Bye-Bye, ByTowne: Iconic indie theatre screen darkens after 32 yearsThe ByTowne Cinema's marquee offered a simple farewell message: “Thanks Ottawa for 32 wonderful years.”
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Dec 30, 2020 • Last Updated 6 hours ago • 6 minute read
On Christmas Eve, the ByTowne Cinema closed its doors for possibly the last time. Here, Phil Graham leaves a thank-you message on the theatre's marquee. PHOTO BY BRUCE DEACHMAN /Postmedia
At around 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 50 people left the ByTowne Cinema for perhaps the last time, stepping into a wet and foggy Rideau Street following a screening of the 1954 holiday classic White Christmas.
The brightly lit marquee that announced the night’s movie and other fare shown earlier that week — Little Women, First We Eat and The Last Vermeer — had been updated since these same movie-goers entered the theatre two hours earlier. It no longer enticed passersby with coming attractions, instead offering a simple farewell message: “Thanks Ottawa for 32 wonderful years.”
And as ByTowne staffer Phil Graham descended a ladder after changing the marquee, a passing bicyclist, David Smaridge, stopped long enough to lament.
“I’ve been coming to the ByTowne since it opened,” he said. “It influenced me in all kinds of ways. I remember cutting my teeth on foreign cinema here. They used to have festivals with German cinema, French cinema. It influenced the way I think and really opened the world up for me. It helped me to see things differently, to have a wider scope.
“Its closing will mean a loss of a lot of richness and culture that I don’t get anywhere else,” he added. “With the internet and streaming, you can find things, of course, but we don’t have someone telling us, ‘This is good.’ We have no guide, and that’s what the ByTowne gave me.”
Meanwhile, some among the sparse crowd, as they did inside the theatre prior to the show, snapped pictures on their iPhones, capturing the latest fleeting fragment from Ottawa’s history: the closing of the landmark ByTowne Cinema.
This emotional and nostalgic handwringing and remembrance had become commonplace over the previous three weeks, since owner Bruce White announced that the 650-seat theatre, owing in part to the burdensome economics wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, would close its doors by the year’s end. An avalanche of heartfelt condolences subsequently poured in. Customers sought to purchase ByTowne memorabilia — its seats, even. Social media overflowed with best wishes and fond memories. One woman recounted meeting her husband-to-be for the first time in the ByTowne’s lobby 32 years earlier, at a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another told of how she moved to Lowertown to be within walking distance of the theatre.
Customers attending the final show also felt a similar wistful indebtedness.
“I haven’t come here as often a I would have liked,” admitted Alex Seelye, “and I guess that’s a lot of everyone’s story. But I’ve been in Ottawa for 30 years and this is a staple; it’s where you see the best movies and documentaries and film festivals. It’s not the big hits you see here; it’s the more interesting things. And it’s always comfortable here.”
David Cuevas said it was depressing to think he might be attending the ByTowne’s final screening. Now 18, he’d been a regular patron since he was 11, and estimated he’d attended more than 200 films there in the past five years. “It’s like my second home. It’s a part of the community and a huge part of Ottawa’s culture.”
ByTowne Cinema owner Bruce White says that if the pandemic hadn’t occurred, the succession transition he’d hoped for might have gone unnoticed by customers. PHOTO BY ERROL MCGIHON /Postmedia
Indeed, the ByTowne has been a unique institution in Ottawa, a commercial independent theatre that brought foreign, Canadian and lesser-known films to Ottawans who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to see them. It has also regularly supported numerous festivals, and, more recently, provided a large-screen venue for some Oscar-worthy Netflix productions, such as Roma, The Two Popes, The Irishman and Marriage Story.
The ByTowne Cinema was born in 1988 when the Famous Players theatre chain, which operated the Nelson Theatre on Rideau Street, decided to close the venue in favour of larger suburban multiplexes. White, along with then-partner (now city councillor) Jean Cloutier, who five years earlier bought the Towne Cinema on Beechwood Avenue, purchased the Nelson and rechristened it the ByTowne. The pair, White contends, intended to build a theatre empire, but the new ByTowne essentially cannibalized its sister theatre’s audience, and by the time, less than a year later, the Towne’s lease was up for renewal (then operating under the name New Edinburgh Cinema), the pair decided to let it lapse and keep all their cinematic eggs in the one, larger basket.
White and Cloutier considered splitting the 780-seat venue into two or three smaller cinemas, but ultimately decided against that route.
“I’m really glad we didn’t,” says White. “One of the charms of the place is that it is big and old and unique.”
On Christma Eve, the ByTowne Cinema, its seating capacity limited by public-health orders to just 50 people, screened what will possibly be the theatre’s last film, White Christmas. PHOTO BY BRUCE DEACHMAN /Postmedia
Much of the ByTowne’s success had been a result of its eclectic schedule, although White downplays his own importance in creating the theatre’s programming. “You’re working with what’s possible,” he says, “and you’re working with a feedback loop based on your own audience experience. So if your audience has rewarded you by attending a Maggie Smith costume drama, the next time a distributor offers you a Maggie Smith costume drama, you’re likely to consider it favourably.
“It’s not rocket science,” he adds. “And then you throw into that a bit of curatorial stuff, where you think, ‘While I’m making a lot of money with a Maggie Smith movie, maybe I can slip in this movie that I saw at a festival three months ago and thought was really good, and otherwise might not have enough of a profile to be considered a box office hit.
“So yes, I was always intrigued with balancing the ByTowne’s schedule, and if I can take any credit, it would be about that balance.”
Jarring as the news of the theatre’s demise may be, it could, in one fashion or another, be premature. In the short term, the weeklong, 21-film “Best of the ByTowne” showcase that White had intended to screen between Christmas and New Year’s, a plan scuttled by Ontario’s current COVID lockdown, may be revived at the end of January. Scheduled films included Amélie, Babette’s Feast, Metropolis and Parasite, with Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads’ concert film that the ByTowne showed when it first opened on Oct. 1, 1988, bookending the theatre’s 32-year run.
In the longer term, although White will no longer be at the curatorial helm, there’s reason to believe that some version of ByTowne 2.0 will emerge on the other side of the pandemic. In August 2019, with an eye to retiring, White began putting feelers out to film societies and independent theatre operators elsewhere who might be interested in purchasing the ByTowne. Two possible buyers from out of town were planning a visit to kick the tires on March 15, when everything shut down. White says he expects those initial potential buyers may still be interested once the ByTowne can again fully open its doors. Failing that, others, too, have recently expressed an interest in keeping the ByTowne’s brand of independent cinema alive in Ottawa.
“Without the pandemic,” White says, “it would’ve been a more invisible succession. We would’ve gone from being open one day under my tenure to being open the next day under theirs, and people probably wouldn’t have even noticed that I was gone. And you never would’ve had to have gone through the interesting exercise of saying you’re closing.
“And people might be selling me a little bit short if they think I’m just going to brush myself off and walk away,” he adds. “There have been a few people who have been panicked — and they’re hard to talk down out of the tree — that the day after tomorrow, a condo tower is going to rise up in its place. I don’t think that’s giving me enough credit for wanting to see the legacy continue.
“So I would like to reassure people that my first retirement gig is to find a way to have the cinema, in some modified form because not everyone is going to run it the way that I ran it, continue to champion independent and Canadian and documentary and foreign films. For the remainder of the pandemic, that’s my job.”
The rest will be up to us.