Continuing my personal tour of Winnipeg’s vanishing downtown movie theatres …
In the late ’70s, the city got its first multiplex. In the downtown Eaton Place mall, just across Graham Avenue from the Eaton’s department store, seven very small screening rooms were built just off the second floor food court (average capacity about 65 seats). The downside was the tiny screens and uninviting atmosphere of the characterless box auditoriums; the upside was that the theatre programmed a lot of smaller and foreign movies. This was the last hurrah of Winnipeg being one of the premiere cities in North America when it came to the range and variety of what was offered to movie-goers.
Two blocks west of Eaton Place on St. Mary Avenue, a big theatre was opened in 1975 as part of the Winnipeg Convention Centre. This was like a larger version (almost 600 seats) of the Northstar theatres, a long, plain auditorium with a good, big screen. The last thing I remember seeing there – and I think it had already ceased to operate as a regular movie theatre by that time, relegated to special events – was the premiere of my friend John Kozak’s grim feature Hell Bent (1994).
In 1981, the city’s first stand-alone multiplex opened at the corner of Princess Street and Notre Dame Avenue, just half a block from the Odeon. The Towne 8, not surprisingly, had eight screens in a grim building with all the functional charm of an industrial plant. Except for the big main auditorium, all the screens were high on the wall so you had to risk a sore neck staring up at them, and all through the show you could hear the traffic passing outside and, in the winter, the loud roar of the heating system pumping air through big pipes hanging from the ceiling. In the early ’80s, when there was a brief revival of 3D, I caught a number of classics at the Towne, including Andre De Toth’s House of Wax and Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, as well as Paul Morrissey’s Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Charles Band’s not-classic Parasite and Metalstorm. Going to the Towne has always been like watching a movie in someone’s garage, but it’s the only remaining free-standing commercial theatre downtown.
In the mid-’80s, the Winnipeg Film Group established the Cinematheque, initially with weekend screenings at the National Film Board’s Cinema Main. My first encounter with the work of programmer Dave Barber was a screening of Mike Jones’ Newfie masterpiece The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood, one of the most insanely inventive films ever made in Canada. A few years later, the WFG built its own dedicated theatre (about 120 seats) on the ground floor of the Artspace building in Winnipeg’s Old Market Square. I couldn’t even begin to add up the hours I spent at the Cinematheque, helping out as a volunteer, eventually becoming Dave’s house manager in the early ’90s; I used to love hanging out at the box office and in the projection booth night after night, chatting with the regulars – and there were a lot of them back then. The Cinematheque offered a very definite alternative to the big theatres and the chains, building a strong audience for Dave’s eclectic programming of local, Canadian and foreign films.
I particularly remember the strange, exciting frisson I felt on the afternoon of Sunday, January 12, 1992, sitting in the Cinematheque watching a wretchedly faded print of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when HAL introduced himself by saying “I am a HAL 9000 computer, Production Number 3. I became operational at the HAL Plant in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1992.” When Dave booked the rental, he had no idea of the coincidence of dates.
In the mid-’80s, when city planners managed to bulldoze entire blocks on the north side of Portage Avenue to make way for the uninviting downtown Portage Place Mall, in a single stroke destroying much of the atmosphere of the city centre, a three-screen theatre opened on the third floor, with an IMAX theatre (280 seats) just across from it. Famous Players eventually pulled out of the always-troubled mall and in 2002 Landmark took over the theatre as a downtown “art house”, The Globe, mostly devoted to independent and foreign films, a chain presenting direct competition to the Cinematheque (you might even say unfair competition as the mall apparently lets Landmark have the site at a nominal rent just to keep the place open). The Globe for many years hosted the National Screen Institute’s now-defunct Local Heroes film festival, and still presents an annual French-language screening series called Cinemental. But what I mostly think of now is the often poor projection and the fact that facing the auditorium doors are big high windows through which the sun often blazes, blanking out big chunks of the screens whenever anyone opens the door to walk in or out (which happened just the other evening during the opening scene of Wyeth Clarkson’s The Mountie).
The remaining two theatres within easy walking distance were the small independent Cinema 3 and the Polo Park Cinema, located through a rear entrance at Winnipeg’s first shopping mall. In the basement, this was a small (about 400 seats), asymmetrical auditorium which often showed interesting movies. I saw Neal Jordan’s The Crying Game there, and also Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It felt like a real loss when the theatre closed in 1994, and that loss was not really compensated with the opening of the Polo Park Silver City 12-screen multiplex five years later (total capacity 3500) … well, not unless you enjoy wading through the din of massed video games in the lobby as you push through the crowd past the kids’ party room to get to your movie. (I just saw Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon at the newly opened IMAX auditorium at Silver City, in 3D of course.)
Located on Ellice Avenue, Cinema 3 was perhaps the oddest and most charming of Winnipeg’s theatres, run by Wayne Holunga and his two sisters, Bonnie and Connie (he projected, they ran the box office and concession, and would always ask what you thought of the movie when you came out). The eclectic and often eccentric programming reflected the personal tastes of film enthusiasts who had to answer to no-one. They offered Russian, Iranian, Chinese, Indian films, small independent movies, interesting mainstream titles (the first movie I saw there in 1973 was Sidney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson; I remember walking home afterwards through pouring rain, getting soaked to the skin, which somehow seemed appropriate given the rugged, outdoor story of the film). Over the years the building went into decline and sometimes the centre seats would be closed off because of a leaking roof. For some strange reason, there was a large model airliner hung on the wall to the left of the screen and occasionally the rods of the old carbon arc projectors would gradually burn down during a screening and the picture would slowly fade to black and you’d have to wait a few moments, just listening to the soundtrack, until the projectionist adjusted the spark and again gave us light. But shaky projection aside, Cinema 3 was the only place in town where you could see the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Zhang Yimou.
