It wasn’t until the age of 94 that Bill Young considered selling the Tillicum Twin Theatres—the no-frills movie house in Terrace, British Columbia, that he’d owned and run for over 50 years—and finally taking a well-deserved rest. But the impulse didn’t last long.
“He thought maybe he should retire,” says Young’s daughter Diane Robinson, who now runs the cinema. “[But after] he had a couple people look at the theater, that was the end of that [idea].”
Indeed, Young continued running the Tillicum Twin until his death last December at 95. In his wake, the theater owner left behind a legacy of altruism and community service, and in the immediate aftermath of his passing—the result of a fall that triggered a massive brain hemorrhage—his family received an outpouring of support from the citizens of Terrace and its surrounding communities, mirroring the generosity and compassion he had shown them for decades.
“[The response] was huge,” says Robinson. “People that knew him were just in shock. But we kept the theater going. Our staff all came in, [and] they took over the place for us for a couple weeks.”
Keeping the theater going is exactly what Young would have wanted. Throughout his life, the community leader and business owner remained a tireless workhorse with an entrepreneurial spirit; in addition to the Tillicum Twin, he at various points owned an adjacent music shop, as well as the nearby Tillicum Drive-In, which closed down sometime in the late 1970s. Defying small-town stereotypes, he also kept a constant eye on the latest advances in theater technology.
“He was very technology-driven,” says Robinson, adding that the Tillicum, despite its rather humble reputation, is reasonably up to date. She continues, “Dad would weigh it out and say, ‘Look, if we don’t spend [on new technologies], we’re gonna lose our customers. The generations are changing. People are changing.’ So he never sat still.”
Business acumen aside, Young will best be remembered for his unflagging contributions to Terrace and its surrounding communities, located about 800 miles northwest of Vancouver and roughly 100 miles southeast of the Alaskan border. These efforts include everything from support of the local food bank, drives to solicit donations of school supplies for low-income children, and even, in 1973, buying a fire truck for the neighboring community of Thornhill following a devastating fire that destroyed the Youngs’ family home.
“Our house burnt down,” remembers Robinson, “and he went up and bought a fire truck and came back to Terrace and put out a call. [He] and one of his good friends called out, ‘Anybody interested in being volunteer firemen?’ And he started the volunteer Thornhill Fire Department.”
Located in a boxy three-story building along the town’s main thoroughfare Lakelse Avenue, the Tillicum Twin—built in 1954, purchased by Young a decade later, and expanded to two auditoriums a decade after that—isn’t much to look at from the outside. But once they walk through its doors, visitors are greeted by a variety of homey personal touches and quirky knick-knacks—snake-shaped fountain-turned-communal-ashtray here, intricately carved First Nation totem there—that offer the kind of lived-in quality that is sharply at odds with the antiseptic feel of today’s corporate multiplexes. According to Robinson, that welcoming feel extends to the theater’s employees.
“[New customers] have a bit of a hard time not getting the big seats, not getting that huge screen,” says Robinson. “But by the time they leave, they have a whole different feel. Because our customer service is, I have to say it, top-notch. We make everybody feel at home, and I think that’s the key.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Tillicum Twin offers reasonable prices for the town of 18,000 (including neighboring communities). For children, admission is $6 for regular shows and $9 for 3-D shows, while adult tickets go for $10 and $12.50. Additionally, the theater offers a Young at Heart club that lets seniors into any showing for just $6.
“Young at Heart” wasn’t just a play on the family name but also on the very nature of Young himself, whose boundless energy (he graduated high school at 85, completing the education he’d been forced to cut short as a teenager) remained with him until the end of his life. Shortly before his death, he even flirted with the idea of adding a third auditorium.
“[He said] ‘What we’ll do is we’ll put those nice fancy seats in, we’ll put that high end sound system [in],” says Robinson. “He never stopped moving ahead.”
That constant striving forward was perhaps key to Young’s—not to mention the theater’s—longevity. But it was Young’s spirit of giving back that made the Tillicum Twin an institution.
“People recognize it as part of the community,” says Robinson, who notes that she and her family have no plans to sell. “They call it their theater.”