The last of downtown movie theatres (save for Cinematheque) have permanently closed down. It was 1981 when Towne 8 Cinemas, Canada’s first standalone multiplex, went up. With 8 screens and 1,726 screens altogether, the Towne 8 was the shape of things to come for movie halls in Canada.
It was a race to see which multiplex would open first in Winnipeg between 7 Cineplex Odeon theatres in Eaton Place or the Towne 8. Ultimately, it was the Towne 8 in August 21 versus Eaton Place on December 18 in 1981. For many people, especially kids, it was amazing. Eaton Place overall was initially busy combined with Eaton’s. The mall also included an arcade which came in handy as pre or post entertainment after a movie.
One thing was clear though: that not all theatres are created equal. Eaton Place theatres was small. In fact, some people’s theatre rooms at home were probably larger than the smallest theatre at Cineplex Odeon. While this was good for foreign films with captions, it was less exciting for an Indiana Jones sequel. Moreover, the Towne 8 had arcade games by the concessions in the theatre! The biggest box office movie was always in Cinema 1 which had 484 seats, Dolby Stereo and 70mm screenings.
The Towne’s location at 301 Notre Dame was very close to the Capitol and Garrick Theatres and the Odeon (Walker) was right across the street. In 1981, a Tim Horton’s restaurant was next door and down Princess Street was Prairie Theatre Exchange.
The Exchange District was just beginning to take off with the Spaghetti Factory and Brandy’s down the block and Chinatown still quite active for restaurants. Many of the surrounding buildings were still being used by the garment industry. It would be years till festivals like Fringe and Jazz Fest would be hosted at Old Mark Square. Young people would come downtown for movies, shopping at record stores and arcades. And we’d all take the bus.
If there was a new golden area for movie houses downtown, it was probably 1980 to 1990. The Towne 8 was an industrial building site housing Silverwood Dairies. You can still see the Silverwood sign on the wall beside the theatre. In 1980, the dairy moved to a suburban site leaving Landmark the opportunity to build the first stand alone multiplex.
The year 1980 was a terrible time for Winnipeg with major industrial losses everywhere such as The Tribune, Canada Packers and Swifts plants shuttering sending thousands of workers to unemployment and in a lot of case migrating to other provinces. To goose the numbers of people attending during the week, Towne 8 did discounts on Tuesdays and were embraced by full houses in 1982. The rest of the country, now in recession, started to do the same and not just movie houses but restaurants and others.
To make things more interesting for movie theatres like Towne, was the video rental business was just taking off. Early adopters of VCRs started in 1982 and by 1983, many Canadian homes had a VHS or Betamax machine at home. Some of the older single screen theatres were having a tougher time towards the end of the 1980s. Multiplexes became the chosen way to compete against home entertainment. The multiplex at St. Vital Centre in 1986 instantly drew crowds.
For over 40 years of operation, Towne 8 has been bold, innovative and affordable. Like many businesses, the pandemic killed it. In July of last year, it temporarily shuttered because of the difficulty in getting staff. Remaining staff were transferred to the higher end Landmark Theatre at Grant Park. As 2022 drew into 2023, half year gone by, the decision was to close permanently. However, the company will not sell to someone who wishes to run a discount theatre. The building is likely to be bought demolished and become housing.
We enjoyed many visits to the Towne. The $5 tickets were hard to beat in any movie entertainment. Downtown was once alive on many streets with just 29 screens in the 1980s. People lined up in the heart of the city to see movies. The result was a pretty likely evening and weekend crowd.
This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations