A Theatre Near You, Alain Miguelez

<em class="BookTitle">A Theatre Near You</em>, Alain Miguelez

Penumbra Press, 2004, 370 pages, C$45.00 hc, ISBN 1-89413-138-X

I must have passed on Alain Miguelez’ A Theater Near You in local bookstores for two or three years before finally buying it. As a lavishly-illustrated specialized publication from a boutique publisher, this wasn’t a book I could hope to see on sale at some point. What’s more, I do have a deep interest in the book’s subject matter: I spend most of my waking hours in Ottawa, and I’m a steady moviegoer: A book about “150 years of going to the show in Ottawa-Gatineau” is almost tailor-fit for my tastes, even if it ends up being one of my most expensive books purchased so far.

Fortunately, it’s worth every penny. Miguelez’ history of movie-going in the Ottawa area is a superbly-produced book that will certainly become the last word on the subject. It’s unbelievably well-researched (with 424 endnotes spread over ten pages), filled with a variety of historical facts, and it understands the economic, civic and cultural ramifications of its subject. A Theatre Near You deals perfectly with the language issues particular to Ottawa, demonstrates a keen understanding of the city’s history, and logically packages a complex subject in an easily-digestible structure. Its readability is also enhanced by clever graphic design: Nearly every single one of its pages sports visual material of some sort.

It starts earlier than anyone would expect, going back all the way to the mid-nineteenth century theaters founded when Ottawa was still lumberjack-shack Bytowne and Canada was still a vague notion. Miguelez then moves on to the electric era with the Nickelodeons, then the “Early Legitimate Cinemas”, the “Downtown Picture Palaces”, the “Talking Picture Theatres”, the “Post-War Theatre Boom”, a quick unabashed look at the wave of “Porno theaters” that briefly flourished when single-screen theaters tried to survive in difficult times, then the “Theaters in Malls and Office Complexes” and finally the current “Megaplexes” era.

Miguelez was able to sketch portraits of these eras with historical documentation and occasional memories from people who went or worked at those theaters. Each theater in Ottawa’s history (!) gets its own section, and the result is highly satisfactory. Miguelez himself becomes part of the story when discussing the closure of the Elgin or the Sommerset, and his first-hand knowledge of theaters in the area becomes more and more obvious as we move closer to the present day.

For the historical buff, A Theatre Near You is a fascinating open door on Ottawa’s history, and the place of cinema in the Canadian capital’s cultural life. Even longtime Ottawa residents may be surprised to find out about such things as the Russell Hotel, or the now-gone Canal Street. (The postcard illustrations of downtown in the first third of the book are amazing.)

I obviously never paid enough attention to my local history, because I was gob-smacked to find out about the existence of Le Français, the Regent or the 2,000+-seats Capitol and amazed at how much of Ottawa’ past cinema history remains visible in downtown today. The strange empty space next to the upper-Bank Street Staples is explained in this book, and if I stretch my neck a bit from my cubicle, I can see the empty space left behind the gas explosion that destroyed the Odeon in 1958. Those historical fact progressively mesh with my own memories as I recall the Sommerset (where one can now purchase milk where I was sitting at the premiere of GO in 1999), the Elgin sign that still stands proudly or the wonderful Mayfair still kicking after decades of continuous showings. One can easily imagine a walking tour of downtown pointing out the dozens of past theaters, some of which are still standing. (One of the most intriguing bits in the book is the suggestion, perhaps fanciful, that the Place de Ville theater has been mothballed, “the cinemas still in place, waiting for another tenant to occupy the space.” [P.311]) [January 2014: As of early 2014, the Place de Ville theater still exists in its mothballed state, albeit maybe not for long as this Ottawa Rewind article and this subsequent CBC news article suggests.]

