Vancouver's Dunbar Theatre leans on creative solutions to manage COVID-19 fallout

Popcorn sales, GoFundMe drive used to prop up 85-year-old West Side theatre

Ken Charko has weathered the advent of streaming services, the proliferation of video games and even the 2008 financial crash.

COVID-19, however, is the biggest game changer he's seen over two decades in business. And how it changes the game, Charko still isn't sure of.

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But he's giving an attempt to maintain his business the old college try.


Charko has owned the Dunbar Theatre for more than 20 years and, as of March 22, the screens have been blank.

Charko stopped showing films despite his belief that he could make physical distancing work. He's got room for more than 300 moviegoers and was poised to keep showing films to groups of five and 10 provided they were far enough apart.

That's not an option now, so the ex-NPA member is banking on popcorn.

And lots of it.

Charko is running a drive-through stand outside the theatre selling all manner of junk food, including pop, candy, ice cream and popcorn. He's also contemplating selling fresh vegetables in the future.


Charko makes no bones about the health benefits of his popcorn. In short, there are none.

“Every step of the path that we do where we can make it healthy or bad for you, we choose to make it bad for you,” Charko told the Courier. “This is the worst popcorn ever for you but it tastes great.”

Outside of the pivot to selling munchies, a GoFundMe campaign has been started to help the Dunbar theatre stay afloat. The fundraiser was initiated March 26 by resident and theatre patron Kevin Tipper. More than $550 of the $1,000 goal was reached in five days.

“Not only is the theatre a place for the community to come together and share in the joy of movies, but it also employs many students in the area and has over the last 20-plus years,” Tipper wrote on the crowdfunding page.

Dunbar Theatre owner Ken Charko is fighting to keep the 85-year-old theatre alive through the sale of popcorn, candy, ice cream and other goodies. - Dan Toulgoet

Charko has five employees and maintains their jobs are safe for the time being. In fact, the Arbutus Street resident says keeping those people financially stable during the pandemic is the main reason he's staying open.

How long that can be sustained, Charko isn't sure.


“I'm stubborn and I don't know when that is,” he said.

The Dunbar is one of the last and oldest independent theatres in Vancouver. It was listed as the fourth most endangered building on Heritage Vancouver's 2019 Top 10 Watch List. In the last 15 years, Vancouver has lost the Ridge Theatre and Varsity Cinema, which Charko once operated.


The Hollywood Theatre flirted with closure before being saved two years ago and the Rio Theatre was in the same boat.

Having run municipally under the NPA and then more recently with Coalition Vancouver in 2018, Charko says he understands the reality of doing business in Vancouver.

Given the barren streets and length of time before life returns to normal, Charko has no idea when things go back to business as usual.

“Nothing has compared to this. This, in my mind, is the generational event that will define us. This is going to affect the world more than 9/11 and almost as much as [the Second World War],” Charko said.

Located at 4555 Dunbar St., the theatre is open weekdays from 3 to 9 p.m. and from 2 to 9:30 p.m. on weekends.

The GoFundMe page is located HERE.


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