A Theatre Near You
A Theatre Near You
Why a Book on Ottawa Movie Theatres?
A movie theatre is something special. It’s a business, but not like just any business. It doesn’t compare to a gas station or a hardware store. It’s built to entertain people; a place where kids gather for their first outings into town alone, experience a first kiss, and get to dream. It’s a place where people go to get away from their daily routines and headaches for the space of two hours; where you bring a date, or go to be alone. It’s a place that holds an enchantment, a certain something; a place that in its purest form will fill you with awe and give you a particular sense of occasion. In all these ways, a cinema is very much a social space.
When it was announced that the Elgin theatre was closing, in late 1994, I felt incredulous and sad. Memories of going there after school as a kid, after or during class, immediately came to mind. I particularly remember standing in a two-hour lineup to get tickets to the premiere of Raiders of the Lost Ark. No way, I thought to myself, the Elgin can’t possibly be closing. And yet it happened.
I’m too young to remember the Capitol. The Regent was torn down when I was four years old; the Centre (by then the Odeon Mall) quietly went dark a year later. But I do still remember going to see Walt Disney movies at the Rideau, where a trip to the upstairs arcade was de rigueur. I still remember seeing children's movies at the Cartier, long before it went porno. One such movie, La poursuite mystérieuse, fascinated me to the point that I asked my mom if I could go see it a second time. My folks also used to take my sister and me to the little De Paris for Sunday double features.
Later, when I started going to movies with friends, it was at the "Rat Hole," which only the newspaper ads referred to as the Rialto. There you could catch triple-bill exotic kung fu movies for about 75 cents. My friends and I considered going there a special thrill because it was in such a rough area of downtown. Then there was the Nelson, where I remember sitting one cold December night with my best friend and a handful of other patrons, way up in the balcony, watching Dune and sipping rum and eggnog right out of the carton. I later returned to the Nelson with one of my first dates. And then there was the Towne, located in a strange area that I didn’t know too much about as a teen-ager, but where I saw Pink Floyd: The Wall, a movie that fascinated my young mind at the time.
By that time, most of Ottawa’s movie palaces and neighbourhood houses were a thing of the past, but the few that remained were my favourites. You went to see a movie, then you walked right back into the street and into a public space. Within a few seconds you were engulfed in the city, rehashing in splendid solitude your favourite scenes from the film. Or if you were with the gang, you'd be talking loudly about it while deciding where to go hang out next.
Kids today may never have these same experiences. Sure, they’ll go to movies, but more often than not it will be at a mall or at a power centre. They will have had to be driven to it, and after the movie the only place they will be able to explore is—the mall. The two surviving true movie houses in town, the Bytowne and the Mayfair, are alone in providing an alternative—as long as they survive.
The idea for this book came to me in 1994, although its seeds were already planted well before then. I’ve always had a special interest in cinemas. I was sad when the Rideau was torn down to make way for the Dalhousie Street extension, and when the De Paris closed its doors. I recall feeling angry when the Rialto (by then the boarded-up Phoenix) was unceremoniously demolished, because homeless people were taking refuge inside to fight the cold. In other cities I always notice grand old theatres. I lived in Montreal for two years and made it a point to go to the Imperial and the Rialto just to see what they were like inside. Also in Montreal, one of the most depressing sights is the number of derelict theatres decaying behind barricades: the Seville, the Electra, the York. It's the same in Boston with the Paramount, and in Toronto with the University. Nostalgia makes me pause every time I see a closed cinema. The movie Cinema Paradiso speaks directly to that feeling.
In 1994, when both the Elmdale and the Elgin died, that did it. I started collecting photos and information, talking to people, going through old newspaper microfilms and archives. It wasn’t always easy. Lots of information is available on the bigger theatres, starting with All That Glitters, Hilary Russell’s authoritative dissertation on the Capitol, but for the smaller neighbourhood houses the task proved to be very challenging. When these places were open, people didn’t go around taking pictures of movie theatres, and newspapers had no reason to photograph them. The National Archives, while providing me with a wealth of documentation on the better-known showplaces, held little information about the small neighbourhood screens. I spent hours going through private collections, squinting at negatives, combing the papers page by page, and talking to people who had known these small theatres. I had already picked up a few books about theatres in other cities, such as Dane Lanken’s excellent Montreal Movie Palaces. I then decided it was time to do the same here in Ottawa. That is my first answer to the question, Why a book on Ottawa movie theatres?
The other reason I had for writing this book has a bit more to do with love for my city. Most books and tourist memorabilia available for Ottawa focus on Parliament Hill and a few big monuments. To the outside world, Ottawa is known as the capital of Canada and not much else. Even other Canadians often have a distorted view of our city. Ottawa is resented for being the seat of the federal government, which takes their tax money, and they may have a perception of our city as a fat cat burg where everyone lives off the teat of big government. Of course, we who live here know how unfair that portrait is.
