The town with no Towne

When downtown’s last first-run cinema went dark, it left a cultural vacancy where an industry once thrived


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Yellow triangles, lime green rhombuses, red rectangles and sharp black lines criss-cross the dark blue carpet on the floor of Towne Cinema 8, the first standalone multiplex to open in Winnipeg and the latest to close its doors forever.

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Yellow triangles, lime green rhombuses, red rectangles and sharp black lines criss-cross the dark blue carpet on the floor of Towne Cinema 8, the first standalone multiplex to open in Winnipeg and the latest to close its doors forever.

The Notre Dame Avenue movie house, due to be sold by Landmark Theatres, was stuffed to the gills with quirks — velvet ropes, red seats, a pair of still-operational payphones — that kept it planted in a fast-disappearing era of Winnipeg entertainment. That carpet — a scattered, hypnotic sheet of ordered randomness — tied the whole room together.

It was 42 years ago the projector started running, when the Towne was opened by the same company that now has made the decision to shut it down and sell the land the theatre is built on.

Phil May, then the president of Landmark, was on hand in Winnipeg to supervise the construction of the multiplex. “We’ve been looking for a good downtown location for a long time,” May told the Free Press in August 1981. “Initially, we wanted to build across from the Capitol Theatre on Donald Street, but the people who own the property didn’t like our offer enough to sell.”

So May and his local partner Barry Myers shifted their gaze to Princess and Notre Dame, with aims to sell Milk Duds and buttery popcorn on the former site of the Modern Dairies building.

Towne 8 was at first considered a jewel on Landmark’s crown. It had 1,800 red seats spread across eight auditoriums that varied in capacity from 125 to 500 seats. Each auditorium was controlled by a single T-shaped projector booth, and May boasted the theatre was as structurally sound as any in Canada.

The two lobbies — one semi-underground, and one at street level — could hold hundreds of waiting patrons, with popcorn available from two concession stands, islands of candy and cola in the heart of the complex. A staff of 18 was needed to control the flow.

The opening of the Towne established Landmark as the country’s third-largest cinema chain, trailing Famous Players and Canadian-Odeon, May said.

There was no doubt the Towne 8 was “the finest cinema in Canada” with “the most modern equipment and furnishings available,” May told Free Press movie reporter Leonard Klady at the time of the opening.

Contributing to May’s confidence was the healthy level of competition for screentime downtown, which gave the upstart Towne a chip on its shoulder.

“The key periods where there’s a lot of product, namely at Christmas and in the summer, we can hold our own with other chains,” he told Klady. “However, when there’s a scarcity of product, we do better than they do because we can adapt better and juggle product faster. It’s all a matter of being on your toes.”

● ● ●

The ushers wore white shirts, black pants, clip-on ties, and purple velveteen jackets. “The employer supplied the jacket and tie,” says Kenton Larsen, who ushered at the Towne from 1984 through 1985. “We shared the flashlight.”

To be an usher at the Towne was a point of pride and even a point of minor celebrity; it was a place where movie people worked. After the shows closed, Larsen and other ushers, including local filmmaker Sean Garrity, would head to the Blue Note music club only to be accosted gently by the denizens of that other extinct haunt: “Hey boys. Where are your velveteen jackets?”

The theatre, and another Towne venue in Calgary, took risks, including in 1982, when it ran a reel of the XXX-rated Italian film Caligula… The Untold Story. The film was seized by police in Calgary. While church leagues protested, patrons broke the picket line to join the ticket line.

The projector setup was such that the same programmed film reel could run on three consecutive screens simultaneously. If it went well, it was great. But if a film broke in one theatre, it broke in all three. In a screwball touch befitting the film’s director, Blake Edwards, a New Year’s Eve showing of 1984’s Micki and Maude at the Towne fell apart.

At midnight, as ’84 became ’85, three theatres full of patrons angrily approached the counter to ask for their money back.

● ● ●

When the Towne 8 opened in 1981, it was hailed as Canada’s first free-standing eight-plex, but it was not the only first-run theatre to take a shot at commanding the downtown market.