General movie buffs may be more interested in learning that Ottawa may have been the site of the first public motion picture projection in Canada:

“Ottawa brothers Andrew and George Holland pioneered movie exhibiting in Canada. With their Edison license, their kinescope shows on Sparks Street were Canada’s first contact with the moving pictures. Holland Avenue is named after them.” [P.83]

More recently, Ottawa’s grandiose Capitol theater hosted many Canadian movie premieres. Best yet: There are credible arguments that the first Canadian multiplex was Ottawa’s own Elgin theater. (What is certain is that the owner who had the bright idea of creating “The Little Elgin” went on to become the president of the Cineplex chain.)

Despite a few annoying typos, a lack of an index and passages that could have been re-written once more, especially near the end of the book, A Theatre Near You is easily one of my favorite books of the year. I doubt that it will be particularly interesting to anyone outside the Ottawa area, but it’s the best book one could imagine on its particular subject.

It’s also likely to remain the definitive book on Ottawa-area theaters for the same economic reasons that are explained throughout the book: With the progressive passage of films to the digital realm and the consequent acceleration of direct digital distribution, I don’t think that we’ll get many more new theaters in the area. Since 2004, only one theater has opened in faraway Barrhaven, and despite the revival of the St-Laurent multiplex as a discount theater, the 2006 shake-up in theater ownership only suggests a dwindling market: The Mayfair and Rideau always feel on the verge of closing down, and plans for a new downtown picture house have not materialized. Once day-and-date direct digital distribution becomes commonplace (something that may be as near as five years away), theaters will become a charming upscale throwback to an earlier area.

But even if that happens, A Theatre Near You will be there to testify about cinema’s history in the Ottawa area. If you are or know an Ottawa-based cinephile who likes history, this is a perfect gift idea.

[January 2009: Alain Miguelez was kind enough to write and acknowledge the review. Thanks!]

4 thoughts on “A Theatre Near You, Alain Miguelez”

  1. It is so unfair that both the Rideau Centre and World Exchange Plaza cinemas closed down within 9 months. I am so sorry that the Place de Ville podium buidling cinemas were left abandoned for more than 17 years. Instead of constructing a 19 storey buidling, I think that they should make an effort in fixing the elevator and escalator and installing new seats and screens at the Place de Ville podium building. In my opinion, they should have one movie theater opened downtown.

    1. True enough. It’s impossible to walk downtown without seeing a virtual graveyard of former movie theater locations. Reading Miguelez’s book, it’s shocking to realize that for the first time in nearly a hundred years (Imperial Theatre opened in 1914, World Exchange closed in 2013), there is no place to see a movie somewhere between Wellington, Bronson, Gladstone and Elgin.

      Mind you, I’m part of the problem: I saw 185 movies last year, and only two of them in theaters (neither of which in Ottawa). Habits change…

  2. Meantime, one of my more recent cinema outings was to the Bytowne to catch Particle Fever. And I live in the east end, outside the Greenbelt.

    It’s paradoxical. More residential housing being raised up across Centretown, the ByWard Market, Lowertown, Sandy Hill, old Stewarton, and the Glebe…which ought to translate into good reasons to keep these more centrally located cinema houses in place…and it doesn’t translate properly.

    1. Hi Dwight! Now that I don’t take the bus, I haven’t spoken to you in a long time!

      As much as I loathe to admit it, I’m becoming convinced that the era of the small movie theater is gone. Most new housing contains a home theater that is “good enough” for casual movie-going (more than good enough if one considers the inconvenience factor of theaters), while on-demand distribution of nearly-new releases (though internet, fiber or cable) is a near-standard as well. As wide-release movies have shifted to a very specific form of spectacle, the suburban-cineplex model makes more sense than the one-screen local cinema.

      I’m a case in point: now that I have a good cable package with premium movie channels, I see more movies than ever before, in a variety of genres and tone and quality… and I’m quite a bit happier as a cinephile than when I saw 50-75 movies in theaters per year. I occasionally miss seeing the latest big release, but then I just have to wait 3-4 months and it pops up on-demand.

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