By Dave Allston
Very few buildings in Ottawa evoke feelings of nostalgia quite like the Mayfair Theatre on Bank Street, and for good reason. The Mayfair, a true Ottawa landmark celebrating its 90th anniversary in December, has retained much of its original look and feel. Stepping through the doors of the theatre is an experience that is becoming increasingly rare in North America as single-screen, vintage movie houses are a disappearing window to the golden age of cinema.
The oldest surviving movie theatre in Ottawa, the Mayfair showed its first film, The Blue Danube, on a cold and snowy Monday night, December 5, 1932. The audience also watched a comedy short film, an animated cartoon and the Canadian short film A Fisherman’s Paradise, filmed in Lake Nipigon).
Old Ottawa South was significantly built up by 1932, and building lots, particularly along Bank Street, were at a premium. A house dating back to the late-1800s originally stood on the theatre’s spot but was significantly damaged in a 1925 fire. Frederick W. Robertson, who lived on Clemow Avenue and was manager of the Rialto Theatre, acquired the property in April 1931, demolished the house and made plans for a new theatre.
The $47,000 building permit was issued at City Hall on Monday morning June 13, 1932. The original walls of the Mayfair still stand today – they were built with locally made Hayley Cinder Blocks, produced just down the Rideau River on Hurdman Road, and bricks from the Ottawa Brick and Terra Cotta Company at Billings Bridge.
The depression had a grip on Ottawa, but the cinema was a relatively inexpensive escape for citizens, and the popularity of moving pictures was high, particularly as silent films had recently been replaced by “talkies”. At its opening, the Mayfair featured a shimmering silver screen cloth curtain in front of the Spanish Revival-style auditorium (and the famous blue-lit clock that still hangs to the left of the screen).
Co-owner Josh Stafford speaks with great pride and passion about the Mayfair and its unique programming. For the 90th anniversary, the Mayfair has been running a special five-week countdown, showing the best picture Oscar winners from the “twos” (1962, 1972, etc.), culminating in a final presentation on the actual anniversary date of the 1932 winner Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore.
“Most of these films are big screen rarities,” says Stafford, explaining that the first film screened, Blue Danube, is unavailable for distribution so couldn’t be screened on the anniversary. Grand Hotel, says Stafford, “makes for a good compromise.”
The Mayfair is especially known for its interactive showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, its mysterious Saturday Night Sinema films and the recent return of all-the-cereal-you-can-eat Saturday Morning Cartoons. How many boxes of cereal are required each week? “Ninety seems to be the magic number,” says Stafford, laughing that the first time they hosted it, walking through the grocery store with 40 to 45 boxes seemed extreme but it turned out to be a significant underestimation!
Then there’s the popcorn and the butter to go with it. The Mayfair buys its butter next door at Shopper’s Drug Mart. “The Shoppers’ powers that be must look at their stats for Canada and wonder why this one Shoppers sells 400 times the amount of butter than any other, because we go in once a day for four sticks or more of butter,” jokes Stafford.
Many businesses closed during COVID, but the Mayfair survived, helped in part by creative ideas such as selling name plates for seats, old VHS tapes and posters and renting the marquee. Stafford says numbers are still not quite back to what they were before the pandemic, but it’s getting better. The return to in-person classes at Carleton has helped, as students discover a movie-watching experience they likely didn’t have in their hometown.
The Mayfair has struggled before. It survived a near closure in 2008 (around the time it received provincial heritage designation), helped largely by an abundance of community support. It even survived a brief period as a pornographic film theatre in the late 1970s!
There was a scare in August 2021 when the property was put up for sale, a surprise even to the theatre operators, but after a brief frenzy of media and community concern, the listing was taken down and there’s been no further talk of a sale. “We’re just staying the course,” says Stafford, “and remaining hopeful that everything will be fine for another ten years or more.”
Its heritage status ensures the building cannot be easily demolished, and the nature of building likely ensures it will always remain a theatre. An architectural historian with Parks Canada noted it has national-level importance, one of the final “atmospheric” theatres still operating in Canada.
Let’s hope we have a 100th anniversary to celebrate in 10 years! For now, happy 90th to the Mayfair!
Dave Allston is a local historian and heritage aficionado who writes and blogs on the local history of Ottawa.