Comedy probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Raymond Burr, the late New Westminster-born thespian best remembered for his television roles as legal eagle Perry Mason and paraplegic super-sleuth Robert Ironside.
Barry Buckland, owner of the Lafflines Comedy Club, hopes to change that.
The popular local comedy club, currently located at 26 Fourth St., will soon be known as Lafflines at the Burr Theatre after Buckland, a longstanding member of the Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Association, successfully bid $850,000 to take over and relocate to the historic Columbia Street landmark.
The Burr Theatre, once considered one of the proverbial jewels in the Royal City’s crown, has since become more of a burr in its side.
After purchasing the former Columbia Theatre in 2000, the city leased the heritage building to the Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society, which had hoped to turn it into an innovative theatre arts centre featuring a performance hall, plenty of rehearsal space, a museum of Raymond Burr memorabilia, offices for not-for-profit arts groups, and both a bar and café. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned and the doors have been shut tight for the past four years.
“I’ve had my eye on this place for years,” said Buckland, while giving a tour of the building on Tuesday.“We’re going to be the largest comedy club in Canada.”
One of the more unique characteristics of the Burr is that it has separate upstairs and downstairs performance areas.
While both are in need of extensive renovations, Buckland is hoping to have the upper level of the theatre open for business by the summer and the entire venue ready in time for the Vancouver International Comedy Festival in September.
“One of the great things about having two different rooms is that Lafflines will be able to flip back and forth between them,” he said.
Having rooms tailored to fit nightly audience demand should also make it much easier to bring some of the more sought-after comedians to town.
“One of the problems in having a 200-seat room, if you want to bring in some of the really big names in comedy, you have to charge $100 a seat just to break even. We’re not the Orpheum, so there’s no way we can do that. But with the extra space available upstairs, we should be able to get ticket prices down to hopefully around $25 or $35.”
As anyone who attended a performance at the Burr while it still shared the building with the local Fraternal Order of Eagles charity group will already know, one of the bigger and more expensive jobs Buckland has to take care of before this can be done is improving the soundproofing between the two.
“Back in those days, when the Eagles were upstairs and they were doing live theatre next door, all of a sudden you might hear ‘Meat Draw number 10’s a winner!’ through the wall in the middle of a show.”
Having two rooms could become an asset to the entire community as well. since Lafflines’ intention isn’t to be just for laughs.
“We’re planning on doing murder mysteries, live music, weddings, burlesque, maybe even movie nights. Anything that will bring people into New West, we’re open to. Shawn Farquhar, a world champion magician who a lot of people don’t know lives nearby in Coquitlam, will likely be doing some performances.”
Non-profit groups will also be able to profit from the reopening of the Burr.
“If it’s empty during the days or certain nights of the week, non-profits will be welcome to use it. There aren’t a lot of rental performance spaces currently available in New West and it will sure beat performing in, say, a high school basketball court,” he said.
One of the critical points in the comedy club’s successful bid to take over the building was to maintain its heritage building status. To this end, local architect Eric Pattison, whose projects include renovating the BC Electric Railway Depot, the CSO Tank Control Building and the Maria Keary Cottage, will be overseeing the interior and exterior renovations. While certain architectural features are untouchable, the old theatre seats will be sold off and the mainstage replaced with a easily-transformed portable stage to help provide the cabaret-style feel of the current Lafflines.
The outdoor marquee will also be spruced up considerably, hopefully enough to ensure the venue won’t be mistaken too often for a nearby “gentlemen’s club” with an equally fancy front door.
“One of the door guys there was telling me that, back when the Burr Theatre was still open, he’d often get these well-dressed older couples walking up to the door and he’d say ‘Um, I think maybe you’re looking for the place up the street,’” Buckland said with a laugh.
There can be little doubt the reopening will be revitalizing for the Downtown, and any who feel that comedy and Burr make for an unlikely mix most likely missed the actor’s cameo in the aptly titled classic Airplane II: The Sequel.
(This story was first published Feb, 18, 2010. © Copyright (c) New Westminster NewsLeader)