Farewell To The Centre Mall Cinemas

This is a tribute to a multiplex.  For much of my life, I have watched movies.  I’ve tried to dissect them, to understand them, to enjoy them, to appreciate them, to think of ways of making them better.  It is a lifelong love affair. 

Today, I screen most movies on DVD.  Back when I was a teenager looking for something to replace the void that professional wrestling left behind (I’m not kidding about that), I was an avid moviegoer.  Back then, I rented tapes occasionally and went to the theatre, with some exceptions, every week, mostly alone, sometimes with pals.  Now, I almost never go to the movies, I occasionally rent DVDs but mostly borrow DVDs from the public library.  (They have a much bigger selection than your local video store.)

In 2001 it was announced that the Centre Mall Cinemas, a place I frequented so often it became my second home, shut down its doors for good.  During my teen years I screened more movies here than in any other cinema.  When the announcement was made that fall I was flooded with nostalgia.  I thought it would be a good idea to write a loving eulogy to the place and submit it to the Forum page of The Hamilton Spectator.  Sadly, it was never published. 

I had written 3 drafts, the final of which is presented here for the first time.  I have so many memories of that time in my life that I couldn’t fit them all into this piece.  Not mentioned in the article:  the time I was hit on and picked up by a couple of teenage girls while waiting to screen the second Mannequin movie only to have them ditch me and move on to other guys in the theatre (they were annoying the hell out of the usher working that night and if memory serves, they may have gotten kicked out before the movie began); being kicked out of Bad Moon, a little-seen 1996 horror movie I tried to sneak in and see, even though I was the only one in the theatre (no one paid to see it that night); being thanked by a nice older guy in the bathroom after I recommended he see Primal Fear which he and his wife enjoyed.

After the Centre Mall Cinemas closed, the location was renovated into a bingo hall which closed some time last year.  The building was demolished earlier in 2006 and rumours are running rampant about what’s going to happen to the space.  No one knows for sure.  When it gets rebuilt in the near future, it will either be some kind of discount grocery outlet or an expansion of the longstanding Canadian Tire.  Whatever happens, it won’t replace the many memories I have of the multiplex that once thrived in that very spot.

By Dennis Earl

When I heard the news for the first time, I wasn’t exactly surprised. In fact, looking back, I’m amazed it took so long to get official confirmation. The Centre Mall Cinemas are no more. It screened its last batch of films on the last Sunday in October 2001. The location has since been renovated into a bingo hall. How sad.

All my life, I’ve been a movie fan, but never more so than in the last 12 years. As I became a teenager, little did I know that I would be going to the movies far more often than I did as a young child. Although my parents took me to see all the family films and the big blockbusters like the Star Wars sequels and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, that didn’t amount to many trips to the theatre.

By the 1990s, the mulitplex was king and sure enough, because of its close proximity to me, I made many a trip to the Centre Mall Cinemas.

From its opening on Barton Street in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in January 1969 to May 1986, there were only 2 cinemas there, Cinema West and Cinema East, each 700 seaters. My parents took me to see The Jazz Singer there in 1980. I was 5 at the time. I remember before the film started I was scolding a fat kid for eating popcorn. I was allergic to it and of course, was jealous of anyone who could digest that crap. “Mommy! Do you see what he’s eating? Junk food!” I scolded over and over again until my folks told me to pipe down.

Then, they added 6 more theatres in the spring of 1986, which were, naturally, much smaller. It was a great way to bring in more business by offering 8 titles instead of 2, sometimes even more than that. I saw The Karate Kid, Part II twice that year. And throughout the remainder of the decade, I would also see films like The Princess Bride, The Abyss and Great Balls Of Fire among others.

