According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the smallest cinema in the world is in Stratford, Ontario. The Little Prince Cine Lounge seats 13, then it's full. Your bedroom might be bigger.
Looking at the other end of the spectrum, a big city auditorium that held 6,000 or even more was not unusual in big cities during the 1920s and 30s, when going to the movies was taking over from vaudeville as the number one form of entertainment. The vaudeville halls themselves were the previous big theatre champions, and many of their halls slowly moved from a mixed menu of live and movie entertainment to full time movies.
Up in Arms (1944).Cinemas competed with each other not just by offering the most popular films, but also by offering the most spectacular audience experience in the most spectacular theatre settings. The spectacle started in the entrance, which gave way to a highly decorated lobby before you got to enter the auditorium. In many of these locations, the experience was one of ever-expanding space. The entrance was often quite narrow, using a small, tax saving street presence to mask the splendid pomp of the much wider lobby area offering an experience of grandeur with extravagant decorations, huge chandeliers and thick carpets. The staircase leading to the circle seats, was not just a staircase but a 'grand-staircase', and the circle lobby was often bigger and more gaudily spectacular than the one below. Audience members might have had to spend considerable time in one of these areas waiting for a seat in the theatre's continuous performance, as Danny Kaye demonstrated in
In some theatres, the narrow entrance served as the 'sesame' to not one, but two separate theatres, with one built on top of the other. The sweeping staircase from the impressive ground floor lobby to the Elgin (originally Leows Theatre) led not to the circle seats of the Elgin, but to an entirely different lobby for an entirely different but magnificently opulent theatre, The Wintergarden.
The Wintergarden (left) is a striking example of the way some auditoriums were made spectacular by decorating them to appear like a castle, a garden, a forest, or as the most outstanding example of popular art, especially Art Deco. The walls and ceilings had the audience craning their necks to soak up the decorations and be carried into another world even before the entertainment began. These extravaganzas were known as 'atmospheric' auditoriums, because they created an atmosphere beyond that of mere bigness.
Sad to say, almost all of these grandiose theatres, atmospheric or not, no longer exist. They have moved into the realm of nostalgia. Toronto's famous Art Deco Eglinton went through a number of new identities, including a booking of The Sound of Music that ran for 146 weeks between 1965 and 1967. When the Eglinton was transformed into an event venue in 2003, the story went around that one of the big tasks was to scrape Julie Andrews's image off the screen.
Even the wonderful books telling the stories of these grand halls – with pictures, of course – are out of print. There's one book I would recommend, if you can find it. It's from the Boston Mills Press in the town of Erin, Ontario, and it sums up the end-story in its title:Turn Out the Stars Before Leaving.
There are, though, still a few surviving or renewed atmospheric theatre halls, including the Toronto Wintergarden. Two of the others are right here in Northumberland County. There is the famous Concert Hall in Victoria Hall, Cobourg whose walls and ceiling are painted in a trompe-l'oeiul fashion to give their panels a three dimensional effect.
Left: The Concert Hall in
Cobourg's Victoria Hall
There is also the wonderful Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, where the tiny stars in the ceiling twinkle throughout the performance.
Just outside Kinmount, in Peterborough County, Ontario, 120k north of Cobourg, there is a fiveplex cinema complex in the bush, the Highland Cinemas. The owner, Keith Stata, has built this complex, together with its stunning collection of movie memorabilia, by buying the interiors of about-to-close theatres, shipping them to Ontario, and rebuilding them as part of his personal retrospective tribute to cinema. One of his theatres sports top-to-toe Egyptian decor. In the bush just beyond the parking lot, are several tractor-trailers, packed with even more movie history than is al-ready crammed into Stata's 4000 square foot museum that is part of the same complex.
Below: Keith Stata's Highland Cinemas and Cinema Museum
Current Events - Spring-summer 2023
You will be pleased to know that you can practise your own insatiable love of film in two of these atmospheric auditoriums within the next few months.
On the first weekend in June 2023 (June 2, 3, & 4) Victoria hall in Cobourg is host to the third annual Eye2Eye International Film Festival in the Concert Hall. This festival prides itself on encouraging young filmmakers to submit their work for inclusion in the Emerging and Student Filmmakers Showcase in competition for in-kind and financial awards. The program also includes a master class, and interviews with professionals who are connected to some of the films in the general program. Tickets are already on sale.
The Marie Dressler Foundation's 30th annual Vintage Film Festival (VFF) is to be held in the Port Hope Capitol theatre on the weekend of October 20 – 22, 2023. The theme this year is From the Page to the Screen.
Together, these festivals offer a feast of both cinema and architectural art. It would be a shame to miss either one of them.
After their May 5, 2023 opening, you can also make a visit to Keith Stata's Kinmount five-plex, the Highland Cinemas.
If you're a supporter of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and you'd like to visit Stratford's Little Prince Cine Lounge, you probably should have booked your seats already.
Chris M. Worsnop