Today, for the first time in generations, there are no movies playing in downtown Hamilton. 

Once there were theatres all over the core. The Capitol, Palace, Tivoli, Century, Odeon, Hyland. One by one, they fell. And in the end, there was only the movie house in Jackson Square. Today, it is closed, all six screens dark.

But tomorrow is a better day. The Jackson Square cinemas reopen under a new owner.

We went there Sunday to see Tom Hanks battle it out with Somali pirates in Captain Phillips. It’s the second-most popular movie in Canada, next to Gravity. Both are edge-of-the-seat productions, but I’d give Captain Phillips the prize. 

In a theatre that seats nearly 300, there were 12 of us for the $7 matinee. (It’s $9 at night.)

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Robert Redford and some cheeky Brits did opening day honours on Aug. 23, 1972. (Jackson Square archives)

I’ve worried about the place for years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it packed. No IMAX here, no stadium seating. But the screen is big, the sound crisp, the cushions comfy.

The theatre is an original tenant of Jackson Square. Denninger’s, Coles, Laura Secord have been there from the beginning too, but there aren’t many others in the club.

Two theatres in one

Opening day was Aug. 23, 1972. The ads proclaimed a whole new concept in movie going: “Two luxurious theatres under one roof, each presenting entirely different first-run screen attractions.” 

The twin-cinema’s opening lineup: The Candidate, with Robert Redford; Mutiny on the Buses, a naughty Britcom.

In September of 1989, they unveiled a major expansion. It was now a six-screen theatre, with 1,839 seats. But the day before they opened it, they closed the Tivoli and the Century. Both had been entertaining Hamilton since the early 1900s.

About 15 years ago, the Downtown BIA did a study that showed the annual attendance at the theatre, then about 180,000, was the same as Theatre Aquarius, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Whitehern and the Football Hall of Fame combined.

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Empire stopped staffing the ticket windows at mall level in Jackson Square. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Jackson Square became the last of Hamilton’s mall cinemas. The theatres at Lime Ridge, Fiesta and Centre Mall all slipped away. The future was wrapped in big silvery boxes. 

Empire, a wing of Nova Scotia-based Sobey’s, became the owner in 2005. To my mind, the Jackson Square theatres have declined during their ownership. You would see carpet repaired with duct tape. The handle on the water fountain has been broken for years. 

Some time ago, they stopped staffing the wickets at mall level. Instead, you take the elevator to the lobby and buy your ticket at the snack bar. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, if you have to cut costs. But the place looked tired.

One screen is 3D

Empire had said they were not going to upgrade the Jackson Square cinemas to 3D. But the equipment is now in place for one screen. Jocelyne Mainville, leasing and property manager at Jackson Square, is glad of that. “Something must have changed along the way to warrant the installation.”

She says the movie house is important, not just to the mall, but to a downtown that’s in rebirth. “For there not to be a movie theatre in the core...well, that would be sad.”

She’s prepared to look at ways to help boost business – perhaps a cost-sharing with the theatre on signage out on King Street so passersby can see the latest attractions.

The new owners are Landmark Cinemas. Mainville has had no contact with them yet, and I wasn’t able to lasso anyone at the Calgary head office yesterday. Maybe they’re busy – this is a $55-million deal for them.

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Landmark Cinemas was born in the West nearly 50 years ago. Their big buy from Empire brings them into Ontario. (Landmark Cinemas website)

Empire decided this year to get out of entertainment and concentrate on the food business. The 24 Maritime locations have gone to Cineplex Inc., which will now have three-quarters of the movie business in Canada. And 22 of Empire’s movie houses – in Ontario and the West – have gone to Landmark. 

Landmark began in 1965 and before this new purchase had 125 screens in 26 locations, places like Banff, Campbell River, Fort McMurray, Whitehorse, Winnipeg.

Apparently staff here keep their jobs. And word is that the lease on that theatre space in Jackson Square has some seven years to go. Let’s hope Landmark makes some improvements and is not planning to just run out the clock. What’s a downtown without a picture show?

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC