Monkeying around with Wormwood’s

Gordon Parsons in the projection room of the newly-opened Wormwood's Dog and Monkey Cinema. March 1983.

Gordon Parsons in the projection room of the newly-opened Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema. March 1983.

A note of explanation: This is an article I wrote for Halifax Today, the newspaper organ of the King’s College University Journalism program. It was published on March 31, 1983. I’ve fixed up some of the typos but it is otherwise unchanged.

At the turn of the century a vaudeville show based in New York occasionally toured through the Maritimes and Quebec. The Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Show had animal acts, comedy, and burlesque. Edmund Porter also travelled with the show; he was one of North America’s earliest significant film directors. Porter’s early movies were probably the first ever shown to vaudeville audiences in the Maritimes.

The Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Theatre exemplifies Porter’s pioneering spirit. Until recently, Wormwood’s operated out of the National Film Board Theatre, but a new theatre opened on March 11, just down the street at 1588 Barrington St. Above the Beansprout health food store, the small theatre was established in what was once a chapel, and has a seating capacity of just under a hundred. For many Halifax moviegoers the theatre is a shrine of culture, an oasis in the commercial wasteland of film. Wormwood’s is the only place in Halifax where an audience can see a different high quality film every night for a low price. The films range from Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris.

Gordon Parsons has pleasant features dominated by curly brown hair and heavy-framed glasses. About thirty, soft-spoken and thoughtful, he doesn’t come across as the mastermind behind Wormwood’s Theatre. When he supervises work on the new theatre, he seems bemused by his own authority. Yet when he talks about his theatre he reveals a slightly steely edge. He has a rare combination of vision and business sense that has allowed him to show movies he feels deserve attention, while still making a living.

The Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Theatre came to life in 1976 when Gordon Parsons was working as a co-ordinator for the Atlantic Film Co-op. It seemed that Halifax was ripe for a more varied movie diet, one including a heavy dose of foreign flicks and the classics. So the co-op began using the National Film Board Theatre as a venue, and Parsons became the theatre’s guiding light.

Over the years he’s seen Wormwood’s grow from a small film co-op venture into full-fledged business, with all of the attending headaches. When asked how he finds the business angle of the theatre, Parson’s quickly replies, ‘I don’t like it at all.’

Gordon Parsons began by showing only movies he wanted to see. Wormwood’s became a successful business because a large and faithful group of film lovers wanted to see the same movies Gordon liked. He must now temper his own tastes, because ‘the only movies I like these days are very avante-garde.’ The economy and his own financial pinch due to the cost of the new theatre’s construction have caused Parsons to feel some types of movies might suffer. Classics and most silent movies don’t draw good audiences. He tries to strike a delicate balance between showing choice films and staying afloat. ‘You won’t see any midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show here though,’ he adds.

What Gordon Parsons finds most exciting about the new theatre is sharing the third floor with the Atlantic Film-maker’s Co-op, headed by Chuck Clark. Calling it ‘an interesting joint venture,’ Parsons points out that there are few other places in Canada where film appreciation and applied film art go on under the same roof. He praises the co-op as a pioneering development in Atlantic Canada and as a film-maker’s proving ground.

As he speaks, staring reflectively off into space, Gordon Parsons gives the undeniable impression that as far as he is concerned, movies aren’t just an evening’s diversion. They are one of the highest forms of artistic creation, and Wormwood’s is a gallery where they can be displayed proudly.

No doubt Edmund Porter would approve.

For more pictures, posters and emphemera from Wormwood’s, click here.

For more information, click here.

Photo: Peter Gaskin, Alex Busby, Gordon Parsons and Chuck Clark get busy building Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema on Barrington St., Halifax. Click here.

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