Like many St. Albert film fans, I was fairly well and true bummed out when I found out that Grandin Theatres had closed. There was no notice, no wrap party. It just went out with a whisper. Barely anyone noticed. They didn’t even seem to tell anybody, simply finished the last screening, turned off the lights and locked the place up.
It’s weird that we live in a city of more than 60,000 people and there’s no place of our own for a movie-going experience. Grandin Theatres, while certainly no shining gem, was all we had after the St. Albert Cinemas closed up several years ago and turned into a basement shopping mall church at Village Landing.
That one, the St. Albert Cinemas, used to be a Cineplex in its first incarnation with several theatres back in the day, and I still remember the screens were marginally larger than modern flat screen TVs are and there were enough seats for you and 20 of your friends. Maybe 30. That’s where I first saw Ghost Busters with my brother. We biked halfway across the city to do it too.
And a James Bond movie with my dad too. At the end of its second incarnation, I was alone in the same theatre to watch The Producers and then Hostel – free to pace about nervously on my own, yet always knowing in the back of my mind that the sad marquee and my solitude as a non-paying customer were both more than sure signs of the movie-free St. Albert that was inevitably to come.
Everything seems like a distant memory now. I will, however, miss the perpetual cause for complaint that was Grandin Theatres. It was still and always my go-to place for films and was more than instrumental in establishing my movie review career 10 years ago. The managers had always been kind in letting me sneak into screenings without paying, just to help promote their products: the films.
The first managers there did, on one occasion, create a great and troublesome situation for me personally, even as they gave me complete permission to their screenings. One night, one of the managers pulled me aside right before a movie, a serious look on his face. He asked in the politest possible terms if I would make sure to give every movie a positive review.
Consider the fledgling writer, a newby trying to make a name for himself. The only comparable situation that I could think of was a first time boxer being asked to take a dive. I said no. I was incensed! I refuted the request with as much inscrutable integrity as a geeky writing nerd of 31 could muster.
Frankly, I was furious and shaking at the thought but I held it together enough to remind him that there is no such thing as bad publicity. That’s true. I’m still bringing the films to the public’s attention. What’s more? People start to get a sense of a film critic’s sensibilities, so if I hated a movie, then they might already know that they would love it. That happens.
Over these many years, I’ve come to learn that this is true. Even my negative reviews offer a positive to the theatre because readers of all stripes come to know my sensibility, my preferences… they know that even if I absolutely hate Transformers 3, they will totally love how Michael Bay bastardizes normative human behaviour for maximum dramatic effect while ensuring that everything becomes fodder for an overtly grandiose explosion.
The management changed to the next and final owners soon after that. To be honest, I was thankful. That confrontation left a bitter taste in my brain and it made quite a challenge for me to offer fair reviews to all of their films right afterward. It’s the nerves that did it. A writer’s psychological environment is everything.
With the new owners, everything was different. There were many a Thursday night that saw me going to their early previews of new releases, only to have to race back home and crank out a 500-word review before bedtime. Getting that done before a Friday deadline meant that my reviews would be ultimately relevant to readers with the Saturday editions of the paper. That was always the big goal.
Before the place gets torn down, before the perpetually vandalized window finally gets removed, before the construction crew moves in, and long before the strange, new towers are built up, up, up… I’d like to reminisce for a tick. This might just be my last chance to grumble about the awful seats or the sticky floor, so I’m going to take it.
First off, I need to make it clear that I capital ‘L’ loved the place. It was quaint. It was run down. Most of all, it was close by. I could walk or bike there. I took my daughter to see her first movie there: Finding Nemo. I still remember the day.
From your seat, you could hear the projector fire up. You could talk to the projectionist. It made you appreciate the film-going experience because you held your breath the whole time just in case something went wrong, as it often would. But the prices were pretty reasonable, although they didn’t have a debit machine at the often understaffed front counter.
There were only five theatres to go to, and that meant only five movies at play at any one time. Usually, there were four movies on the go that were at least two weeks old, and often the majority were three, four or more weeks out of their primary release. If you wanted a new movie, you had but one choice every week. Several times over the course of a year, you had nothing new to pick from.
A lot of this stemmed from the fact that Grandin Theatres had old school film projectors, not the new-fangled digital fancy-dancy push button projectors. Those projectionists had to interact with the film. They had those immense and weighty reels to wrestle with. That meant that each film had heft. They had back muscles going for them. Import! It took energy at every step to make these things happen.
Every movie, whether it was Inception or Jackass already had the same circumstances and collaborations of humans and machines at work behind the scenes as Casablanca and Gone With the Wind. That made things more interesting. There was more care that had to be paid to them in order for them to even be played. We the audience members were already in an environment of heightened attention. We knew that anything could go awry so it must be something that a lot of people had put their work into. Those heavy reels might as well have been the stone tablets of the ten commandments. You don’t lift those reels up to an intense and weird machine unless there’s a huge intention that’s behind it.
