Farewell to a beauty – the ByTowne Cinema’s closing leaves a hole in Ottawa’s cultural fabric

The final curtain means a chapter in our own lives as citizens of this city is also coming to an end.

Matthew Pearson The Ottawa Citizen

ByTowne Cinema projectionist Paul Davis.

Bruce Deachman photos
The ByTowne Cinema: One of the rare places in Ottawa that brought old and young together. PHOTO BY BRUCE DEACHMAN /jpg

I found a copy of the ByTowne Cinema guide on top of the fridge the other day, buried under one of my daughter’s finger paintings. It’s the March/April 2020 edition – a relic of a past that didn’t unfold quite like any of us might have imagined.

No surprise, the theatre’s springtime offerings were to be as rich and varied as one would expect from the ByTowne. Antigone and Kuessipan, a pair of punch-you-in-the-gut films from Quebec, were scheduled in March. Oscar favourites 1917Jojo RabbitLittle Women and Parasite were all to be featured in early April. And on the last day of the month, audiences could have braved a 181-minute screening of National Theatre Live’s Cyrano de Bergerac, starring James McAvoy.

Instead, the ByTowne sat empty throughout the spring and first half of summer, and now it seems it may sit empty forever.

Devastated doesn’t seem like too strong a word for my reaction to the recent news that the theatre will close at the end of the month. And judging by the outpouring of love I saw on social media and the numerous sold-out screenings since, I’m clearly not alone.

We mourn this loss not only because it feels like another bloody thing 2020 has robbed from us, this annus horribilis that just takes and takes and takes. We mourn this loss because the ByTowne’s final curtain means a chapter in our own lives, and in the colourful, collective fabric of our city, is also coming to an end. We don’t get back the things we lose.

It is that rare place in Ottawa where older people and younger people commune – university students sliding to their seats, popcorn in hand, past silver-haired retirees and people of all ages in between. The pandemic has been hard on all of us, but it’s been particularly cruel in different and specific ways depending on what stage of life you’re at. For older adults, the world that remains may feel smaller and more isolating. And when the worst of this is over, there will now be one less place for them to go that isn’t their home; one less place where old and young meet to share a common interest.

Bruce White, owner of the ByTowne Cinema. Smaller cinemas like the ByTowne showing movies from Netflix before streaming them online is benefitting these theatres. December 18, 2019. Errol McGihon/Postmedia
Bruce White, owner of the legendary ByTowne Cinema, soon to close. PHOTO BY ERROL MCGIHON /Postmedia

When I think about what makes Ottawa feel like home, the ByTowne definitely makes the short list. It has also been one of the examples I’ve clung to when I’ve defended our city’s honour against the scoffs and accusations of people who come from supposedly cooler cities. It’s one of the first places I recommend to newcomers and one of the best places to catch up with old friends. Full disclosure: One such time in January 2007 involved slipping in with a few tall-boys in my backpack for an afternoon screening of Shut Up and Sing, that raw music documentary about what happened to Natalie Maines and The Chicks after the Texas band publicly criticized former U.S. president George W. Bush.

Speaking of beer, I’ve often thought the only thing that would make the ByTowne even more perfect is a quiet, dimly lit pub next door, which you could slide into after a film to debrief with friends before steeling yourself for the cold walk home.

The ByTowne is the kind of small business so many of us feel like we have a personal stake in, though really, our stake is only the cost of an annual membership. And I get that nostalgia alone does not a business plan make.

“The cinema has been losing money every day since the pandemic hit,” owner Bruce White wrote in his email announcement. “Even when we’ve been allowed to open, audiences are dramatically smaller.”

By that he means, they’re selling 50 tickets to each screening, for a room that can hold 650.

I met Bruce White once. I was in grad school at Carleton, working with three colleagues on a short documentary film about Ottawa’s disappearing single-screen cinemas. It was November 2008. At the time, the ByTowne was poised to be the last one standing after the owners of the Mayfair announced the Bank Street theatre would close (it was later rescued and re-opened by different operators early the next year).

White had owned the ByTowne for 20 years by then, but he was as circumspect as any small business owner who lives or dies by the whims of public desire.

“A lot of people have been asking me about the closing of the Mayfair,” White told us in an interview we filmed inside his empty theatre. “It seems very important to the community, but they weren’t going enough to support it and keep it open. The ByTowne’s more fortunate. We’ve got good attendance levels and we’re very happy with the way things are working out, but it’s not impossible to imagine that fortunes could shift, people’s habits can change.”

Well, fortunes shifted and habits changed. They were compelled to by forces few could have predicted. I actually can’t recall the last film I saw at the ByTowne, but it was definitely pre-pandemic. Perhaps I’ve become a little too prone to spending time in the basement, where my money goes to Netflix and Crave and the makers of Bark Thins. Perhaps I have over-metabolized the messages about avoiding crowds and indoor spaces, even as it’s clear the ByTowne has taken many steps to keep its audiences safe. I’ll be sure to get there at least once in the coming weeks, if only to bid that beauty a proper farewell.

White’s closure announcement, which was as characteristically blunt as the former “What we think of your suggestions” column in the theatre’s printed guide, says it’s too late now to save the ByTowne, at least in its current incarnation.

“I wish things could be different,” he wrote.

So do we, Bruce. So do we.

Matthew Pearson is a Carleton University journalism professor.

Interior of the ByTowne Cinema. The theatre holds 665 people.
Interior of the ByTowne Cinema, seen from the balcony. PHOTO BY BRUCE DEACHMAN /jpg
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