Friday, May 6, 2011

City Theatres: The Humber (preliminary)

(Warning: Toronto centric post)

Half a decade ago I was living on Roncesvalles Ave, less than a block away from the Revue repertory cinema. Being just a hop, skip and a jump away from home, it was a home-away-from-home. I would catch a film whenever the mood struck me, the specific film playing not really mattering, but the convenience certainly did. It was splendid, running out at 8:55 to catch a 9:00 show, or spending a lazy Saturday afternoon catching a matinee. For a film enthusiast like me it was a bit of a dream, and the Revue was a palace. Unfortunately I moved away (and in the time since the Revue closed down and since reopened).

I miss that experience of having a neighbourhood cinema. So when I heard last year that the abandoned Odeon, the Humber, was going to reopen, I was excited beyond belief as it's about a 15 minute walk form home. My wife, a west-end girl much of her life, said "I'll believe it when it happens" because apparently there has been talk of reviving the Humber before. But it did open, after much anticipation, last week. I wanted to be there opening night, but I was out of town, but I took the first opportunity I could to get in there on Tuesday.

To my surprise, the Humber's opening film was Fast Five... I wasn't expecting the Humber to be a first run film joint, running the same new film for weeks on end. I think I was more expecting the higher turnaround of films like a rep theatre, more variety more often, but this is okay too. I'm really not fussed either way.

My wife had informed me that the Humber was a split theatre - or "twinned" - one that took the balcony section and made a second theatre out of it. We had one like that in Thunder Bay where I grew up, the Capitol, which I didn't really go to very often, recalling only being in the balcony theatre twice when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out and for a midnight screening of Clockwork Orange many years later.

The new Humber has had some work put into it, naturally, since it had been languishing for many years, gutted when it was shut down originally and water damage having crept in since. The front lobby is now a vast, freshly recarpeted space devoid of any clutter aside from a few leftover plaster buckets likely on their way to the recycling bin and a rope-stand cordoning off the far-right theatre entrance. The Deco aesthetic visible in the original theatre (see the Humber's Facebook for photos of old) is gone. The concession stand is a work-in progress, mainly a counter with a popcorn maker and soda fridge deep in the back. It's not incredibly inspiring as of yet, and certainly nothing like what it once was. With such a long bar counter, I have to wonder if the Humber will seek a liquor license or if even having such a beverage counter in a theatre is even possible in Toronto.

The first thing I noticed though, was not the vastness, but the smell, the scent of plaster still quite fresh in the air. The idea of "work-in-progress" is something inescapable for the Humber for the foreseeable future. I took a peek downstairs (where the bathrooms are, cleanly re-tiled, with new stalls put in, but the old urinal bank clearly dominating the space) to see the downstairs auditorium seatless, with lots of repair tools and scaffolding scattered about. It will be a while before the showcase theatre is in place for sure.

The upper theatre itself was a blast from the past mainly the gaudy 70's yellow velvet curtain that surrounded the screen. This is only the second "twinned" theatre I've been in (the aforementioned Capitol), and I forgot the actuality of the setup, a very broad seating arrangement but with little depth from the screen. The screen was another shock to the theatre-goer used to stadium seating and epic IMAX screens. It's tiny. Not too tiny for the space, but a definite adjustment to the screen size we're used to in most modern theatres, or even compared to most rep houses. The theatre has a brand-new sound system which does sound great, and does make up somewhat for the lack of big-ness of the screen.

The seats are brand new, low backed, but quite comfortable, though people will immediately recall (or for some, encounter for the first time) the narrow leg room of classic cinemas. The most surprising is the retention of the middle aisle, which is a loss of the prime seats in the house, though on the favourable side it does make for unencumbered movement from other good seats.

As for the day-of experience, well, the popcorn wasn't ready when I entered the theatre (about 15 minutes before showtime), the film itself was projected too broadly for the screen (so foreheads were cut off at the top) and the air conditioners seemed in overdrive. It was cold in there. Tickets are $12, so not much different from the big chains, popcorn prices ranged from $4 - $7 so again not much difference there, unlike the somewhat cheaper Rep houses. But like the rep theatres it is a cash-only operation for now.

Is it a sub-par or a premium experience? Well, it's neither. There are obvious plusses and minuses to the old school film house. I know it's not a good sign, and perhaps I shouldn't celebrate it, but I would prefer to see any big movie with a small crowd than waiting in line and going elbow to elbow with other patrons. There were about 30 - 40 other people at the showing of Fast Five I went to, and I can say it seemed we all had as good of a time as we were going to have with that movie, regardless of the situation. On the one hand seeing a blockbuster on a mid-sized screen may feel like an inauthentic experience, but at the same time, I would prefer it to being forced into 3-D goggles or having the back of my seat kicked repeatedly by inconsiderate film goers. Its almost a damnable situation... if the Humber gets tremendously successful, then I'll enjoy the experience less, but if it's not successful the possibility of it staying alive is lessened. Hopefully it finds the middle ground staying viable without overcrowding.

Ultimately, I'm going to go to the Humber, and frequently, because it's my local. Walking home after Fast Five - no buses, no subways - was as much a part of the experience as watching the film. It's my new default home theatre. Being first run and carrying the big blockbusters for longer periods means it's not going to be as cool or have as much cache as a rep house, but I will embrace it just the same. And when the lower bowl opens up (as well as planned private 60-seat screening rooms) it's going to be the destination place that it's not yet in its current state.

more on the Humber from the Globe and Mail

Preliminary Ratings:
Style: **1/2
Atmosphere: ***1/2
Comfort: ****
Screen: *1/2
Audio: ****1/2
Concessions: **
Facilities: ***
Area: ****
Ticket value: **