Frelone’s Reel Roots

Cumberland landmark makes a comeback as a movie house…

“I know that after some films the audience feels that they’ve been on a shared journey, <a href=

pharm ” says Sara Turner, in the theatre at Reel Films in Cumberland. “That’s the feeling I want to engender.” ” width=”602″ height=”400″ />

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The main street in Cumberland has changed somewhat since the inception of the town in the late 1800s, when thousands of miners uprooted themselves, from Britain primarily, to follow King Coal to the land of opportunity, Canada. Back then Cumberland was a boomtown and Courtenay’s population was dwarfed by that of the instant, industrial domain of Robert Dunsmuir—a miner who became a millionaire.

One feature of the Cumberland landscape that time hasn’t changed is the front of Frelone’s Grocery Store on Dunsmuir Avenue. It still retains the carved name in the stone lintel above the door, although the exotic turquoise paint is a recent innovation.

Frelone’s Grocery is now the home of Reel Films, the brainchild of Sara Turner, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who has launched into a new field of endeavor. Turner was looking for a new way to make a living after giving birth to her son, Cohen, now a year and a half. “I’d been working as a cook in tree-planting camps—which isn’t a lifestyle particularly conducive to parenting—for about seven years, and cooking had palled for me. I was actually studying traditional Chinese acupuncture just before Cohen’s birth, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but it’s also very intense. I wanted something that would allow me to parent Cohen in a more relaxed fashion.”

Turner’s brown eyes sparkle with enthusiasm and her elfin face lights up as she continues her tale. “I was sitting with my older sister, Jessie, last Christmas, throwing around business ideas, and that’s when the seed of a cinema first planted itself. I was mulling over my options, having moved from Victoria to Cumberland, and looking after Cohen most of the time. His dad, Mike, also works in a tree planting camp, so is gone for long periods of time.”

The history of Frelone’s Grocery seems to be an integral part of the building. “So many people come in to watch a movie and tell me, “Oh, I used to come here to listen to jazz, or they’ll say, ‘I had my first Chinese acupuncture treatment in here.’ It’s a fascinating part of running Reel Films. In fact, an elderly woman came in the other week and told me she used to buy candy here as a child.”

The original grocery store was built in 1935 by Louis Frelone, whose family ran the modest shop for many years. The next owners, Leo and Barbara LeBlanc, continued it as a grocery store until 1981. After that, Frelone’s Grocery had a variety of incarnations, including a motorcycle shop and a health food store. In the more recent past, it has been a weekend entertainment venue and an accountant’s office.

Interestingly enough, Frelone’s has come full circle in that once more it is a venue for movie watching. At another time it was also home to a film projector. Turner has been told that there used to be a large, hand cranked metal wheel projector that the cellulose film would run round. “Apparently the equipment had to be shut down in the middle of a film to stop it going up in flames caused by the friction of the cellulose film,” Turner says, laughing. “A fan had to be employed to cool everything down! At least I don’t have that worry—the current equipment is all digital!”

Turner confesses to not knowing anything about running a movie house at the time she had the initial idea. “I just thought the Comox Valley would support another movie venue, The Rialto being the lone movie house now, when there used to be three cinemas. It also seemed to me it would be a creative and satisfying thing to do.
“I wanted to show films that would be thought-provoking and stimulate discussion of ideas, rather than just fill people’s heads with mindless images of destruction and mayhem, which is much of the fare on offer from Hollywood these days. I also thought it would be fun!”

What followed was a huge learning curve for Turner, as well as lots of ‘sweat equity’. She took advantage of a program offered by Community Futures, which provides a three week business course for those eligible under the Employment Insurance umbrella. Participants have to present their business proposal, which if accepted, leads to basic living expenses being paid for 10 months. During this time, the business has to become self-supporting. Not an easy task, as statistics show that most businesses take a five year period to show a profit.

Turner is extremely grateful for the business courses. “I learned so much,” she says. “Things I didn’t have a clue about—advertising, accounting, internet use. It was hugely valuable, and now I run my business, and they deposit money into my account every month. I’m so grateful to live in a country that provides us with that kind of support. I like to see the money citizens pay to government being made available for our own uses.”

Turner’s aunt, who lives in New York, was also able to offer the fledgling movie mogul some sage advice. “My aunt had been involved in running film festivals, editing film and presenting tributes to actors no longer in the prime of their youth, so she had a wealth of experience. I wasn’t shy about phoning her to ask, ‘OK, what about this aspect’ or ‘how do I go about doing this?’”

With the idea and plan in plan, Turner set to with a will. She bought a huge piece of canvas and experimented painting it with strips of shades from white to dark grey, then showing film on top of it. She discovered the light grey shade brought out the color and contrast of the DVDs to their best. “I laid the canvas down on the floor and ran around with bare feet and a long roller and put about seven coats of paint down. It was quite the project!” That canvas was then pinned to the front wall of Frelone’s, in front of the bay window, where it takes up the whole wall. DVDs can be formatted to fit onto the canvas, which is actually slightly bigger than a typical film screen.

“The technical side was mind boggling, actually,” Turner says. “I didn’t realize I’d have to learn so much about it all. Fortunately, I was able to hire a friend who taught me the ropes.”

The next task was finding seats for the theatre—35 of them. “I felt a bit daunted to begin with. New theatre seats costs a fortune, and likewise old re-vamped seats. I had a limited amount of savings to spend, and was in a bit of a quandary. Then I thought of the wonderful old Palace Theatre, which was closed for renovations a couple of years ago, and the roof was set on fire accidentally. The water damage was such that the owners decided to demolish the whole place.

“I tracked down the man who had done the work, and asked him about the seats. ‘What happened to them,’ I asked. ‘They’re in my barn, waiting for you to buy them!’ he joked. I went out to see them and they were in a huge higgledy-piggledy pile in this hay barn, with cats sleeping on them. Some of them had been broken during removal and I had to sort through them to find the best. Once I got them bolted into the new, raised floor at Frelone’s then came the back-breaking job of cleaning them all.”

She laughs, remembering how hot it was at the time. “It was the beginning of the heat wave we had this summer. I had to steam clean them numerous times and there was as much water dripping off my face as coming out the machine. It was worth it though—after days and days of cleaning them and emptying out gallons of filthy, sooty water, they finally came up a rich crimson—it was thrilling. They give the air of elegance I wanted to create.”

That old time elegance is an important part of her vision for Reel Films. “People have used movies as a means of escape since their inception,” she says. “During the Depression, in the ’30s, movies were never more popular. Of course, it was a new technology then, plus there wasn’t the option of sitting in the seclusion of one’s own home to watch a movie.

“That feeling of being a part of a larger humanity is what I want to re-create. There’s a sense of having shared an experience with other people when the movie is on a big screen and in public. The difference between laughing at something on a home video, alone, or laughing with other people, is a subtle one, but I think it engenders a sense of sharing and belonging.”

Turner pauses before adding, “That’s part of my objective—to create a sense of community, to bring home the truth that we share this planet with others who are, basically, just like us. We might have different outward appearances, varying opinions and views, but those differences are superficial. I think what connects us as humans is deeper than what appears to separate us.”

Turner believes film can help a person come to terms with their own reality, and often put one’s life in a different perspective, bringing a sense of gratitude and clarity. “For many Canadians, it’s an eye opener to recognize that we have a highly privileged lifestyle here,” she says. “Some of us may not have much money, but we have tremendous everyday things, like clean water and air, which is often taken completely for granted. Film can take us into another person’s life and that gives us cause to reflect on our own.”

Choosing the films to be presented is the fun part of Turner’s job. “I watch a lot of movies,” she says with a smile. “I only present second-run movies, which means that they’ve already been round the circuit, like to The Rialto, and the other movie houses that are tied into a distributor. With a set up like mine, I actually choose which movies I want to present. One of the most popular up to now is Tootsie. That one drew a larger audience than others.”

Turner has a suggestion box for patrons to use. “I don’t want to only show movies I like,” she explains. “It’s an interesting part of running Reel Films—sharing ideas and suggestions with other small specialist movie house owners, and movie fans in general. Most of this dialogue happens over the internet, and there are sites that deal with alternative movies as well. When I’ve been in contact with someone who shares the pleasure I have had with a particular film, then I can pick their brains about others they’ve enjoyed, with the knowledge that I may like them too. Of course, I don’t have to like all the movies I show, either.”

She pauses. “It’s such a curious thing—a person of whom one is really fond and share a multitude of common likes and dislikes can recommend a movie, yet when you watch it, you don’t like it one bit—which again, doesn’t mean I won’t show it. Art is such a subjective, slippery preference.”

Her criteria for choosing films is broad. “It may be that a movie has a fabulous soundtrack, perhaps it has become a cult movie, and I want people to have the opportunity to explore what made it a cult movie. On Thursday nights I only show documentaries, and Sunday afternoons are for family films, so they’re more general.”

Recognizing that often hard-hitting documentaries can leave viewers feeling doomed, Turner consciously mixes lighter subject matter in the menu of film fare. “I recently screened Baraka, which is a highly watchable film that shows many aspects of humanity as well as the natural world, with images cleverly juxtaposed. Without using any dialogue, the film says a lot with its use of images and sound. I know that after some films the audience feels that they’ve been on a shared journey. That’s the feeling I want to engender.”

At the time Turner was applying for funding she took part in the annual World Community Film Festival, whose goals are similar to Turner’s. They want to educate and inspire people to become more politically active, in whatever way they chose. “At the time, I was still slightly unsure if I was doing the right thing,” says Turner. “I like to do things I’m good at, and this was uncharted territory, but being there, seeing those films that would never be available in Courtenay without a group to research alternative films, have the contacts with other communities that have already been presenting Film Festivals, and then obtain those films that are definitely not in the mainstream, really inspired me. Sensing how important it was to other people to share those experiences, have that new information about an event or an occurrence that otherwise we wouldn’t have had knowledge of, convinced me.

“It really solidified my intuitive feeling that when a group of people come together to share something, like watching a film, we’re subconsciously bound together in our experience,” adds Turner. “To begin with, all the people with their talents and skill who came together to create the movie in the first place, and then all the viewers watching it together, sharing that information combined with the visual experience. It feels really special and unifying, kind of sacred. It connects us to our human-ness. The more of that feeling that I can promote in my own way, the better I feel about what I’m doing, and the outcome of my efforts.”

Turner sees a huge difference between films and television. “I think most of what’s shown on TV is garbage,” she says bluntly. While she recognizes that many films are churned out to a target audience and follow a predictable format like many TV programs, she does think films are usually made with more intent. “And I don’t show run-of-the-mill dross at Reel Films,” she says. “There has to be something interesting or curious—some aspect that makes a film worth watching to begin with.”

When Reel Films had its very first showing, BC was sweltering in an unusual heat wave. “I opened at the end of July,” Turner says. “Everyone stared at me in amazement when I told them I was opening a cinema then. ‘Really? Who’s going to come? It’s belting hot, people want to be by the river or the ocean,’ my friends said. And it was hot! On the day of opening, the heat was so intense in Frelone’s, with the heavy curtains over the doors and windows and the high temperatures, I rushed off into town to try and get an air conditioner.”

Turner rolls her eyes and pulls a face at the memory, and adds, “Of course, I used it once and now it sits there taking up space!” Despite the heat, the opening of Reel Films was well supported by Turner’s friends, family and movie fans who turned out to watch Cinema Paradiso, an aptly chosen first film, as its subject is a boy whose dad runs a movie house.

A business entrepreneur with principles, Turner was recently put in an awkward position. “A family wanted to hire Frelone’s for a teenage birthday party, and show a teen movie. I cringed at the idea of showing this particular movie as it perpetuates a lot of unpleasant stereotypes, as far as I’m concerned. Particularly as to how young men and women need to be in order to be popular and fit in; the males are judged by their cars and the females by their bodies. I suggested that the girls might like to watch something else—with some trepidation I add, as I could have done with the money—but I just didn’t want to be part of perpetuating values I don’t hold. The girls were very curious as to why I didn’t like the movie, and more than interested to know what other movies were available. We had quite a long chat and they chose another movie which they thoroughly enjoyed, and I felt good about what I was doing.”

Turner is hoping more families and groups will be interested in renting Frelone’s space. “There’s someone who wants to screen Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which is a film from the ‘70s, in black and white, about the Newport Jazz Festival, and invite jazz fans; another idea is a live Stevie Wonder gig that his fans and admirers would enjoy. I really want the community to use this space.”

Despite the headaches of maintaining an old building—“The electrics are most unusual and needed some looking at”—plus the new reality of going from being a highly-paid seasonal worker to running a cinema that sometimes has five people, sometimes a full house, Turner is relishing her new endeavor.

She has developed her own recipe for home-popped popcorn and makes cookies and other treats for movie-goers. So delicious is her popcorn that many locals call in only for that! One Cumberland resident came into Frelone’s and said that he’d already seen the current film and his pregnant wife had asked him to come for Turner’s popcorn, which she was craving.

Delicious home-made goodies and movies chosen with intent sounds like a winning combination for Frelone’s latest makeover.

To find out what’s showing, log on to or phone 250-336-0190.

Documentaries show on Thursday, general films Friday and Saturday and family movies on Sunday afternoons.