to the Wardner Quilting Bee, will be jammed bursting to over-capacity with excitable people who will just be desperate to do something – anything – in public without having to social distance, or wear a mask, or cringe in terror in case the person standing next to them happens to sneeze from dandelion pollen. Where you can dance shoulder to shoulder or throw your arms around someone the way humans are supposed to do. Nobody will take public events for granted, ever again.
“It’s not as if we’re in a big hurry to open before the pandemic finally fades away, and the government allows public events at full audience levels again. But when that day comes, we will unveil the Armond Theatre for the joy of Cranbrook, and the East Kootenay region as a whole.
“It’ll be a great day – for us, and for everybody else.”
Lead image: Ferdy Belland in front of the Armond Theatre in fall 2019, shortly after the purchase of the building. Ian Cobb/e-KNOW photos