Every city should have one, but few of them do anymore. True, the bigger the city, the more likely it is that a cinema like the Mayfair Theatre still clings to its foundation on some downtown block, but these have become the exceptions. There’s even something a little reliquary about them. We give their facades a few extra seconds of our attention when we pass, and when we’re inside them, we behave with something close to reverence. We know they’re existing on borrowed time—we’ve seen their sister cinemas bulldozed or turned into McDonalds (I wish I were making that last one up). In some cities, independent downtown cinemas are non-existent, forcing movie-goers into cars and onto highways—into faux-coliseums set like gaudy solitaires in suburban flats. Worse, we’re limited (most of the time) to a blinkered menu that dictates that only American studio productions are worth a screen. How did we get to the point where most of us accept this arrangement as just or appropriate?
Fortunately, Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre is one of the holdouts. Its website tells us it was built in 1932, but that’s apparent even to the naked eye; its interior art deco design is unmistakable. An old-school red tinge infuses the place, and the curtain still parts for projection. Complementing all that atmosphere is a programme fit for buffs. As a repertoire and second-run theatre, it has something for everyone: recent blockbusters, offbeat indies, provocative exploitation, and classics from every corner (genre, international, children’s and Golden Age). I remember the first movie I ever saw on Ottawa’s other surviving indie screen (it was a midnight showing of Heavy Metal, age 11 or 12; our adult accompaniment promptly got stoned in the next seat, providing me with my first animated sex scene and my first contact high), but I can’t remember my first Mayfair movie.
That’s something I really wanted to remember 2 years ago, when we nearly lost the Mayfair for good. Squatting on prime real estate, it faced the maw of the almighty dollar and miraculously won. Its owner wanted to retire on proceeds from the lot’s sale to developers back in 2008. But the community rallied—cinemaphiles squawked, history buffs steamed, and parents refused to lose a weekend spot for family day. The City was petitioned until the Mayfair was recognized as one of the last few “atmospheric” theatres in Canada and granted historic status. That was a hard knock, maybe, for the owner, but it’s also one of the few good-news tales you’ll hear involving an indie theatre, at least in this town.
Safe from the ‘dozer, all she needed was someone to tend her. A partnership between filmmaker, conservator and scholar was struck, placing the Mayfair in the capable hands of experts. New seats were installed and the sound system was upgraded. Admission is still ridiculously cheap for members and the programme is more eclectic than ever—here’s where you can see every James Bond movie ever made over the course of a few weeks, or catch The Muppet Movie and a Miike film on the same day. Midnight showings are popular, and so are screenings of silents like Metropolis and Nosferatu with live musicians providing the score. The Mayfair couldn’t ask for better stewards, one of whom was already experienced in running a successful alternative cinema. He’s also proved his love of B-movies by directing Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, a camp-cult classic. Yeah: the Mayfair is co-managed by that guy, and his scriptwriter. I don’t see Lee Demarbre or Ian Driscoll letting go of the place without a fight. But audiences keep these places alive, which in turn keep the reels spooling and the menu broad. If there’s a cinema like the Mayfair in your quarter, it needs more than your nostalgia. — Ranylt Richildis