Old Hamilton vaudeville and blue movie theatre will open as art house

In 1913, people watched vaudeville at the Playhouse Theatre. In the 1960s, the largely Italian neighbourhood watched a subtitled version of Doctor Zhivago. In the 1970s, before the advent of the VCR, they sat in darkness and watched pornography.

The Playhouse Theatre dates back to the vaudeville days

The team behind the Playhouse Theatre includes, from left, Wendy Tutt, Terrance Odette and John Tutt. Jacob Tutt will manage the cinema. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Generations of Hamiltonians have sat in these seats, taking in entertainment at the 105-year-old Playhouse Theatre.

I know a guy in Waterloo who has the best basement theatre in town, and he still goes out to see movies.- John Tutt

In 1913, they watched vaudeville. In the 1960s, the largely Italian neighbourhood watched a subtitled version of Doctor Zhivago. In the 1970s, before the advent of the VCR, they sat in darkness and watched pornography.

Now, by summer's end, the theatre at 177 Sherman Ave. will be a movie theatre once again.

John and Wendy Tutt, owners of the Princess Cinemas in Waterloo, are opening an art house cinema at the storied location. Their son Jacob and local filmmaker Terrance Odette is also involved.

"We have beautiful memories from there," says Deidre Khes-Kovacs, City Kidz spokesperson. "It gave us so many opportunities, but we're excited to be moving on to the next phase." City Kidz bought the Playhouse Theatre 30 years ago and used it for their Saturday program events. (City Kidz)

The goal is to show smart, unique movies passed over by Cineplex. There will be Oscar-caliber films such as A Fantastic Woman and Phantom Thread, and film school fare like Eraserhead and Cinema Paradiso, and new restorations of classics, like the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death.

It's a stone's throw away from Barton Street East, a stretch still dotted with vacancies. But the Tutts say market research supports it. They're not here as a charity.

"This is a business decision," said John Tutt. "We operate a business. We thought it was a good risk to take, really."

The Tutts have been looking for theatre space in Hamilton for about a decade.

"Now showing three erotic hits" reads the marquee of the Playhouse Theatre in this photo, likely dating back to the early 1970s. (Playhouse Theatre)

The Playhouse Theatre popped into the listings last year, when the local charity City Kidz put it on the market after 30 years. City Kidz is building a new theatre at its Burlington Street headquarters, so the property was surplus.

The Tutts checked it out and found a historic theatre more or less intact.

"We're going to clean it up, paint it, put in a new sound system, a digital projector and new seats," Wendy Tutt said. Otherwise, the cinema is close to its 1913 state, with its ornate proscenium and its Edwardian baroque architecture.

In the age of Netflix, Wendy Tutt said, people still go to theatres. But they want an experience.

The Playhouse Theatre dates back to the vaudeville days. (Playhouse Theatre)

With the Playhouse, "you'll be coming to a historic place," she said. "Old buildings have soul."

The theatre is located in working class North Stipley, where there's a mix of incomes and a lot of pride, said local resident Patti Encinas. The Playhouse is "something of a landmark" there.

"Having an operating theatre will be an opportunity to not only economically boost our area, but also increase a sense of community."

The theatre has some local competition. A group is reviving the Westdale Cinema, a single-screen theatre since 1932, as a mixture of cinema and community space. In recent years, the Westdale has also screened movies from the film festival circuit, including foreign films and lesser-seen Oscar fare.

"No matter what their economic or social status is, (people) come to films," says Terrance Odette, centre, a local filmmaker working on the Playhouse project with Wendy and John Tutt. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The Westdale, which will reopen this year, has received nearly half a million in city money toward renovations. The Tutts don't plan to make a similar pitch.

They acknowledge the rarity of a new theatre opening. But that isn't necessarily because of the market, they say.

Most older theatres have been torn down, and rarely show up on the market intact like the Playhouse, John Tutt said. And skyrocketing real estate prices in larger markets make them hard to start up again.

But Hamilton has an underserved theatre market, he said. Give people an attractive place to see movies, and they'll go.

"I know a guy in Waterloo who has the best basement theatre in town," he said, "and he still goes out to see movies."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca