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This independent Halifax cinema closed nearly 30 years ago. But its legacy is still intact

When Chris Aucoin first laid eyes on the man who would become the great love of his life, he was sitting inside a dark and crowded basement in downtown Halifax.

It was the spring of 1991 and he was at Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema, where the Nova Scotia Persons with AIDS Coalition was hosting a screening of the documentary Paris Is Burning. The group was raising funds to help those fighting the virus, which at that point was still widely considered to be a death sentence.

As Aucoin looked around the theatre that evening, he recognized nearly every person in the sold-out room, except for a handsome man sitting alone in the back row.

“He had shoulder-length hair, which was not the norm, a full beard, also not the norm, and a big mustache,” he remembered. 

“I thought, well, maybe he’s [sneaking] into his first queer film ever.”

On the left, a special notice advertises the Atlantic Canadian premiere of Paris is Burning, a fundraiser for the Nova Scotia Persons with AIDS coalition. On the right, an archival screenshot advertises a screening of Paris is Burning at Wormwood's Cinema.
Paris is Burning, directed by Jennie Livingston, opened in Halifax on May 31, 1991. (Cinema Guide, June 1991/CBC Archives)

This group of mostly gay men and lesbians had come together to support an important cause, but also to see the buzzworthy film. Paris Is Burning follows the Black and Latinx drag-ball scene in New York City and has since gone on to become a classic of queer cinema.

“It was just a fascinating look into a very unique aspect of queer life in North America, that was unfamiliar to me, and I expect unfamiliar to most people in the room at that point,” Aucoin remembered.

Queer people living in Halifax then knew all too well that a film like Paris Is Burning would never play at the city’s multiplexes, which just two years earlier had refused to screen Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ in Nova Scotia amid widespread controversy driven by religious groups.

On the left, a photo of Wormwood's Cinema, advertising the Last Temptation of Christ. On the right, a Pentacostal minister walks into a church.
In 1989, when Empire Theatres declined to show Martin Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, Wormwood’s decision to screen the film was condemned by a Pentecostal minister from Stewiacke, N.S. The film drew large crowds for its entire 3-week run. (The Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema Group on Facebook/CBC Archives)

It was a comfort to the Halifax queer community to know that, no matter Halifax’s size, there was a place like Wormwood’s where they could see the films they only heard about in the gay press or perhaps in newspapers from Toronto, Montreal or New York City. 

Aucoin soon learned the name of the man he spotted at Wormwood’s was Ben Kozak. They met again by chance a week later at Crystal Crescent Beach.

As Aucoin walked past the third beach, known for being clothing-optional, he shed his clothes and continued walking along the coast. 

When he spotted a German shepherd, he kneeled to embrace the dog and give him a pat on the head. And then he looked up.

“It’s Ben, lying on his towel 30 feet away, watching me fuss over what turned out to be his dog,” said Aucoin.

Three photos of a gay couple. On the left, both men are in suits. On the top right, each wears a t-shirt in a crowd at Toronto Pride. In the bottom right, the two of them wear matching plaid shirts. The man on the right has glasses, while the man on the left wears a denim hat.
Left, Ben Kozak and Chris Aucoin on New Years Eve, 1991. Top right, the couple at Toronto Pride in 1993. Bottom right, a photo taken in the spring of 1998. (Submitted by Chris Aucoin)

The two of them spent the day at the beach, went home together, and soon fell in love.

“We considered that day moving forward to be our anniversary for the rest of our relationship,” said Aucoin.

That night at Wormwood’s was Kozak’s first time at the cinema, but over their courtship, the couple would go on to see countless movies there.

“It was a regular part of our social life because he was also a film junkie,” said Aucoin. ” We would go to see arthouse films and queer films and John Waters films and just about anything and everything.”

A theatre for everyone

Wormwood’s was a scrappy mom-and-pop arthouse cinema that continues to be remembered today, nearly 30 years after it shuttered for good.

It was part of the theatre’s ethos to make films accessible to communities of all stripes.

“From the queer community, to the Black community to the Lebanese community, the Greek community, we would eventually show something that would appeal to every unique individual in the city,” said co-owner Peter Gaskin last week, from his home in Dartmouth, N.S.

In addition to many of the films that made up what’s now known as the New Queer Cinema, Wormwood’s also screened films by leaders of the French New Wave like Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary and early work by groundbreaking Black directors like Spike Lee, not to mention work from local filmmakers like Paul Donovan and William D. MacGillivray.

