The Rialto theatre in South Surrey – which opened in 1994 – has closed its doors after the building’s landlords increased rent by 200 per cent. (Aaron Hinks photo)

Surrey’s Rialto Theatre shutters after 200% rent increase imposed

Owner says he’s devastated by the closure of the 26-year-old business

In the ’90s, it was one of the few places in the Semiahmoo Peninsula where teens and the elderly would gather to share an entertainment experience.

The film selection at South Surrey’s Rialto theatre on opening night December 1994 was a reflection of that. The twin-cinemas, located on the 1700-block of 152 Street, screened a mix of adult- and kid-friendly features, such as the Lion King, Pulp Fiction, Star Trek Generations and Pocahontas.

But as times changed, so did the demographics. The Caprice theatre on 24 Avenue opened about two years after Rialto and took on the role of the family-focused screen, allowing Rialto to shift its attention to its adult patrons.

Rialto quickly secured its spot as being a place to please people with a more sophisticated entertainment palate. A favourite spot among seniors, the film selection focused on art, story-line, and talent.

It worked. During weekend matinees, a former staff member told Peace Arch News, one could look into the auditorium and it would resemble a dandelion field of fuzzy grey heads sitting quietly in the dark.

Despite Rialto’s popularity with its target audience, both its screens faded to black on March 16, when COVID-19 protocols forced owner Rahim Manji to temporarily close.

And this week, PAN learned, that closure is going to be permanent – not due to COVID-19, but rather an “unreasonable” request from the landlord when it came time to renegotiate the rent.

Manji said he did everything in his power to keep the theatre alive, but the company that owns the land wouldn’t accept anything less than a 200 per cent-plus rent increase.

RELATED: New ownership revives Peninsula movie theatres

The company that purchased the property about two years ago, Bowen Enterprise Corporation, doesn’t have an online presence or phone number, but records show it was incorporated in B.C. in 2016.

As of Tuesday, the company had not responded to an emailed request for comment by PAN.

Manji says his landlord only responds to his requests to negotiate through the company’s lawyer.

“And they won’t even call me. I never talked to the landlords. They just send emails and that’s it. And every email was like pay this or get out.”

Manji corrected himself, adding that he met the landlords one time, when they visited the property with an interpreter.

“We met once when they took over and it was because there was an argument where they wanted to take our janitor room away from me … Nevertheless, they took it away, but that was the only reason they came for a site visit. Since then, nothing,” he said. “No contact, no phone calls, multiple times me asking them to call me, nothing.”

Manji said he was in lease negotiations before the coronavirus hit. But even with COVID-19 closing the cinema, Manji said his landlord showed little wiggle room.

“They wanted over 200 per cent more on rent. It’s a small community theatre, we can’t do that,” he said.

He said part of the lease agreement was that he had to pay 150 per cent more in rent while the lease was being negotiated.

Manji, who said his family is devastated by the loss, made one last-ditch effort to save the theatre.

“I opened my books to them. I said every single penny that comes through here that is profit, you guys get to keep 50 per cent,” Manji said. “They refused. They sent me a letter from their lawyer to leave by September 30.”

Manji bought the cinema after it was closed by its former owner in 2014. He said he knew at the time of purchase it wasn’t a major money maker, but he resurrected it to feed the community’s appetite for entertainment.

“There was really no profit in this theatre. Very, very little profit. But we cater to the seniors in the area.”

Manji owns a number of movie theatres in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, including the Hollywood Cinema chain.

“This was just more of that community theatre. I wanted to bring in those Art Deco films that was for this crowd here, and we did it,” he said. “I think we did a pretty good job to bring it back to life.”

Still, Manji said he doesn’t understand why the landlord would price out its own tenant.

“We all have a demo (demolition) clause. So if they wanted to demo the place, yeah, no problem, demo it and give us notice. But to just have it sit empty, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s just not right.”

Although the credits have rolled for the final time, memories offered by the venue will last a lifetime.

Busy nights at Rialto depended on which films were being screened, and just as importantly, which actors and actresses were to be featured.

A former employee told PAN names like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, and Colin Firth would draw in the crowds.

SEE ALSO: Popular White Rock gelato shop to close after 25% rent increase

In 1994, a PAN article described the theatre as a throwback to the golden era of Hollywood showmanship.

But the August after it opened, it might have burned to the ground if not for the lucky placement of a sprinkler.

After a kitchen fire broke out in a nearby seafood restaurant, what saved the theatre was a sprinkler head outside the back door of the restaurant. It cooled the door enough so that the fire didn’t spread. However, as a result of the firefighting effort, the theatre was flooded.

As it happened, Rialto was showing the film “Waterworld” at the time.

The last films to be screened in the theatre were the British-comedy Emma and the Ben Affleck film The Way Back.

It’s not the first Peninsula business that has had to permanently close due to a rent increase in the midst of COVID-19.

Last June, one of White Rock’s most established gelato shops, Dolce Gelato, closed its doors after being hit with a 25 per cent rent increase.

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