With indie movie theatres dropping out to cinema giants, what’s to become of dinner and a movie?
It’s a Thursday evening and you’ve just finished having a nice dinner downtown. The conversation has been flowing without interruption, you’ve enjoyed the atmosphere of the restaurant. Drinks have been imbibed and enjoyed. You decide that catching a movie might be a nice way to spend the remainder of the evening. Unfortunately, the closest movie theatre is literally across town.
Windsor’s downtown, Walkerville and east side neighbourhoods are full of residents and thriving businesses, but aside from cineplexes in big box epicentres, many Windsorites are without convenient access to movie theatres.
Windsorite and university student Nicko Mammonas remembers going to the cinema in downtown Windsor. He believes that having a theatre downtown is beneficial for stimulating the economy and provides tourists and residents with an attraction in the city’s core.
“When I was younger, I used to go to the movie theatre downtown. It was readily accessible to places that you could go out to, enjoy the nightlife, as well as see a movie. By combining the two things and allowing that interaction it might allow more people to want to experience the downtown life of Windsor. It might change the perspective of [downtown] only being for drinks, to party or to dance, and transform it into a more social thing to do.”
Windsor used to be home to an ample collection of independently owned cinemas. But due to monopolization, one by one, they have disappeared.
Downtown there was Palace Cinemas and the Capitol Theatre. Opened New Year’s Eve 1920, the Capitol Theatre, then called Loew’s Windsor Theatre, was configured as both a silent and vaudeville theatre; complete with an orchestra pit. The 1,995-seat theatre was subdivided in 1975 by then owners Famous Players, and given three auditoria. The advent of the multiplex and high operating costs eventually convinced Famous Players to close the Capitol in 1989. Later that year, the cinema transformed in to a venue for live theatre and now is undergoing renovations to become the home of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra.
The Palace Cinema also opened in 1920 and, following a 1980 modernization, housed four screens. The cinema rolled its final credits earlier this year after it was purchased by The Windsor Star.
Not to be out done by downtown, the Tivoli Theatre in Walkerville was too built in 1920 as a vaudeville theatre and later as a traditional film theatre. It closed its doors in 1963 and hasn’t projected a film since.
The only remaining theatres in Windsor-Essex are SilverCity, Cineplex Odeon and Lakeshore Cinema; none of which are located anywhere near the city’s centre. The only other cinema in the region is a drive-in theatre located a 40-minute drive away in Tilbury.
Windsor’s downtown is home to both the Windsor International Film Festival and Media City Film Festival, who pride themselves on screening independent cinema. It’s surprising that Windsor doesn’t have a cinema in the city centre. These events exist solely to show films but are forced to use non-traditional venues to do so.
There are opportunities to change the fate of urban cinefiles though.
The small underground ‘Boom Boom Theatre’ ran reels for an eight month period in 2008 in a custom designed theatre in the basement of Boom Boom Room nightclub. The 60-person capacity, single screen cinema showed independent cultural movies and operated two nights per week. With its own entrance on Ouellette Avenue, the theatre was ideal for those seeking to catch a movie downtown.
Unfortunately, due to water damage from a flood, the theatre had to be closed indefinitely. Boom Boom Room co-owner Renaldo Agostino explained that a few thousand dollars was all that was needed to turn it into a viable space.
“We’ve always thought about doing it again, but you need that kind of person who will really spearhead it,” said Agostino. “We do a lot of stuff. We do a lot of big shows, lots of big DJs. We’re very into the art scene, so we try to be more than a nightclub. We’re more of an entertainment centre.”
According to Agostino, Boom Boom Theatre wasn’t “built to compete with [big movie theatres] it was more independent film … that’s what made it special. You could walk in and see really cool stuff─ as opposed to stuff you see in the big theatres. We used to open the backroom and everyone would sit around and talk about the movie for a few hours.”
Referring to larger theatres such as Silver City which offer a plethora of screens and an IMAX theatre, Agostino commented that it was the “evolution of the entertainment business. Everyone wants 3D … the best sound, the best picture, and unfortunately, the only people that can provide that are the big movie chains. You’re kinda at their will to go where they want.”
John Doherty used to operate an art-house/alternative theatre in the location now occupied by sports bar The Krooked Kilt on Wyandotte Street West. The Windsor Film Theatre, operated from 1990 to 2000, showed films that wouldn’t make it to smaller markets like Windsor, as well as foreign films primarily from Europe.
Working throughout his university years, Doherty started at the front of house, learned how to be a projectionist and eventually took over the business with two other partners.
“Business sucked,” joked Doherty, adding, “We had our regulars─ and thank God for those regulars. They were very good, and we treated them like gold … it became a small community.”
Doherty explained that aside from diehard regulars, there were a lot of people who loved the idea of cinema in their city, but that typically, people didn’t support it. While it was sustainable to keep the business open─ even with just five or six patrons per night─ Doherty explained that the theatre was primarily an “altruistic endeavour … it was strictly because I loved it. It wasn’t about the money back then.”
Doherty left in 2000 to focus on his day job and make his own films. His partner shut down the operation two months later. But Doherty believes there is always a desire for small cinema in the city.
“For years afterwards people came up to me and said, ‘Why did you shut it down? It was such a great thing. We loved it!’”