Saturday, July 17, 2004

To the late-night, double feature picture show

There's a certain mystique to movie theatres. Or at least, there used to be, before the grand old movie palaces were pushed aside for mall shoebox-sized multiplexes. Recent developments in theatre design are an improvement over the dark days of the 70s and 80s, but only just. I still miss - if that can be the right word - those great old theatres shuttered or even demolished long before I was born. A few months ago, I ran across this site - lists of theatres and their locations across North America, in some cases complete with photos, addresses, and dates of closure. The page for downtown Ottawa fascinated me. I knew of some of the theatres, certainly; the Elgin's hollowed-out husk is hard to miss, the dance club Barrymore's is quite transparently the old Imperial, and I was vaguely aware of the Capitol. But there are forty-odd entries on that list, and only five are still open. I was stunned. There used to be about a dozen theatres within walking distance of my front door; now there are two. (Or three, perhaps, though the Bytowne is admittedly a bit further away than the others.) I was also intrigued. Here was the basic information I could use to find out much more. Urban geography is one of my peculiar historical interests. Few people consciously think of a random store or school or theatre as historically significant; it's just visual background noise. But it doesn't take very much digging to find out just how much can change in a short period of time. Fifty years ago, the entire block across the street from my window was a business college, complete with grounds and dormitories; now it's office buildings. My apartment building wasn't constructed until 1985; before that, this block was mostly two and three-story pre-war apartments. The one historical constant I've been able to observe is that as time passes, the change inflicted on an area by civilization happens quicker and more often - which is why it's fascinating to be able to observe it so close to home, and so comparatively recently. The first theatre I thought I'd research was the closest one. It'd be my dream to have a beautiful old movie palace sitting a couple blocks away; alas, all I have are photographs, microfiche, and longing for what might have been, if not for an unfortunate accident. Just for fun, take a look over at the Ottawa list again, and look for the Odeon Theatre. There isn't much information, just the slightly-incorrect location of Bank & Laurier (it was actually at 142 Bank, halfway up the block between Laurier and Slater) and the innocuous-sounding phrase "Opened 1949 and closed 1958." Why was it closed, pray tell? That's why. A gas leak in the basement of Addressograph-Multigraph of Canada Ltd.'s offices at 348 Slater on the morning of October 25, 1958 leveled half the block. It also caused serious structural damage in other nearby surrounding buildings - the effects of which are still being felt. The explosion also demolished a government office complex, the Jackson Building - which was replaced several years later by another tower of the same name, across the street. The era of replacement compared to the year of destruction evident from the entrance of the "new" Jackson Building tells a story all by itself. But to digress: Though only the rear third of the theatre itself was destroyed, it was apparently not felt worthwhile to restore the building for use. On a more nerve-wrenching note, only a scheduling quirk prevented the death toll from being much worse: This is interesting for two reasons. First, that number would seem to exceed the seat capacity listed on the above site; though I haven't sourced the number myself, it seems too precise not to be at least suggestively useful. Second, what exactly what was playing at the Odeon during the period in question...? ...I see. Those filthy-minded little kids. (Haw haw. No, it was actually a Disney live-action feature they were scheduled to see that morning.) Today, the lot is occupied by an open plaza, which on weekdays houses the Ugly Iguana Cantina & Grill. Several summers ago it also hosted Centretown Movies, an outdoor film festival. I suppose that's thematically appropriate, if indeed something of a sad, zombie-like existence for such a place. Visible on the rear wall of the next building are the Odeon's preserved decorative arches - the only remnants of a theatre I never knew, but wish I'd had the chance to. This post marks what I plan to be a recurring feature, as I make my way around town and to the library to perform the appropriate research. There are so many theatres in this town too long forgotten; I just hope I can find enough to write about with the scant resources available.

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