The Hyland Cinema is London, Ontario’s favourite art-house cinema destination. Located along Wharncliffe Road just south of the Thames River
, the Hyland Cinema has a long and storied tradition in the city’s history as the place where London’s older population went to view movies, often for the first time. While mainstream cinemas in the city of London attract audiences with the latest superhero-driven blockbusters, the Hyland Cinema is the place to see the latest and the greatest among the critically acclaimed films that Hollywood puts out: the Oscar nominees, the difficult experimental films, the thought-provoking and at times controversial documentaries. If it’s stylish, thoughtful, and not up for a Teen Choice award, it’ll probably pass through the screens of the Hyland Cinema.
Film In London
Movies have been a part of London history since we first learned how to make still images come alive on the screen. The first film shown in London was a ‘multigraph’ film shown at an old opera house in 1898. This type of film was a massive undertaking to show; the multigraph machine itself was six feet by eight feet, weighed a ton, and had to be taken up the stairs of the opera house by a special set of ropes and tackle. Luckily (for both film audiences and the projection crew) it grew easier over time to show films, and the artform exploded as the Twentieth Century drew on.
A nickelodeon opened in 1903, which shows the progress of cinema history in London. Nickelodeons as a whole revolutionized how films were shown to audiences. Before the advent of the nickelodeon, films were shown as part of travelling acts, with ‘peep show’ type machines being popular in the curiosities tents at circuses and oddities shows. They were also popular, if infrequent, items to show at vaudeville theatres, to complement the live acts on display there. The nickelodeon, however, was a space specifically built to showcase motion pictures. In the beginning these were often converted storefronts that tended to be drafty and ill-lit. Seating would be limited (often with less that two hundred hard wooden chairs for patrons), and the screen would typically be hung haphazardly at the back of the old store. Over time they would grow to be more luxurious, but in the beginning they were rather primitive and uncomfortable. They were, however, the first theatres specifically dedicated to the showcasing of films.
The first of these nickelodeons appeared in 1888 in Boston. The popularity of the nickelodeon theatre peaked between 1905 and 1915; London’s nickelodeon was an early adopter of the form. London has always been a place where you can find the cutting edge in consumer technology; the city’s position along Highway 401 along the trade route from Detroit and it’s mixture of the rural and the urban have always made it a great place to test out the latest and the greatest in entertainment. Film history is no different; nickelodeons hit their stride in the leadup to the First World War, but London had them well before that, and it proved to be as popular in London as it did across the continent. The growth of nickelodeons also coincided with the growth in longer films; as theatres grew more comfortable, the ability of filmgoers to sit through longer runtimes improved. The first two-reel film shown in London was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery
. The 11-minute film, which premiered in 1903, was a landmark of early cinema and paved the way for further developments in the art form; The Great Train Robbery
made its London debut in 1905. It was one of the longest films made up to that point, and it featured things, like action sequences, special effects, and on-screen violence, that are still extremely popular items in films today.
Nickelodeons popularized longer films, which gave them the impetus to make the theatres larger, more comfortable, and stocked with more amenities. Directors liked the idea because longer films gave them more leeway to tell complex narratives and make artistic statements; audiences liked it because as films grew longer, storytelling got better, and they got a longer experience for the same price. Nickelodeons eventually grew into the kind of movie theatres that we are familiar with today.
The Hyland Cinema began life as a theatre called The Elmwood. The Elmwood, a 514-seat cinema, was built in the 1930s. At the time, economic downturn, social struggle, and global insecurity made the Great Depression worthy of its name. One of the most popular ways for North Americans to distract themselves from the daily struggle of survival during the Depression was to go to the cinema, which was one of the few affordable sources of entertainment available to the working class at the time.
The Elmwood began as a second-run cinema, which was the biggest factor in making it affordable for ordinary people in the depths of the 1930s. Second-run cinemas specialize in buying films from bigger first-run cinemas after the original first run of the film was completed. When the Elmwood opened, this meant literally buying the physical 35mm film reels; worn down after dozens of screenings on their original run, the films would be of lower quality. The audiences are also typically smaller, since they would often consist of people who had somehow missed the film the first time around, or of people who couldn’t afford to see the film in it’s initial (often much more expensive) run. Second run cinemas during the Depression were, however, big business; with audiences looking to save money however they could (especially farmers, who were among the hardest hit by the Depression), second run cinemas during the Thirties could attract crowds that rivalled the audiences drawn by the first-run theatres.
The Elmwood in the beginning would buy up films that were finished their first run and package them into double-features; in this fashion, the theatre could charge a little more per ticket while still offering a great deal for the patron. After the start of the Second World War, the Elmwood switched gears to become a first-run cinema, this time for art house British films. A perfect example of the kind of film that was shown during this period was Henry V
, the 1944 British film starring Sir Laurence Olivier as the titular King. These were films that were not perhaps the most popular films of their day. Some of 1944’s top films were Arsenic And Old Lace
and Double Indemnity
: big, laugh-out-loud comedies and stylish film noir. By contrast, films like Henry V
were artistic spectacles, with the costuming and acting presence of theatrical productions and the cinematic ability to showcase large setpiece battles and intimate, sometimes claustrophobic shots. The Elmwood became, for a time, the premier place to go to see the best in British films in London, Ontario. This reputation culminated in the Elmwood being among the first theatres in Canada to show The Best Years Of Our Lives
in 1946. The film, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Myrna Loy, Frederic March, and Dana Andrews, concerned the lives of three veterans of the Second World War as they attempted to readjust to life in peacetime after the end of the war. The film won seven Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood, who adapted it from the novella Glory For Me
by MacKinlay Kantor), and Best Original Score. Showing The Best Years Of Our Lives
before it came to many other Canadian destinations was a sign that the Elmwood, and London itself, were on the cutting edge of critically-acclaimed cinema.