Nearby, in the 1980s, projectors ran at the Colony, the Metropolitan, the Capitol, the Odeon, the Convention Centre Cinema, the Eaton Place Cinema 7, the Northstar, and the Garrick. In 1987, downtown Winnipeg was at “peak cinema” in city historian Christian Cassidy’s estimation, with 29 first-run screens in operation. Soon came the Imax and Landmark-operated Globe theatres at Portage Place. Each of those cinemas is now closed.

As time elapsed, Towne 8 became a reliable theatre with affordable prices, even as its initial swankiness gave way to a vintage sensibility.

Seraphine Crow, 22, went almost every weekend with her mom, and accidentally swallowed a loose baby tooth during a screening of Horton Hears a Who! Ophélie Petit, an avid moviegoer, said that for her family, a night at the Towne — where tickets were sold at discount prices — was one of the best options for a cheap group outing.

“It definitely made cinema-going a lot more accessible,” Petit said.

Last June, Landmark announced Towne 8 would be enduring a closure the company insisted would be temporary. A spokesperson for the company said at the time the theatre’s intermission was meant to shift staff to Landmark’s other local theatre, at Grant Park, where staffing was a concern. Employees, meanwhile, were given at least some indication Towne 8 would open again.

The last night the theatre was open, an auditorium showing Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis was about a quarter full, and one showing the long-awaited sequel Top Gun: Maverick was just as well-attended. A single employee worked the upstairs concession stand, shovelling popcorn, selling tickets and operating the soda fountain with alacrity.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, the theatre’s reopening became increasingly unlikely. The gallery of movie posters was removed from the exterior walls along Princess and Notre Dame. One of the theatre’s many doors was boarded up.

In mid-January, for-sale signs went up, with an asking price of $2.25 million. Landmark CEO Bill Walker indicated to the Free Press that the prudent, and difficult, decision was to close the theatre rather than make an estimated $4.5 million in capital investments needed to modernize the building.

Walker said the idea that interest in seeing movies in theatres was dwindling has been overstated; Landmark’s other local theatre, at Grant Park, is enjoying strong attendance, he said. That theatre underwent an expensive renovation before the pandemic, installing cushy seats that recline and undergoing a lobby renewal.

Walker attributed the Towne 8’s struggles in part to a lack of free adjacent parking nearby and a poor population density in the immediate vicinity.

Among the potential developments for the land is a mixed-use residential apartment building. However, if such a building is completed, its residents will have to go toward the suburbs to see any new blockbuster and Oscar frontrunners. “To go to a movie now means leaving the neighbourhood,” says Kaj Hasselriis, an Exchange District resident.

With the closure, there are no more first-run screens remaining downtown, leaving at the centre of Winnipeg a significant cultural vacancy where an industry once thrived.

There will be no new theatre built on the site. Realtor Rennie Zegalski of Capital Commercial Real Estate Services, which is handling the sale, said there will be a restriction on operating a cinema at the site in the future.

Filmmaker Aaron Zeghers, the former director of the Gimli Film Festival, called Towne 8 not just a theatre, but a “multicultural hub” that brought life to the Exchange District.

“For many of us, the Towne 8 represented something so much more than meets the eye,” he said in an email. “It was a rare holdout in an age rampant (with) state-funded gentrification. It was a place where nearly anyone from any class or means could go, be with their fellow citizens, and laugh and cry and scream in horror.”

The executive director of the Winnipeg Film Group, which operates the independent Dave Barber Cinematheque — housing the only screen left in downtown Winnipeg — called the loss of the Towne 8 heartbreaking.

“It’s sad for cinephiles and simply heartbreaking for anyone who lives in, works in, and loves the core of this city,” said Leslie Supnet. “The condition of Towne 8’s sale that a cinema can’t operate in that space in the future is a tough pill to swallow for sure.”

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.


Updated on Monday, January 30, 2023 8:57 AM CST: Corrects price to $2.25 million

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