Roxy Lanes could face wrecking ball after being sold, heritage advocates fear

Roxy Lanes, the bowling alley that began life as a movie theatre, is facing an uncertain future, and heritage advocates fear the newly sold building is facing its final curtain.

“In my opinion and others it is a historical building. It’s going to be 93 years old and it’s been the centre of the community,” said Jim Smith, president of the Northeast Winnipeg Historical Society.

When East Kildonan was its own city, the Roxy, just down the block from city hall, was a gathering place, the stage often used for fundraising events during the Second World War, he says.

“That why it’s so important to try and get some kind of historical designation so that it can be preserved for the future.”

As built, Roxy was a 1,200-seat movie theatre that opened Dec. 24, 1929. It featured a blue ceiling with lights set to emulate stars, and projected white clouds, according to the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.

The Roxy as looked in 1929, the year it opened, left, and in April 2022. (Eric De Schepper/North East Winnipeg Historical Society)

The walls were decorated in the style of Spanish village with sloping tile roofs and curtained windows, while the lobby contained a stone fireplace. Its size and ornateness were unique among suburban theatres from that era, the architecture foundation says.

It closed in May 1960 and debuted as a 20-lane bowling alley on Dec. 24, 1960 — exactly 31 years after its doors were opened as a theatre.

Those doors, in fact, still exist in the basement of the building at the corner of Henderson Highway and Larsen Avenue, along with other memorabilia from the theatre days, including the projector, cash register, a seat and some of the original village decorations.

Melissa Gauthier and her husband, Robert, bought the alley in 2009, a year after the longtime previous longtime owner died.

The old movie projector and doors, along with other materials from the Roxy’s theatre days, are stored in the basement. (Submitted by Jim Smith)

However, in February this year, Robert passed away and Gauthier says she couldn’t handle the business alone — and couldn’t take the ghost of Robert everywhere she looked.

“It’s too hard for me,” she said. “It was our baby and when you lose someone that meant the world it changes everything. It changes the way you feel. When I go there sometimes it brings me to tears.”

It’s too hard for me. It was our baby and when you lose someone that meant the world it changes everything. It changes the way you feel. When I go there sometimes it brings me to tears.– Melissa Gautier, who sold The Roxy after the death of her husband, Robert

The couple bought the business with the goal of retiring together, and were aiming to do that closer to the end of this decade.

“I just don’t have the same feelings for Roxy as I did if [Robert] was here. Am I going to miss her? Absolutely. I’m going to miss her very much,” Gauthier said. “We were really blessed to get Roxy and we had the opportunity to run her for 13 years. But the decision to sell it is the best thing for me carrying on with my next chapter in life.” 

Signs went up earlier this year saying the property was for sale and available for redevelopment. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

People who live in the area have posted messages on Facebook sites devoted to local history, expressing concern about the building after signs went up earlier this year saying the property was for sale and available for redevelopment.

Gauthier, who finalized the deal this week, says she understands the fondness people have for the business and the building’s history, but has no control over what the new owners do.

“I know everyone’s kind of upset but they have to look at it like, this is my life. I’m the one who’s got to live through this. I’m the one who’s got to close the doors. I’m the one who’s got to go through another [round of] emotions,” she said.

“It’s a very hard when you’re closing up something that you love. Me and my husband, we really loved the Roxy. And I know there’s a lot of people with a lot of memories of that place, too.”

The sale includes a vacant lot beside the building as well as the parking lot on the other side. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The sale includes the building as well as the adjacent parking lot on one side and an empty lot on the other. All told, it’s about 21,000 square feet.

“I really don’t know what their plans are,” Gauthier said about the new owners. “And in a way, I don’t really want to know. If it does get torn down it will be sad, of course. It was the icon of Elmwood.”

She plans to keep the alleys open to the public until April 30. She hands over the keys on May 11.

A 1930 listing for the Roxy Theatre in the August 1930 edition of the Winnipeg Evening Tribune, alongside a number of other bygone theatres. (University of Manitoba digital collections)

Smith understands the Gauthier’s situation but fears for the building’s future and has been urging people to contact the area’s city councillor, Jason Schreyer, to get historical status put on it.

“There is no historical designation for any buildings in Elmwood, East-Kildonan or North Kildonan except for the old fire hall on Talbot Avenue. We’ve been losing too many things in this area that have been torn down,” he said.

There used to be two other movie theatres in Elmwood as well as a drive-in but there is nothing left of those. The Eldorado was once Canada’s largest drive-in theatre with room for 720 cars.The site is now the Northdale Shopping Centre on Henderson.

“The whole theatre business, basically it’s all gone except for this last one in the Roxy, it’s the only one left,” Smith said.

A seat from the old Roxy Theatre sits in the basement of the bowling alley. (Submitted by Jim Smith)

The Roxy was designed by Max Blankstein, a Russian-born architect who emigrated to Canada in 1904 and conceived more than two dozen buildings in Winnipeg, including apartments, homes, warehouses and seven other theatres.

One of those theatres was the Uptown on Academy Road, which opened two years after the Roxy. The former theatres have many connections, including sharing the same manager.

There was also contest to name the Uptown in 1931, with the winner revealed on the Roxy stage, according to the West End Dumplings blogspot by Winnipeg historian Christian Cassidy. And the Uptown was reopened as a bowling alley on Sept. 29, two months before the Roxy.

Smith would like to see that kinship list added to one more time.

The Uptown was recently turned into a mixed-use facility (the bowling alley relocated in 2018) with the facade maintained. He hopes the new Roxy owners might do something similar.

As for the memorabilia in the basement, that is part of the sale and now belongs to the new owners.

A Harley Davidson motorcycle that belonged to Robert Gauthier hangs above the alleys. It’s one of the personal items that Melissa Gauthier will take with her in May when she hands over the keys to the new owners. (Submitted by Jim Smith)

Schreyer, who is on the city’s historical buildings and resources committee, has started looking into possible protections.

“We’re going to look at the character and the nature of the building and this spring I’m going to bring that report to the community committee of Northeast Winnipeg to see if it shows this is worth saving in any way,” he said, adding he has been going bowling there for decades and lives nearby.

“I’ve got to say, it’s been quite the whirlwind of conversation lately with members of the community here in Elmwood and East Kildonan. We’re moving quickly … to see what we can do to give this building and the people that love it it’s due consideration so that it might stand here for even further generations.”