I lived for a while in an apartment just across Ellice from Cinema 3, which was very convenient. But towards the end, the theatre showed only East Indian movies and after it closed in 2002, it was renovated and reopened as a performance/meeting place by a local religious group.
The first movie I ever saw in Winnipeg was at the Park Theatre, south on Osborne Street. It was Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher; I’d read some good reviews, but I think it was a bit too subtle for me at the time – I went in expecting a more robust psycho-killer story, rather than this lowkey French study of small town bourgeois ennui with murders on the side. I appreciate it much more now. The Park, not a large theatre, often showed foreign films back then, although I also caught a preview of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles there, not to mention a preview of Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke, bizarrely paired with that weekend’s regular feature, Bob Clark’s Porky’s Revenge.
The last film I ever saw at the King’s (780 seats), on Portage Avenue just west of Polo Park, was a return one weekend of John Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing. The print was in wretched shape, scratched and broken, with the colours faded. Years before that, I’d seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s overwrought, but quite entertaining Last Tango In Paris there – not on its initial opening, however, as it had quickly been seized by the police who were determined to figure out whether it was obscene or not. After they decided it wouldn’t bring down Western civilization and released the print, it reopened and I was kind of underwhelmed (but then I was only about twenty and looking for “forbidden” images rather than a long, talky psychodrama). I also saw a revival of Disney’s Snow White there in the late ’80s. The King’s closed in the mid-’90s and is now a sporting goods store.
The Epic on Main Street became best known in its final days as the place to go on weekends for midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with audience participation and costumes; the Hyland, further north on Main, put on weekend midnight shows too, great double features like Phantasm with The Hills Have Eyes. And west of downtown on Sargent Avenue, for a while the Festival Theatre (previously a grindhouse called the Venus) became a terrific revival house, programmed by my rival reviewer on the University of Manitoba’s student paper, Greg Klymkiw, who soon became the distribution officer of the Winnipeg Film Group and producer of the early films of John Paizs and Guy Maddin. It was at the Festival that I first encountered David Lynch’s Eraserhead, an experience that literally changed my life as it led to my first professional writing assignment and a six month job in Mexico on Lynch’s Dune.
Finally there was the Garden City, far north on McPhillips Street, which in 1979, like the Capitol, was split in two (although in this case side by side, making for two long narrow auditoriums). I would occasionally bus out there as they would show movies not screening closer to downtown – Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (for which I actually walked all the way out there on November 11, 1982, as the weather was quite pleasant and the buses infrequent because it was Remembrance Day). Garden City closed just a year ago.
There were a few non-theatrical venues as well. Film programmes were sometimes put on at the University of Winnipeg (I first saw Peter Brooks’ Lord of the Flies there, Marcel Ophuls’ Memory of Justice and George Romero’s Martin); at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Fellini’s La Strada with impossible to read white-on-white subtitles; a gruelling series of Michael Snow films); and the Planetarium on Main Street (my first viewings of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, Robert Wise’s Day the Earth Stood Still, and the grim Czech post-apocalyptic The End of August at the Hotel Ozone, which I was very happy to encounter again more then thirty years later on DVD). One evening I got to see Roger Corman’s finest movie, The Intruder, projected at the University of Manitoba (on video, unfortunately, but still a great experience).
Now here’s where I really start to sound like a cranky old guy: I used to love going out to movies, as every theatre had its own personality and atmosphere. Seeing a movie at the Met was quite different from seeing one at the Capitol; going to the Park was very different from going to the Garrick or the Northstar or the Polo Park. These individual ambiances added immeasurably to the experience. And, of course, in those days you could sit through the show as many times as you liked, something I would do if a movie particularly engaged me. But now, going to the movies, like the movies themselves, has become homogenized in the big box, suburban multiplexes (Kildonan Place, Silver City Polo Park, Silver City St. Vital). Every theatre shows the same movies, and if you happen to miss one, you can always catch it at one of the two discount second-run Cinema City multiplexes, also located far out in the suburbs.
The internal map of Winnipeg that I carry around in my head has been seriously impoverished by the closing of all those old theatres; there are barely any traces of them left now (historically, before I arrived in the city, there were even more theatres, pretty much one in every neighbourhood; but at least some of those buildings still remain, repurposed as neighbourhood supermarkets and bowling alleys and even religious meeting places). Their loss has a large part to play in the sense of emptiness and dereliction which plagues Winnipeg’s core area today.
Theatrical viewing choices have narrowed so much, while the range of options on DVD and Blu-ray has expanded, that I do most of my watching at home now … but it’s really not the same, and I miss the richness of what I was lucky enough to experience in the ’70s and ’80s.
There’s quite a bit of information about the history of Winnipeg’s movie theatres here, although not all of it is accurate.