When Cineplex Odeon announced that it was being sold to the Onyx Corporation and would be filing for bankruptcy protection resulting in the closing of some of their theatres, I figured the Centre Mall Cinemas would be on its way out. And sure enough, in the fall of 2001, it was announced that its lease wouldn’t be renewed. It’s a shame, really. I have so many memories of that place. I’ve seen movies in all 8 cinemas hundreds of times, with friends, family and even by myself, most of which I screened in the 1990s when I was writing movie reviews for Delta Secondary’s newspaper, the Omnia, and newsletter, the Om-Lette, and later on for The Satellite, Mohawk College’s weekly publication.

I remember the time the fire alarm went off during an afternoon screening of The Super (1991). The Joe Pesci comedy wasn’t working for me when all of a sudden a loud ding ding ding went off. The usher quickly came down the aisle and told us to wait by the exit down at the left hand corner of theatre 7. The movie kept playing for a few more minutes until the projectionist stopped it.

I remember it was raining that day. Someone opened the door and we waited until the usher came back and gave us further instructions. When he did, he told us to have our tickets ready to re-enter the theatre in order to see the rest of the movie. Most people left for good. They hated the movie that much. When I went around to the front entrance, I dug my crumbled ticket out of my shoe, (because my psychedelic fishbone shorts had no pockets) showed it to the usher and was back inside. (I only kept it in my shoe when I wore shorts with no pockets or I was planning to see a different movie. Wink wink.)

In the end the fire was minor at best. Some popcorn mishap. No real damage at all. And the rest of The Super was no better than the earlier scenes.

I remember a fight broke out during a screening of Priest (1995). All of a sudden, the entire first row got up, most of them trying to break up a loud, verbal disagreement between 2 guys who were starting to throw punches at each other. An usher came down and escorted the entire row out of the building. Someone yelled, “Shut up! I’m trying to watch the movie!” The rest of the screening went off without further disruption. I’m glad because the movie was one of 95’s best.

I used to sneak into R rated films long before I was 18.

In the summer of 1990, I was only 15 but I wanted to see Die Hard 2 in the worst way. I saw the first one on video numerous times and couldn’t wait to see the sequel on the big screen. I went down to the mall on an afternoon in July. My plan was to pay for Ghost Dad, the Bill Cosby comedy which I had already seen, put up with that for a half hour (since it started 30 minutes before Die Hard 2 began) and then sneak in without being seen and watch the movie I wanted to see in the first place. My plan worked seamlessly until the 90 minute mark of the movie when the usher spotted me.

He came in the wrong side. He entered from the right, I was seated on the left. As he noticed me and made his way around, I moved past a guy who was sitting in my row so I would be on the right while the usher entered the opposite side. I was hoping to do this until he got frustrated but the guy in my row got fed up and told me to face the music. The usher returned me to Ghost Dad which was just starting up again in theatre 2. Oh joy. When he left, I waited a few minutes before returning to good ol’ theatre 3 to watch the rest of the movie. Just as they were about to land some of the planes at Dulles Airport, after John McClane wiped out the terrorists, the usher returned and I left the theatre and went on home. I loved the movie. It went on my top 10 list that year, the first such list I ever made.

A month before my 18th birthday, after I saw the very funny Hot Shots: Part Deux, I bumped into 3 friends from high school who were waiting in line to see Cliffhanger in theatre 7. I was planning to see Sidekicks next with Chuck Norris when they asked me to join them. I was worried I would get caught. But they reassured me that the usher wouldn’t even check. Sure enough, he didn’t. The Centre Mall ushers were notorious for rarely checking tickets. I rarely got caught. But early on in the movie, I was freaked.

During the opening sequence where Sylvester Stallone tries to rescue a woman mountain climber, the sound mysteriously disappeared and the lights came on. Oh God, I thought. They know I’m not 18! Thankfully, I was mistaken. The usher came down and told one of the patrons they had a phone call. I remember when he finished talking another audience member asked in a loud voice, “Could you please rewind the movie?” His request went unheard. The lights went down again, the sound was restored and there were no further interruptions.

