In the summer of 2011, I wrote a series for OpenFile on Ottawa’s movie-theatre history. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on and dramatically challenged theatre exhibition – a business in a precarious position even prior to the pandemic – I could only find the series’ introduction. My friend Nick Taylor-Vaisey, who headed OpenFile’s Ottawa edition, helped retrieve this entry, which includes a history of the city’s remaining old-skool cinemas, the Mayfair and ByTowne.
These days, we grieve the experience of watching movies projected on large screens with surround sound in darkened auditoriums, filled with the smell of popcorn and whispers of anticipation. Our seat may have been a lush, plush, Cineplex VIP armchair, or an older, quick-to-flip chair that’s seen better years. Hopefully, the floors weren’t sticky, and the audience kept hush. These experiential pleasures can never be replaced by digital streaming, no matter the conveniences it offers. We dream of the day we can – safely – return to the cinema, but what theatres will still be standing by then? We must also, then grieve, the cinemas that can’t afford the wait. Earlier this month, the ByTowne announced they would permanently shutter at the end of 2020. Like many, I was devastated. I cried. And now, I cringe. My article begins with this harsh statement: “Of all the theatres to survive in Ottawa, it’s a shame that it had to be one as blasé looking as the Bytowne.” Oof. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how to cultivate gratitude for the things we have. To not take things for granted. And that includes old cinemas that don’t meet our high-falutin’ standards for architectural innovation. Given the demolition of nearly every single historic theatre in the city, it’s better to preserve what we can than be left with nothing at all.
The ByTowne is where I first saw Certified Copy, Tree of Life, and Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, among other cherished arthouse and foreign films. I remember walking out after seeing Certified Copy and coming across Ottawa’s small but vibrant Iranian community, standing in front of the cinema, all abuzz about Abbas Kiarostami’s first narrative film made outside his homeland. I remember hearing my native tongue Farsi intermingling with filmspeak, another language I hold dear and feeling ironically speechless. I remember waiting in a very long line to get into Tree of Life (it was worth it). I remember the taste of ByTowne’s popcorn, because it was the best.
Tomorrow, the Mayfair becomes Ottawa’s sole remaining historic movie theatre that still operates as a cinema, and I sincerely hope it survives the pandemic. Nine years after its original publication, my piece on these theatres serves as a small commemoration of the historic, beloved ByTowne. I also want to give a big thank you to Bruce White and his team for their countless years of bringing arthouse, auteur-driven, and foreign cinema to the nation’s capital. I cannot underscore this enough: Ottawa will miss you dearly.
Who would have known, at the time of its construction in 1932, that this small neighbourhood theatre would outlive most of its peers and remain independently owned for its entire life? Its hard-fought success is due to a few factors. Location is key. After the Glebe lost its neighbourhood theatre, the Avalon, in 1956, the Mayfair served not only its immediate neighbourhood, but also patrons further north. Its proximity to Carleton University draws in students who appreciated the cheap price of double-bill features, which second-run theatres like the Mayfair historically relied upon to attract clientele. Programming also changed with the times, but was initially reflective of the theatre’s identity as a family theatre. As such, it featured standard Hollywood fare with an emphasis on children’s movies. The Mayfair showed porn flicks in the 1970s due to lacklustre sales—and faced quite a number of complaints from the neighbourhood—but for the past few decades, the Mayfair has been known primarily for its mix of cult classics, foreign cinema and kids entertainment.
In terms of architecture, the Mayfair is a rare breed of movie theatre. Its Spanish revival style was popular mostly in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was the second theatre in the city with an interior that resemble a Spanish villa, complete with ornate stone facades and a blue painted sky for a ceiling. Its faux balconies, with their clay-tile canopies, medieval-style wrought-iron lamps, stained glass windows and iron spears invoke memories of a time when theatre architects had tired of ornate movie palaces, but still wanted their theatres to look beautiful. The Mayfair looks almost identical, on the inside, as on its first day, right down to the blue-lit auditorium clock that hangs from one of the left-hand faux balconies. Many neighbourhood theatres featured these clocks to keep children mindful of the time when their parents would pick them up. According to owner Lee Demarbre, the building has been examined by paranormal activity professionals who claim that three ghosts live behind the screen—and another one grumpily protects the armchair in the very back row of the balcony on the left-hand side.
Of all the theatres to survive in Ottawa, it’s a shame that it had to be one as blasé looking as the Bytowne. But what it lacks in architectural design, the Bytowne makes up for in programming. That’s thanks to Bruce White, the theatre’s owner since 1988, who has created a niche market in the city for art-house and foreign cinemas. For 40 years before that, the theatre was a Famous Players outlet known as the Nelson Theatre. With the closure of the Regent and Capitol, the Nelson became the company’s flagship Ottawa location due to its prime downtown location. When Famous Players leased it from its original owner, Hyman Berlin, in 1952, the company consistently tried to attract clientele through flashy advertising and renovations. In the 1950s, for example, large banners saying “It’s COOL inside” announced the theatre’s air-conditioning. In later years, an enormous searchlight was installed in front of the building. Due to the popularity of television in the 1960s, the movie industry tried to bring back patrons through new cinematic innovations like 70mm prints. Epic films like Ben Hur and El Cid found a screen at the Nelson because of the numerous renovations Famous Players had invested into the theatre to make it profitable, including wider screens, bigger seats (which reduced capacity from 940 seats to 770), projection equipment and sound systems.
When multiplexes took over the theatre business in the 1980s, Famous Players could no longer justify operating a single-screen theatre. What saved the Bytowne from becoming another casualty, as happened to the Elmdale and the Elgin, was its old contract provisions dating back to the 1950s. Theatre companies are often known to insert a clause stating that when new owner ownership takes over a theatre, that theatre can be used for any business—except for movie exhibition (Alain Miguelez calls it the “poison pill”). Famous Players had never bothered to revisit the contract, allowing Bruce White and Jean Cloutier of Towne Theatre to take it over and rename it the Bytowne (White later closed the Towne when it became too cumbersome to operate both).
No remnants of Famous Players remain in the theatre. Next time you’re at the Bytowne, make sure to look down before you enter the theatre. Where it once spelled out Nelson in terrazzo detail, the floor now says “Bytowne”—and still adheres to the 1940s tile style. Also take a good look at the marquee: most theatres replaced marquees by the 1980s due to a city policy that eliminated overhanging signs. When White took over the theatre, the City of Ottawa asked him to remove it. Thankfully, the official he talked to was a movie fan and a card-carrying member of the Bytowne. The city allowed White to keep the sign so long as he paid annual municipal encroachment fees. Another marquee-related expense is the electricity that powers the old-fashioned bulbs, but for White that cost is irrelevant: “To me, the ‘landmark’ that they create is worth the price.” This is the last original theatre marquee in all of Ottawa-Gatineau.
In the late 1930s, the Spanish revival found in the Mayfair had been replaced largely by art deco. The Somerset was a beautiful example of that style’s elegance. Stainless steel double doors with vertical oval windows welcomed you into its divine art nouveau grand foyer, where you would immediately notice a waterfall aquarium, a mesmerizing point of interest for children for two decades. The theatre was remarkable given the number of little rooms encased in the building. In addition to lavatories, there was a ladies’ powdering room, a gentlemen’s smoking lounge and a crying room for parents whose infants were disrupting the show, which was later used as a mini-screening suite for special guests. The theatre staffed 12 ushers, as well as a matron who kept a hawk’s eye for misbehaving children.
The Somerset’s location was key to its success for most of its life. With the nearby Imperial and Rialto amid a network of cafes, eateries and pubs, the Bank and Somerset intersection made Centretown a real night-life destination. Next door, the Bank Cafe even offered dinner-and-a-movie combos. The theatre had an interesting way of changing marquee signs. Instead of using a ladder, employees would use a large pole fashioned with a large suction cup at the top. Using a bucket of water, the employee would stick the suction cup to each letter to position them on the marquee. Apparently the process took roughly 20 minutes to complete, and in cases of icy weather when the suction cup refused to stick, groups would amass to offer their advice.
Closed in 2000, the Somerset was Cineplex Odeon’s last single-screen theatre in Canada. For years it had operated as a flagship property, especially in its heyday in the 1970s when movie palaces mostly shut down. It was one of the largest cinemas downtown, and so made the natural choice for Star Wars premieres. It was odd that the Somerset survived for so long, given its abysmal programming during its last few years. It is suspected Cineplex Odeon was trying to starve the theatre to death by featuring box-office bombs and premiering films at its new nearby location, the World Exchange Plaza. But the Somerset could have been saved. Even for years after the chain opened the World Exchange multiplex, films drawing large numbers—Alien Resurrection, Independence Day, Men in Black and more—screened first at the Somerset to serve large, sold-out crowds.
“The Rialto has always been Ottawa’s seedy cinema … But Ottawa without the Rialto would be like London without Raymond’s Revuebar, Paris without the Mouline Rouge. Classy, it ain’t. Part of us, it sure is. Even if we all deny ever having been in there.” (Ottawa Journal, 1978).
Originally called the Clarey (and later the Fern), this theatre was built at a time when movies were a booming business, and when even politicians like Tom Clarey—then on the city’s Board of Control—had to get in on the action. His 300-seat neighbourhood theatre on Bank Street at Florence joined several others along the same stretch. While the building was a straightforward neighbourhood theatre with little architectural charm, the Rialto became one of the most legendary cinemas in the city due to its sleazy reputation (it was nicknamed the Rat Hole). This was partially due to its location on Bank Street, which would attract all kinds of people. In the Great Depression, people arriving in the city looking for work had a convenient place to decompress and even sleep. According to Alain Miguelez’s book A Theatre Near You, Rialto owner Levinson once told a distributor: “I’m not selling movies, I’m selling a heated sheltered park bench for a dime.” Kids were attracted to the theatre because playing hooky to hang out in sketchy corners made them a hero on the playground. Skipping school for afternoon matinees at the Rialto became such a ritual for children that teachers would visit during their free periods to inspect the theatre for missing kids. Comedian Rich Little, who is originally from Ottawa, used to perform imitations in front of the theatre to delighted crowds. The Rialto became officially sleazy by the 1960s, when even the programming reflected its reputation: a single quarter could buy you an afternoon of martial arts and sex films (though the content was nowhere near as risqué as the stuff shown later in Hull porn theatres). Somehow, the theatre also managed to balance its programming with family fare during the latter half of the week. Employment at the Rialto thus required a high level of discretion: male customers might swing by both for the sex content early in the week and, with their families, for evening outings later in the week. The Rialto managed to survive the television era not only because of its niche marketing, but also cheap fare (one dollar for three films). By the 1970s, even niche markets couldn’t save the Rialto. When it reopened as the Phoenix, the theatre offered Centretown its own version of the Bytowne for a decade, showcasing art-house cinema, foreign movies and classics. But by 1982, it was taken over by Cineplex. The programming didn’t change much because Cineplex had succeeded with similar art-house theatres in Toronto. Some fantastic screenings included , Le declin de l’empire and Spike Lee films. What killed the Phoenix was the opening of the World Exchange Plaza Cinemas, which rendered the old theatre essentially useless. The property was then owned by Phoenix Investments, and the company invited other companies or entrepreneurs to take it over. By the late 1980s, no chains were interested in single screens. The recession also made it virtually impossible for an entrepreneur to sustain a viable theatre business, particularly because of costly renovations the theatre required. At a certain point, after homeless people were found squatting in the boarded-up premises, Phoenix Investments demolished the building in 1991. What is now the parking lot between Staples and Book Bazaar on Bank Street was once home to a legendary theatre.
Everything about the Capitol Theatre was monumental: its size (2,580 seats); its lavish grand opening (that instigated a public scandal); and, perhaps, most importantly, the lasting effect its closure had on the movie-going public. The demise of the Capitol fomented heritage advocacy and awareness in the city. People joined community associations to better protect their neighbourhood historic assets. A book was written about the theatre. According to Miguelez, “something in the city changed” when the Capitol was torn down. “Ottawa’s attachment to its beloved Capitol was so strong that its destruction made the city feel as if it had collectively undergone a rite of passage.” Those who grew up going to the Capitol will speak unequivocally of the Capitol’s glamour and opulence. This was a time when you dressed up to go to the movies.
Many movie palaces in major North American cities had been built in the 1910s, but it was only in the 1920s when movies entered the golden era. When the Capitol, then the Loew Ottawa, opened in November 1920, Ottawa was more than ready for its share of glitz and glamour. The Governor General’s Foot Guards band welcomed Loew chain owner Marcus Loew, the theatre’s renowned architect, Thomas Lamb, and a host of Hollywood stars at Union Station. They proceeded by motorcade to meet government officials, including Mayor Harold Fisher and Acting Prime Minister Sir James Lougheed. Only 3,000 of the several thousand people gathered outside the theatre were allowed in—still 500 people over capacity. The program for the evening included D.W. Griffith’s The Love Flower, a musical comedy titled Cheer Up, and four vaudeville acts.
The official party moved to City Hall after the screenings—it lasted until dawn—but once word got out, people became angry about the officials’ alleged misuse of city funds and the supposed after-party debauchery—which included, shock of all horrors, alcohol (then prohibited). Some city officials, including Napoleon Champagne, were quick to defend themselves: he only attended, he said, to chaperone the married men and keep them from “entanglements.”
The Capitol was christened in the nascent stages of the Roaring Twenties.
By the 1920s, glamorous marquees drew audiences to many theatres, but not the Capitol. Its sheer architectural beauty attracted passers-by. After passing through a short, wide lobby, movie-goers entered a magnificent foyer that showcased Lamb’s influences (beaux-arts and Adams style), with intricately sequenced sconces and a domed ceiling. Patrons would ascend a majestic marble staircase to access the balcony. A section accessible through the mezzanine area in the foyer was a ballroom (later closed off to serve non-theatre functions). The ballroom originally had a kitchen, coat-check area, a ladies’ lounge, a gentlemen’s smoking room and bathrooms. The auditorium walls featured fabric panels sheathed in ornamented plaster frames, and most of the upper levels of the theatre, including balcony boxes, featured most of the ornate decorative elements of the Adams style.
The Loew’s theatre sold out regularly and drew 30,000 patrons a week. At the time, Ottawa’s population was just 150,000. Famous Players vowed to create its own movie palace (the chain already owned the less opulent Regent), and even went so far as buying land and pouring foundation. So great was the company’s desire to compete with Loew’s that it screened first-run premieres at the Regent before even Toronto or Montreal. The Capitol was sold in 1924—unfortunately for Famous Players, to another chain, B.K. Keith’s. By the end of the decade, though, Keith’s had merged with Radio Corporation and Orpheum (RKO), which then acquired Famous Player’s. It was 1929 when the movie palace became the RKO Capitol—even if everyone still called it the Capitol.
From its inception, the Capitol doubled as a viable music performance space for classical music—and later, it was known for its rock concerts. Cream, The Who and Jimi Hendrix are among big-name stars who played there. When television began to destabilize the movie theatre business, the Capitol initially benefited from the closure of smaller neighbourhood theatres. Famous Players maintained it as a performance-art venue. But naturally, the construction of the National Arts Centre in 1969 spelled the end for the Capitol. It closed in 1970.