Movie lovers (me among them) who found themselves obsessively checking the ByTowne website for signs of life during the worst of the winter lockdown were reassured to find owner Bruce White’s repeated promises to be back as soon as possible. Sure enough, on July 24 the ByTowne opened its doors to 50 lucky viewers. The first day’s program was, as usual, a rich and varied selection: The Booksellers, a documentary about rare and antique books; Docteur?, a French comedy about an Uber driver who helps a doctor make his rounds; and Parasite, the class-conscious Korean satire that won the Best Picture Oscar this year.
The theatre’s staff had been busy during the lockdown, shopping for and installing systems to allow them to sell tickets online and to accept cashless payment at the door. It’s a big step for the theatre, which has been a staunch proponent of cash-only transactions until now, and there was a learning curve, but it was all about meeting the expectations of their customers in the COVID-19 era.
Other precautions are detailed at the theatre’s website. Both staff and patrons must wear masks, although patrons may remove theirs once they are seated if they are enjoying a snack or a drink. The HVAC system has been upgraded, and breaks between screenings have been lengthened to reduce crowding in the lobby. The theatre has 110 seats designated as open, most of them arranged in pairs, but they only sell 50 tickets per screening, so if you are going with a member of your bubble, you can be confident of finding two seats together.
Sales have been going well. The theatre sells out its 50 tickets often enough to make White wish he could open more seats, but not so often that it’s impossible to get in to a show. Still, long-time ByTowne fans who are used to being able to arrive five minutes before show time, secure in the knowledge that there will be space for them somewhere in the 650-seat auditorium, would be well advised to learn to plan ahead, especially for weekend shows.
Bruce White was eager to reopen the ByTowne for two reasons; first, to let movie lovers resume their favourite pastime, and second, to prove that big rooms like his can be safe places to congregate in a well-managed fashion. He was determined to demonstrate that with proper procedures, there is nothing to fear from gathering in a large space to watch a film.
Bruce White points out that this principle also applies to other forms of entertainment. He hopes that the successful reopening of the ByTowne will eventually help convince the province to differentiate between social gatherings, where people are moving around, speaking loudly, and perhaps forgetting some social distancing guidelines as they enjoy a drink or two, from auditoria where people are sitting still, facing in one direction, and where it would actually be considered rude to speak, let alone shout.
The current moment is not looking like a good time to press this point, however. With the COVID-19 infection rate climbing again through the month of September, the province of Ontario is looking more toward reducing the size of public gatherings, rather than expanding them. Bruce White is confident that his establishment is not contributing to the epidemiological trend, however. “So far, I don’t think cinemas have caused the authorities any sleepless nights,” he says. “That may be the best testament to our success.”
But farewell to the ByTowne Guide!
Sadly, the March April 2020 issue (number 204) of the ByTowne Cinema guide may be of archival interest since it is the last one that will be published. The tabloid-style ByTowne Guide first appeared in 1986 to inform patrons of the Towne Cinema (on Beechwood Avenue) about the movies there. When Bruce White bought the Nelson Theatre on Rideau Street in 1988, it was renamed the ByTowne and his cinema on Beechwood was closed. The ByTowne’s bimonthly movie guide not only provided pithy information about films scheduled, but even the advertising was compelling, and the “What We Think of Your Suggestions” column was always worth reading. Though it was referenced and well thumbed by Sandy Hill residents and beyond, the cost of publication, given the limited audience sizes and access to digital information, is no longer viable.
Schedules are now available at: www.bytowne.ca, or to receive weekly email notification from Bruce White, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org. White says this notification now includes a “Question of the Week.”
Long may our beloved movie theatre thrive. Some homeowners within walking distance claim that their property values are enhanced by proximity to the ByTowne.