Ottawa’s history with film

In the summer of 2011, I published a series of articles on Ottawa’s movie-theatre history for OpenFile, a now-defunct community-journalism project. I salvaged whatever content I could find using Wayback Machine: 

Because we want to contribute to the city’s love of the cinema, we thought we’d cast our minds back and explore the history of moving pictures in the nation’s capital. Tina Hassannia will be our tour guide and explain in several parts the nooks and crannies of Ottawa’s cinematic past. In this first part, she starts before the turn of the 20th century.

Imagine for a moment that you lived in Ottawa more than a century ago. There was no such thing as the Internet, cell phones, Netflix—or even lolcats (the latter is debatable, actually, but more on that later). Television was light-years away. Even the now-almost-archaic radio wasn’t yet a household fixture.

As for movies, the only kind of moving image you had ever heard of was the magic lantern, which only kind of—sort of—gave some impression of moving pictures. Then, in late 1894, a Kinetoscope parlour opened up on Sparks Street near Bank Street, causing great pandemonium as everyone in town—including you and your friends—lined up to see the great marvel of Thomas Edison’s peep-show device. For a few seconds, audiences watched women dancing and men boxing.

Two years later, on June 21, 1896, the two ambitious young brothers who brought the Kinetoscope to Ottawa, Andrew and George Holland, made film history in Canada—in your very own city. They brought the Vitascope, the next generation of moving pictures, to Canada.

The vitascope made its debut at West End Park, what is now the intersection of Holland Avenue and Ruskin Street. That’s where awestruck Ottawans first marvelled at images of locomotives and Niagara Falls, brought to life as never before.

In those early years, the subject matter was not as impressive as the technology. That an image could indeed move was something to behold, whether in undulation like Loie Fuller’s waves of dress fabric in her famous Serpentine Dance, or the alacrity of factory workers milling about. Trainsbabies and boxing cats—arguably the first lolcats—were popular subjects of spectacle in the late 1800s.

By the end of the 20th century’s first decade, the Cinema of Attractions, which had become one of the most exhilarating experiences at amusement parks, had evolved into something else entirely: storytelling. Film editing techniques were standardized, which led to increasingly complicated narratives. The demand for movies was so high after the first few years of the new century it became profitable, and quite easy, to open a nickelodeon theatre.

Ottawa was no exception to the trend. What is now the Rideau Street Chapters was the site of the city’s first nickelodeon: the Unique Theatre. Many more would pop up throughout the 1910s.

Social mores impeded the initial growth of Ottawa’s theatres. Nickelodeons were seen as crass, lower-class entertainment establishments, and so they populated the blue-collar neighbourhood of Rideau Street and the ByWard Market, where they became quite popular. Many nickelodeons targeted female audiences, because it was thought that by successfully attracting a female clientele, theatres could shed their tawdry, low-class stigma.

Blue laws also prevented theatre exhibitors from operating on Sundays. In 1912, after a long battle in the Supreme Court of Canada, Quebec’s theatre owners won the ability to show films on Sundays. Ontario theatre owners were not as lucky: the province’s blue law was lifted much later, in the 1960s. That allowed Gatineau theatre owners to profit handsomely from Ottawa patrons for decades.

For one reason or another, the now-archaic Kinetoscope continued to fascinate Ottawans. Unique Theatre owner Ken Findlay had several slot machines front of house, which reaped as much revenue as the shows themselves. In the business district west of the canal, which still serves as the city’s financial district, those with a few more pennies in their not-so-threadbare pockets would find high-brow entertainment—stage productions and vaudeville—in the stately Russell Theatre, Grand Opera House, and Her Majesty’s Theatre.

By the mid-to-late 1910s, movies had become a more respectable leisure activity, creating the need for more stable theatres with better ventilation systems and inflammable materials. One such theatre popped up on Bank Street, south of Maclaren Street. As you look up at Barrymore’s from the south, spot the faded Imperial Theatre sign painted on the south side of the building. It’s one of the last relics of this period. Imperial Theatre, built in 1914, was part of the first wave of neighbourhood theatres to open during this decade.

Business was booming, and ambitious theatre managers pulled all the stops to allure passersby with toothsome outside displays. The most notable theatre for these stunts was the Flower Theatre, built in 1914 and later known as the Strand. Its life was cut short by the stiff competition brought on by the much larger, opulent movie palaces in the 1920s, but in its brief life the Strand coloured Ottawa’s city landscape with creative movie advertising gimmicks—for example, a Charlie Chaplin imitator during the reign of the Little Tramp films. In later years, and under new management, the Strand’s promotional strategy for their run of Shirley Temple’s Mrs. Temple’s Telegram included fake telegrams sent out to hundreds of married men in the city which read: “If you don’t take your wife to the Strand tonight to see Mrs. Temple’s Telegram, she will never forgive you.” The Flower’s retractable roof made it Canada’s first “air-conditioned” theatre. Early Ottawan movie-goers could kick back, relax, and watch photoplays under the stars.

By the Roaring Twenties, show business was the real deal. Chains invested in stately, opulent movie palaces, the most notable in Ottawa being the beloved Capitol Theatre. Over the next few decades, a respectable number of neighbourhood theatres populated the city, including the pair of theatres still alive and kicking, the Mayfair and the Bytowne. It may be a tad puzzling why only two of 25 theatres built in Ottawa during the golden era of film and post-war period remain. But that’s what we’ll explore next in this series, when we look at the rise of Ottawa’s great theatres, what made them flourish—and also their downfall.

The distant memories of Bank Street’s former theatres

Bank Street’s no stranger to theatres. Tina Hassannia has so far written about two classics on the downtown drag—The Imperial and the Capitol—that delighted audiences at various points throughout Ottawa’s cinematic history. Today, she writes about two other theatres in the heart of Centretown—both shuttered, but both with rich history.

Somerset Theatre

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. According to Alain Miguelez, it was odd that the Somerset survived for so long, given its abysmal programming during its last few years. He suspects 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 ResurrectionIndependence DayMen 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 A. 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 Au revoir les enfantsLe 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 an empty lot between Staples and Book Bazaar on Bank Street was once home to a legendary theatre.

Later this week, Tina Hassannia will continue to tell us about Ottawa’s former theatres, including the old Elgin Theatre—the memory of which hasn’t disappeared entirely from the cinema’s old home on the street of the same name.

Pauline Tam once wrote about the Capitol for the 150th anniversary of Ottawa: “The movie palaces were never meant to be permanent. Like the entertainment they offered, they were inconstant creations, things of fantasy, artifice, illusion. These gilded pleasure domes, offered as an antidote to their clientele’s working-class blues, were simply the corporate marketing tools of an industry that can only secure its almighty dollar by continuously reinventing itself” (“Dreams of Plaster,” Ottawa Citizen, 1995, p. 69). Photo courtesy City of Ottawa (MG-189029)

By the time the “Rat Hole” started showing porn flicks in the 1960s, many of its architectural details (like columns on either side of its sign and marquee) were long gone and made the theatre look that much more rundown and sketchy. Photo courtesy the City of Ottawa (MG011/CA-18895).

By the mid-1850s Ottawa needed a permanent performing arts centre in order to keep its profile high as a young capital city. Her Majesty’s Theatre, the city’s first stage theatre, was built in 1856 and was located on Wellington Street at O’Connor. The building was handsome but paled in comparison to the stately opera houses of European capitals, but it at least provided the incipient cultural scene a functional venue for two decades before being turned into a print shop. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.


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