Peter Gaskin stands outside Wormwood's Dog and Monkey Cinema next to a poster for the documentary Hoop Dreams.
Peter Gaskin stands outside Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema next to a poster for the documentary Hoop Dreams. (Submitted by Peter Gaskin)

A labour of love

Each week, Gaskin and his staff, including programmers Ron Foley McDonald and Lia Rinaldo, would sift through trade magazines to figure out what they’d like to see come to Halifax. Then, they’d begin to reach out to distributors to see if they could make a screening a reality, something that could be difficult in the age of 35mm film prints.

In 1988, Gaskin joined forces with Gordon Parsons, the founding owner and former director of the Atlantic Film Festival, when the theatre migrated from the Khyber Building on Barrington Street to the old Carpenters Hall on Gottingen Street — where the Propeller Arcade and Brewery is located today.

Aside from hiring a few paid carpenters, Gaskin and Parsons and other volunteers from the film community built the bulk of the new theatre with their own hands. They painted walls, laid down plywood, and made the space their own — a scrappy cinema with 150 seats that still felt like home.

Those who came to watch a film would open the front door and proceed down a flight of steps to the basement, where the smell of fresh popcorn and coffee wafted through the lobby, before passing through the crying room — an ingenious invention that allowed parents to escape into a soundproof room if their kids began to cry — and into the theatre.

Lia Rinaldo, now the director of the Devour Food Film Festival, spent nearly a decade working at Wormwood’s, beginning when she was just 16 years old.

She remembers screening The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and delighting as the film grabbed hold of the audience.

Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving play a pair of drag queens and a transsexual in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving play a pair of drag queens and a trans woman in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

It follows two drag queens and a trans woman on a ragtag journey across Australia to perform in various towns and in front of homophobic audiences.

Even then, it was clear it was destined for an extended lifespan as a cult classic.

“What a perfect film!” said Rinaldo. “The people dressed up, they danced in the aisles, and it pretty much happened every time.”

A different world

Wormwood’s has cast a long shadow over the Halifax film scene, even as the moviegoing experience has changed drastically over the years.

In 1993, Parsons, the founding owner, died and the theatre never fully recovered, said Gaskin.

“No one was making any money doing it … but we had a hell of a lot of fun, and when Gordon died, a chunk of that fun went away,” he said.

It survived one more move, to the old Vogue Cinema on Gottingen Street, now home of Global Halifax, before closing down permanently in 1997.

Nearly 30 years later, the moviegoing experience has changed drastically.

The age of streaming means that almost every film a cinephile can think of is available to watch at home with a few clicks of a button. Multiplexes, meanwhile, haven’t exactly grown more diverse in terms of what they screen, relying on superhero blockbusters to bring in audiences. Independent cinemas are fighting tooth and nail for their survival.

In Halifax, only Carbon Arc Cinema remains, run by an independent group without a permanent home, that screens arthouse films most weekends at the Museum of Natural History.

Wormwood’s space transforming again into a cinema

Over the past few years, the Propeller Arcade has begun showing films in the same basement Wormwood’s once did.

They’re programmed by Ian Matheson, a co-owner and manager at the bar, who is well aware of the history of the space.

Occasionally, a former Wormwood’s regular will walk through the doors, says Matheson, and he’ll watch as they’re transported back to the cinema’s glory days,

“I’ll watch them stop dead in their tracks,” he said. “They just accidentally find themselves in the space watching a movie, and then it comes together, which is a pretty magical thing to see.”

A few weeks ago, a sold-out crowd crammed into the basement to watch a screening of Transformers: The Movie, a cult-classic animated film from 1986.

Ian Matheson speaks to a sold-out crowd before a screening of Transformers: The Movie at the Propeller Arcade on Gottingen Street, a former home of Wormwood's Dog and Monkey Cinema.
Ian Matheson speaks to a sold-out crowd before a screening of Transformers: The Movie at the Propeller Arcade on Gottingen Street, a former home of Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Inside was some of that same delirious energy Rinaldo recalled at Wormwood’s.

As they cheered and laughed at Matheson’s colour commentary, and listened intently as a man in a Transformers costume gave out prizes before the film, it was obvious why each of them had chosen to watch a decades-old film in public instead of at home.

“Halifax is kind of starved for that [experience],” said Matheson. “There are places that do it, but when it happens, everybody just concentrates on it like a laser beam and it explodes.”

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