In 1959 the Elmwood was bought by the Odeon Theatres of Canada, a company that was first formed in 1941 by Famous Players president Nathan L. Nathanson and his son, Paul Nathanson. The company, at first a collective of independent cinemas, was absorbed into the Odeon Theatres global brand in 1946. The Rank Organization, a British entertainment conglomerate, owned the Odeon chain and emphasized British films as part of the wave of goodwill and cheer toward the home country in the wake of the Second World War. The Elmwood’s love of British art house cinema was likely the biggest selling point on buying up the theatre, and even though the Odeon owners changed the name to the Hyland, it still focused primarily on British films at the time. The very first film screened under the Hyland name was the 1959 comedy Carry On Nurse
, the second and most famous of the 31 British Carry On
films and television specials. The film was quite successful; it was the top-grossing film of 1959 at home in Britain and also found widespread success in North America, with some cinemas keeping it on for up to three years. The film enjoyed a four-month run at the Hyland.
Four months is an exceedingly long time for a film to stay in theatres from our perspectives today. These days it’s common for even a wildly successful film to be in and out of theatres in a month. In those days, however, it was fairly common for successful movies to stay in circulation as long as they were successful, and the four-month run by Carry On Nurse
isn’t even particularly high by Hyland standards. In fact, the record-holder for the longest run by any film at the Hyland is The Sound Of Music
, which premiered in 1965 and ran for 73 weeks straight. That’s a fact that would sound crazy for any other film, of course, but The Sound Of Music
is still today one of those movies that people will stop what they’re doing to watch if it’s on.
The 1970s were a period of success for the Hyland. The advantage of having a big entertainment conglomerate backing you is that there’s suddenly tons of money for redesigning, and that’s exactly what the Hyland did. The front door of the cinema used to be directly under the marquee; it was moved in the Seventies to accommodate a new concession stand, a much larger lobby, and new washrooms. At the same time, the sound system and the projection booth were upgraded to a more modern setup. Their success continued into the Eighties, during the dawn of the Age Of The Blockbuster. Some examples of first-run blockbuster screenings that the Hyland ran through the 1980s include ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back To The Future,
and Field Of Dreams
. While the blockbusters brought in crowds from both the neighbourhood and from all over the surrounding region, the Hyland never forgot their art house roots, either. In 1988, the Hyland was the scene of a fairly large protest by concerned Christians who were against the Hyland’s screening of Martin Scorcese’s controversial The Last Temptation Of Christ
All good things must come to and end, however, and by the end of the Eighties the time of the neighbourhood cinema was almost past. Like so many other industries of the time, cinemas were consolidating, merging, and getting much bigger. The end of the Eighties saw the rise of the modern cineplex: a huge place that contained up to a dozen separate cinemas, each showing a different movie. The idea was much like the sprawling shopping mall or the department superstore: make one place that offers everything so that it makes sense for the consumer to come there and no where else. Cineplexes are convenient, but they eliminated the charming institution of the neighbourhood cinema. The 1970s saw a number of smaller theatres close throughout London; there were, between 1940 and 1970, anywhere between ten and twelve theatres operating in the city at any one given time. By 1989, the number had been reduced sharply, and when the Odeon company opened the Galleria cineplex in that year four more closed. One of these was the Hyland.
The Hyland was very nearly torn down and stripped for parts by Odeon when it closed in 1989, but it was instead sold to the Christian Centre of London, who planned on using it as a “film ministry.” The Christian Centre sold the building in 2001, to a couple who wanted to rebuild the theatre’s legacy as a great place to watch some good, not-quite-mainstream films. They named it the Hyland Cinema, which is the name it operates under today.
The Modern Hyland
Today, the Hyland Cinema is the best place in London to catch films that have achieved some acclaim at the Toronto, Cannes, and Sundance Film Festivals, as well as cutting-edge independent releases and documentaries. It’s also a theatre where you can catch retrospectives and revivals. Recent years have seen events such as a screening of the films of David Lynch, as well as the ongoing Retro-mania event, which brings back classic films from the past couple of decades, such as Fight Die Hard
. You can get a ticket to a movie for $8, but you can also get a yearly membership for the low price of $12, which seems easily like the best deal for entertainment anywhere in the city. There are 40 parking spots at the cinema itself, but since it’s a 414 seat theatre you may need to find parking in the area; Duchess Avenue, Elmwood Avenue, the streets across Wharncliffe Road are good places to scout out a place to park without having to walk very far to the theatre. Showtimes typically start around 11:30 AM but may be earlier or later depending on that day’s schedule; regardless, the box office will open a half hour before the first listed showtime.
Just south of the Thames at 240 Wharncliffe Road South, the Hyland Cinema is essentially the neighbourhood cinema of London’s Old South neighbourhood, the cinematic heart of the artsy enclave of Wortley Village. Whether you’re looking for the latest in cutting-edge film or you want to recapture the glory days of older film, Hyland Cinema is sure to have something to draw you through the door.