The Centre Mall Cinemas were my life from 1990 to early 1997. I saw almost everything that was there from Back To The Future Part III to Star Wars: Special Edition. I snuck into R-rated movies, PG movies, AA (Adult Accompaniment, the Canadian equivalent of the American PG-13) movies and even family films. I rarely got caught. I always felt their admission prices were way too high for a teenager, even when they briefly offered a 6 dollar youth rate, and so after seeing one film, the one I paid for, I would see something else. In between screenings, I would hide in a stall in the bathroom (not the most pleasant place to hang out) until the second film was almost ready to begin. I saw a lot of double features that way. It was great.

Also, there was this unwritten policy that said that if you were 14 you had to pay adult admission which for a while was 7.50 then became 8 dollars and eventually, an absurd 8.50, before going down to 6.99. (Matinee admissions were slightly cheaper, usually between 4 and 5 dollars.) My buddies and I always tried to pay the child’s rate of 4 dollars. By the time my voice changed at age 15, I only had a few more months left before they caught on to me and charged me the right admission.

During the 90s, I remember the busiest nights of the place were Tuesday nights (Half Price Tuesdays, now just a discounted night), Friday nights (when new movies opened), and most especially Saturday and Sunday evenings. In 1990, they had routinely sold out showings of Dances With Wolves which played from November that year to either the spring or summer of 1991. Matinees were packed for Home Alone that year, also. Every once in a while, a movie would play there for ages like The Silence Of The Lambs, the above mentioned blockbusters, Titanic, the Special Editions of the Star Wars Trilogy or more recently Traffic, Cast Away and American Pie 2. But during my final trips there, I noticed that attendance had been down, WAY down. When I went to see Hannibal on a cold Saturday afternoon in February 2001, there were maybe 50 to 70 people there. This was opening weekend. This is a movie that made 200 million dollars in North American cinemas. And yet, in good ol’ theatre 7, one of the two original 700 seat auditoriums, most seats were empty.

So, what happened? Why did it close down? Why wasn’t it renovated more extensively? I noticed some of the screens in the smaller theatres were showing their age. There were very noticeable holes, something I never saw a decade earlier. The floors were extremely sticky from all the spilt pop, chewed gum and god knows what else that landed on them throughout the decades. Ripped chairs, the old purple grey designs, this place never aged in its last 15 years.

Well, the real problem is what they exhibited and what they didn’t. For much of the 90s, Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players did something smart. They divided up which movies they would screen by choosing distributors. Famous Players only played movies released by Paramount, MGM, United Artists, C/FP Distribution (Canadian indie), Warner Bros., Tri-Star, and Disney (which included Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures).

Cineplex Odeon exhibited films from The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Savoy (now defunct), Gramercy, Malo, Miramax, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, Sony Picture Classics, and of course, Cineplex Odeon Films. Occasionally, a movie that just left a Famous Players theatre would briefly play at an Odeon multiplex. For example, in 1990, I remember Pretty Woman and Days Of Thunder played at the Centre Mall after being exhibited at Famous Players theatres. In 1991, What About Bob? came to the Mall after a good run at Jackson Square, the 6-screen downtown multiplex. Addams Family Values and The Three Musketeers went through a similar routine in the fall of 1993. But this was rare.

Sometime in 1997 or 1998, the rules changed. Movies that would play on Odeon screens could also be played on Famous Players screens at the same time. And as a result, the number of titles coming into Hamilton theatres were dropping. The Centre Mall was once very good at getting some of the important, smaller films like Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the 1991 documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, The Grifters (1990), Wild At Heart (1990), Homicide (1991), a David Mamet film featuring a then-unknown William H. Macy and countless others. When 2000 came around, I was looking forward to seeing new documentaries like Beyond The Mat and The Filth And The Fury. They never came here. Almost Famous played at the newer Upper James cinemas on Hamilton Mountain, but not the Centre Mall. And there are many other examples too numerous to mention here.

