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Gem Theatre changing hands after 34 years

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After operating the Boundary’s only movie venue for more than three decades, Maureen and Marius Paquet are retiring.

They have sold the historic Gem Theatre in Grand Forks to Shaun and Kirstin Aquiline of Revelstoke, who will take over on July 27.

“We would certainly love to be the wonderful young couple taking over because the Gem is just at the perfect place,” Maureen says.

In February 1988, the Paquets were running a movie house in Fort McMurray when they attended a theatre convention in Las Vegas and sat next to Mary and Peter Abrosimoff, who owned the Gem.

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The Paquets were looking to buy a theatre, and the Abrosimoffs were looking to sell. The following month they came to have a look, and at the end of April they took it over.

Maureen says there have been numerous highlights over the years. The Gem has doubled as a live venue in addition to screening Hollywood films.

Mixed with blockbusters like Titanic and Avatar were performances by Shari Ulrich and Stephen Fearing. In 2000, the Gem screened Snow Falling on Cedars, partly filmed in Greenwood.

“We made $10,000 opening weekend and Universal Pictures was shocked,” Maureen says.

Co-star Ethan Hawke left a signed picture behind for the theatre.

The theatre’s more recent years have also been its most challenging. It was heavily damaged in the flood of 2018.

“Water in the cinema was not really great,” Maureen says. But the Paquets did not hesitate to rebuild.

“Marius and I met and he said ‘We pick up our boots and we’re going to fix it.’ We cashed in our life insurance policy because at that time we figured if that didn’t kill us, chances are nothing will. Away we went. It turned out fabulous. It’s kind of like a warm memory now.”

With help from both the provincial government and the community, the theatre received a complete overhaul, from the subfloor up, and reopened.

But then COVID hit, forcing movie theatres to close for a while. Paquet says they were fortunate again to obtain government grants, and they were able to host parties with limited numbers to get through.

In their retirement, the Paquets won’t be going far.

“We’re going to go to the movies,” Maureen laughs. “We’re going to sit in the front row and eat popcorn and chat with everybody who comes because we know almost everybody who goes to the movies. We’re looking forward to supporting the Gem Theatre for as long as we are in Grand Forks.”

The Gem’s lineage dates back to 1913, making it one of the oldest surviving theatres in western Canada. It opened that year as a silent movie house known as the Empress, under the management of Percy McWha. Following a major renovation in 1935, it became the Granada. Further alterations followed in 1947 and it was renamed the Gem.

Although Greenwood long had its own theatre, and Grand Forks used to have multiple theatres and a drive-in, the Gem is the last survivor. Maureen says it has the benefit of drawing movie buffs from throughout the Boundary as well as from across the border.

When they took over, the theatre’s capacity was almost 300, but it now seats about 185, with room left in front of the stage for dancing.

“That’s what makes the Gem so wonderful and successful,” Maureen says. “You certainly have the opportunity to have different forms of entertainment. We weave in and out of the movies. It’s a fabulous business.”

For their last hurrah, the Gem will host two big concerts on July 22 and 23: an ABBA tribute band and a Fleetwood Mac tribute band.

“We thought we’d go out with a bang,” Maureen says. “We’re so grateful to the people of Grand Forks. It is a fabulous place to live. We can’t believe 34 years went so fast.”

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