With this book, I want to help dispel this image of our city. I want to show the world outside that beyond Parliament Hill there is a vibrant city with real people having real lives, and one small part of those real lives involves going to catch a show. This book is, in a simple way, about how the real people of this real city entertained themselves over the past century and a half.
For us, the people of Ottawa and Gatineau, I wanted to write a book about the places in our neighbourhoods that we cherished over the years and have lost. I want to contribute to the sense of pride we all ought to feel about this city and its place in Canada. A little-known fact the reader will note is that Ottawa was at the forefront of many innovations in the movie exhibiting industry.
This book is for the people of Ottawa and Gatineau, to help us know our city better and feel good about it; and it’s for people who don’t live here but are curious and willing to look beyond the familiar caricatures of Ottawa that appear in the media every day. Covering theatres in the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau (formerly Hull), this book treats our community as I believe it should be treated: as one metropolitan area.
Movie theatres were the focus of their neighbourhoods in many ways. In the days before television, entire families would go sit before the silver screen several times a week. Kids would religiously follow serials weekend after weekend, or sit at the rear with friends and learn to smoke. Moviegoing was an event. It got entire communities together and involved in all sorts of entertainments and contests. Collecting the sets of dishes that theatres offered as premiums and participating in the long-forgotten Foto-Nites are only two of many examples.
In their early days, movies were condemned by the Church as corruptive. This was particularly true in the francophone community, in both Ottawa and Hull, where priests regularly advised parishioners to stay away from theatres. The French-language newspaper, Le Droit, refused to carry cinema advertising well into the 1920s. This practice tended to backfire, however, since an edict by the priest against a particular movie usually ensured full houses for the theatre owners. In those days, movies were cheap. The price of a ticket in the 1940s was about a quarter of what it is today, roughly the same as streetcar fare.
Theatres came and went with the many changes in the exhibition industry. Opening a nickelodeon in the first decade of the twentieth century was a relatively easy thing to do. Prospective exhibitors did not have to worry about booking arrangements or circuit affiliations. Nor were they much controlled, in the very first years, by fire code regulations or today’s arcane zoning and parking requirements. As in all other North American cities, several dozen nickelodeons sprang up in the various neighbourhoods and downtown sections of Ottawa and Hull, and lasted anywhere from a few months to several years. The only obstacle faced by nickelodeon operators was their dubious respectability, in a society that originally associated movies with low-class and corrupt entertainment.
With the increasing popularity and social acceptance of moving pictures, the construction of permanent cinemas became viable. During the 1910s, large auditoriums were built along many of the city’s main streets. These facilities were designed with stages for the vaudeville shows and with orchestra pits, as silent movies had to be accompanied by music. This decade gave Ottawa some of its most enduring cinematic landmarks, such as the Centre, the Regent, the Français, and the Imperial theatres. It also produced the city’s most unique theatre, the Flower, which featured a retractable roof.
Theatre building reached its apex as the movie industry consolidated into large conglomerates and national circuits and chains. The Roaring Twenties were marked with the construction of lavish and enormous picture palaces.
The still-mourned Capitol was Ottawa’s prized example of this trend. Its opening in 1920 with regal honours was attended by an impressive array of Hollywood stars who were greeted at Union Station by the Governor General’s Foot Guards. Its 2,353 seats were regularly filled to capacity—and, remarkably, continued to show silent movies for another decade!
The arrival of talking pictures in 1928, and the Great Depression shortly afterward, forced the closing of some of the early, smaller cinemas, which could not afford to convert to sound or had already been losing clientele to the larger downtown palaces. A small wave of openings took place during the thirties, but the theatres built in those years were on a much smaller scale and were certainly not as sumptuous as the downtown palaces. The Mayfair, the Somerset, and the Elgin are examples of theatres built during this period.
The confetti and ticker tape from victory parades had barely been swept off the sidewalks in 1945 when a new movie theatre building boom hit the city. Chains like Odeon were the last to build bona fide downtown palaces. Small entrepreneurs stepped over each other at city hall for building permits to construct neighbourhood cinemas, many of which were soon acquired by the major chains. In those same years, mass ownership of television sets was just around the corner.
There have been four waves of theatre closings since television appeared. Some cinemas threw in the towel during the 1950s, having found that their previous customers were now evidently watching the tube. This was particularly true in neighbourhoods whose populations were declining as a result of migration to the suburbs, and in areas that had too many theatres for the same market. This is why the Imperial, the Rexy, the Eastview, the Strand, the Westboro, the Montcalm, and the Nola called it quits.
Then came the 1970s. Roughly twenty years after television was mass-marketed, most households now owned at least one set, which spelled the demise of the large downtown palaces in Ottawa, notably the Capitol and the Centre. The Regent also closed down during this period, when its property was expropriated by the federal government for the expansion of the Bank of Canada. Even if it had not been forced out, the Regent would eventually have proven to be too large to justify its continuance.