When Cineplex needlessly expanded in the late 90s, it was inevitable that this plan would backfire big time. Odeon and Famous Players were not offering many alternatives. As far as Hamilton is concerned, without the Broadway Cinema, a downtown repertory theatre which closed in the summer of 1998, there is no independent cinema around to exhibit the smaller films that the big chains refuse to exhibit locally.

Theatre closings are becoming freakishly common here. We’ve lost the discounted 4-screen Lime Ridge Mall cinemas, another Hamilton Mountain multiplex. The aforementioned art house, Broadway, plus Fiesta Mall in nearby Stoney Creek, Ontario in 2000. (This doesn’t include all the old 1-screen theatres that have all but disappeared throughout the last 2 decades. Most of these abandoned buildings were renovated into carpet stores, night clubs, even live theatre venues.) I’ve been to all those places and I miss them all. All we have left are Jackson Square, the remaining Burlington, Ontario cinemas, Silvercity in Ancaster, Ontario (an over-priced, big ass multiplex) and the Westdale theatre in Westdale, Ontario, currently the oldest and sole single screen auditorium in my area.

I will miss the Centre Mall Cinemas more because I was there more often than at any other cinema. It was within walking distance from my house. I never had to pay 4 dollars in bus fare to get there and back. On a hot day, I could get cool there. On a cold day, I always found warmth. And I could see late shows and run home in a flash. No problem. And the movies. God, I saw so many great movies there. Schindler’s List, A River Runs Through It, American Beauty, Mr. Saturday Night, Die Hard 2, Awakenings, Trainspotting, Jurassic Park, and countless others. I also saw horrible films like Weekend At Bernie’s 2, Car 54 Where Are You? and many more I’ve since forgotten.

Much of my teenage life was spent in that place. I developed opinions there, a sense of taste, and a true appreciation for film. Those experiences have shaped me, given me hope and plenty of time to dream. It’s too bad. Things were going so well for that place. Then, Cineplex got greedy.

So long, Centre Mall Cinemas. You will be missed.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 30, 2006
8:24 p.m.
Published in: on April 30, 2006 at 8:29 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey do you happen to have a picture of the Center Mall Cinema’s by any chance. Being look for one for a project I am doing. Doesn’t matter if people are in the pictures. Inside or out

  2. thank you either way

  3. Sometimes I think the closing of places like this has hurried the division I sometimes feel in modern day Hamilton. When I was a kid, going down to the Centre Mall Theatre was an adventure (we lived on the Mountain by Mohawk College) and never thought of as a “bad” area of town to visit. I know people who think like that today. There’s no reason to go because now it just looks like any other Smart Centre with the same boring stores. It doesn’t have the distinct identity that the Centre had.

    I miss the variety having many movie houses brought to the city’s moviegoers. I still choose Jackson Square or Westdale over the huge suburban ones. For awhile I had the pleasure of living around the corner from the Movie Palace on Concession – resurected for a short time to live out it’s original purpose. Who would have guessed carpets and wallpaper would sell better than movies…

    Your memory of movies seen at the Centre is impressive. I remember Reality Bites and Home Alone. I saw so many more – especially on Half Price Tuesdays or Summer afternoons. I think I saw a movie there the last weekend it was open. I also saw Saving Silverman just so I could see the last movie at Jackson Square. In the Summer of 1989 I saw the last movie at the Century. My wife and I went on one of our first dates to a Bruce MacDonald double feature at the Broadway.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your story, even if I’m reading it, what, 7 years late.

  4. In 1980 I was 10 years old. From that time throughout my teens and adulthood I too spent a great amount of time at the Centre Mall Theatres. I walked there until I could drive there. I probably haunted those theatres at least once or twice a week. I also saw films downtown at The Century, The Hyland Theatre, The Odeon (double screened theatre in King) all before Jackson Square opened. Good times. Thanks for this editorial, it brought back some great memories for me.

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