Rita Hayworth and Doreen MacGregor in a production still from Columbia Pictures film, Convicted, shot at the Willows Park Studio in 1938. (Gary Wilcox Collection)

Remembering when Oak Bay was the original Hollywood North

Fourteen films were shot at Willows Park Studio in the 1930s

There was a time when Hollywood star Rita Hayworth worked – and played – in Oak Bay.

Chalk it up as another forgotten fact about Oak Bay’s first 112 years – when Oak Bay was B.C.’s original Hollywood North.

From 1933 to 1938 there were 14 films shot in Oak Bay.

Former Oak Bay resident Gary Wilcox, 76, spent a lot of time researching the topic. Wilcox’s family moved to Oak Bay in the fall of 1951, to a home across from the old Willows Fairgrounds. As a boy, he would walk across the open meadow with foundations from the old fairground buildings. But it wasn’t until the last 20 years that the Vancouver resident, and historian, revisited the Willows Fairgrounds history and dug up several books worth of tales on Oak Bay.

READ MORE: Film commission pushes for Greater Victoria film studio

“It started when Britain changed its film act to protect its film industry in 1927,” explained Wilcox. “They created a quota system.”

The Willows Ice Arena burning down in 1944. It originally served as the Willows Fairground Horse Show Pavilion, and then as the Willows Park Studio from 1933-1938, before being converted to an ice arena in 1941. (Gary Wilcox Collection)

The rule was 20 per cent of the U.S. films had to be British, and on those movies, 75 per cent of the wages and the shooting had to be British. However, a Commonwealth country qualified for these rulings.

Enter Victoria film entrepreneur Kenneth Bishop. He converted the Willows Fairground Horse Show Pavilion into a sound stage called the Willows Park Studio.

He started in 1933 with his own film company but his first two productions failed to pan out as he had hoped, Wilcox said. So Bishop enticed Hollywood companies to take advantage of the loophole and film in Oak Bay, using his studio.

A run of 12 Hollywood features, known as “quota quickies,” were filmed there from 1933 to 1038. They only took a month to shoot and cost about $40,000 or $50,000 to produce.

Hayworth was here in 1938 to film two features, Special Inspector and Convicted. It wasn’t until a few years later that Hayworth really made it. Other up-and-coming young stars of the time also filmed here.

Hollywood did come back for a major picture in 1942 called Commandos Strike at Dawn. It used the Saanich Peninsula as a Norwegian fjord, featured big names, and was nominated for an Academy Award for the musical score.

The Willows building was converted to an ice arena in 1941 but burned down in 1944, just as the Patrick Arena did in 1929.

reporter@oakbaynews.com

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