That human element also meant that Murphy’s Law was in full effect. Grandin Theatres was the Grand Central Station of “if anything could go wrong, it would.” At any Cineplex, you might experience a sound issue or an out of focus moment maybe once a year at most. At our beloved theatre, it was a weekly issue, or more.
I remember bulbs blowing out or simply fizzling out. So many times, the projectionist had to call down to say, “Sorry, it’ll just take a few minutes to get it going back up.”
Patience was a virtue here, if not a virtual necessity.
Usually, I had to endure the slightly fuzzy and out of focus picture. I don’t think that I ever saw a movie that was crystal clear. There was just not enough distance between the projector and the screen, it seemed, a problem that likely stemmed from the fact that the place wasn’t at first designed to be a theatre.
In case you weren’t around St. Albert 25 years ago, there was a good reason that Grandin Theatres looked like an abandoned Safeway. It was. Both Grandin Mall and Village Tree Mall (now Village Landing) had extraordinary troubles to keep themselves established as consumer destinations after St. Albert Centre opened in the mid-1980s. After Grandin Mall lost its bowling alley around 1990, its only saving grace was the bingo hall, the SHAVA bookstore and the office tower. The installation of the theatre was a major boon, if a misguided one.
An old grocery store is no place to inject new life with a movie theatre. It wasn’t even that marvelous a grocery store either to begin with. Major renovations were undertaken and they did a pretty good job, considering what they had to work with.
Still, there the Grandin Theatres began and there they stayed, 199? – 2014.
I remember screenings where there was just no sound. For more than five minutes at a time too. For example, I had been anticipating watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for years. It was a film that had been bandied about in Hollywood as a remake-ready script for two decades or so. The Danny Kaye version was so good in my childhood, so how could Ben Stiller muck it up? I took my son to watch it and I swear that the first 10 or 15 minutes, we weren’t sure if it was a silent film, something that I still would have appreciated. It just takes a different mindset, y’know? That was the last film that we would see there and it's forever etched in my memory too.
Of course, the sound kicked in eventually and everything else made more sense then. We were just watching a film at the Grandin Theatres, and that’s all you needed to know.
Other screenings had other more serious issues. I went to see the premiere of Jackass Number Two, only to find out that there was a major technical problem that delayed things by half an hour or more. The theatre was packed and most of the enthusiastic patrons were polite but otherwise unimpressed with the problem. If I remember properly, the reel was loaded backwards and had to be unspooled and then respooled.
This was reminiscent of the time that I was there watching Anacondas: the Hunt for the Blood Orchid. The movie started inexplicably right in the middle of the movie, although no one in the audience knew it at the time. We just thought that it was clever filmmaking, getting straight to the action without any plot or buildup or anything.
Soon thereafter, we discovered what was happening. The action was taking place backwards and all of the dialogue was being spoken in reverse! It was a hilarious undertaking, of course, to try and comprehend the language and the plot. Not that I was there with expectations of Citizen Kane but I do think that the reversion made the whole product much better overall.
After the film went all the way from the mid-point to the beginning of the film, the reel change took us abruptly back to the mid-point again, now proceeding towards the end of the movie. We finally understood what the characters were saying and doing at that point, but our hearts sank just a little.
To be frank, there never was a movie that I saw there that I didn’t have at least one complaint about. The picture never seemed to be quite in focus. Bulbs blew and had to replace two times out of ten. The seats had to be carefully chosen lest you pick one that has a booby trap in the backrest. Someone always picked it and then moved to another, only to find that it was the squeakiest seat in the world. Forget turning off your cellphones, there should have been a formal request from the audience to get the management to use WD-40. I’ve heard entire squeaky symphonies of people shifting in their seats before the projector fired up.
While I think of it, wasn’t everybody secretly thrilled that Grandin Theatres was the one place where you could sit before the movie started without being bombarded with 20 minutes of commercials or stupid trivia? The movie-going experience has changed much over the years, hasn’t it?
And then there was that floor, that permanently sticky floor. The theatre’s cleaning arsenal didn’t include a mop but I do remember seeing the staff using a leafblower to clear out the popcorn spillage.
But the people were nice and Grandin Theatres was all that we had. I still see the crackling decades-old Coming Attractions banner suddenly bursting onto the screen before every show. I still think fondly of the lack of running water in the urinals, a problem solved with buckets of ice that some lucky staff member had to dump in at least once a day.
I remember the video games and the gumball machines and the foosball tables that you could play while you waited. In the world of multiplex lobbies, it was practically your goofy uncle’s basement. It didn’t have fineries but it had heart.
That was it. It didn’t have technological advancements. It didn’t have a shiny marquee. It didn’t have a debit machine or a coffee bar or 3-D glasses or free magazines or tiered seating or a lot of other things.
But it had heart.
So long, Grandin Theatres. Auf wiedersehen. Good night and adieu. Thanks for the memories.