Also precipitating the closings of the downtown palaces were the mighty forces of land speculation. The big theatres, occupying large amounts of downtown land that was too valuable to allow them to remain viable, became easy targets for office-tower developers.
When Cineplex entered the market in the 1980s, a restructuring of the movie theatre industry took place. Cineplex actually saved the big movie chains from the continued onslaught of cable television and VCRs by drastically shrinking the individual movie theatre and opening complexes with several screens under one roof. It made much better business sense to offer a choice of several films at one location and to maximize profits by ensuring there were no large auditoriums sitting half empty most of the time.
Cineplex opened its first Ottawa outlets in 1980-81. It soon became clear that it was just a matter of time before rival chain Famous Players would follow suit. This led to another wave of small theatre closings, starting in the mid-1980s and continuing for about fifteen years. The Phoenix, the Elmdale, the Elgin, the Nelson and the Towne (the last two connected by ownership), the De Paris, and the Somerset were all victims of this restructuring. At the same time, the actual number of screens in the Ottawa area increased dramatically.
This increase took place mostly in the suburbs: the Kanata and Orleans Cineplexes, the Gloucester 5, the Promenades de l’Outaouais, and the Westgate theatres all were built during this same period. Within the inner city, new theatres mimicked the suburban formula, locating either in office towers or enclosed shopping concourses. Hence, the World Exchange Plaza, the Vanier, and the Rideau Centre cinemas.
As the 1990s drew to a close, yet another industry trend redefined the moviegoing experience. Shopping mall multiplexes became the focus of much criticism because of their small size, small screens, and poor acoustics. Some multiplexes became infamous for their paper-thin walls, which meant you would hear the shouts and gunshots from a Beverly Hills Cop car chase scene as you were trying to take in the poignant moments of Dead Poets Society.
A wave of closings came in the final years of the twentieth century, when megaplex theatres concentrated even more screens in fewer and fewer locations. The new 12-, 16-, and 24-screen big-box cinemas quickly killed off the reviled shopping mall theatres of the 1980s. Megaplexes were designed to restore a sense of awe to the movie theatre, with bright lights, tall ceilings, lots of games and food, steep floors, wall-to-wall screens, and digital surround sound. These amenities were all part of a very big investment by the major chains intended to get people to go to the movies more often. The cinema, according to the major chains, had to be a complete entertainment experience, where families could go and spend hours, not just watching movies but also relaxing, sipping Starbuck’s coffee, and letting the kids play games.
The consequence is that there is now only one movie theatre between downtown Ottawa and Kanata, only one between downtown and Orleans, and only one in the south end. Shamefully, the two major chains have only one theatre apiece in the downtown core, both small relics of the mall era. While in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver the major chains have gone into the downtown area to build their new megaplexes, in Ottawa the industry’s attitude seems to suggest that downtown can be served from the suburbs. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will pay off in the long run.
Interestingly enough, many small theatres on the Quebec side managed to outlast the first waves of closings, thanks to pornography, a factor that did not really play in Ontario. As Dane Lanken points out in his book Montreal Movie Palaces, Quebec’s more relaxed legislation on pornography made it possible for some cinemas to remain open several more years by switching to that format. In Montreal, even Famous Players got into the porn business, turning the downtown Strand into the Pigalle and extending that theatre’s life by almost a decade. In the National Capital area, only the beautiful Cartier, once also a Famous Players theatre, avoided death until 1991 by showing porn. Too late, the little De Paris tried it for about a month before giving up.
The Ottawa area is special, because of its location on the border of Ontario and Quebec, each of which has its own regulations. Only recently Ontario became more lax in its censorship of sexually explicit films. Prior to that, the Odeon Mall on Sparks Street and the Mayfair had both experimented with soft-core porn, but for customers who sought the ultimate in that experience, Hull was the place to go. During the 1970s, in fact, some cinemas in Hull were built specifically for porn. The Pussy Cat, the L’Amour, and the Vénus all were opened to capitalize on the Ontario market. During the 1980s, the Cartier also bought into the trend, leaving the Outaouais behind only Montreal in terms of the number of X-rated movie houses. When porn became widely available on video, these cinemas lost their market and closed.
We are left with but two old stand-alone movie houses, bravely sailing along in a sea of megaplexes, relics that will soon come to be seen more as museums rather than just ordinary cinemas. As John Warren wrote one day in the Ottawa XPress, reminiscing about old theatres, I remember the first time I saw the devil that killed them. It was about 1950. I was heading home from the Imp late one Saturday afternoon, past Colonial Furniture which still graces Bank Street at Waverly. In the window, sort of blue and flickering and shadowy but talking and moving nevertheless, were people on a round screen like a porthole in a wooden console. I didn’t realize it then, but they were about to mow down our picture palaces one by one. The last of the classy single-screen theatres may just be toppling today, but they’ve been doomed for decades by that small box. That’s progress, I guess.