Playhouse Theatre still making cinema magic in downtown Hamilton after 109 years


Published December 12, 2023 at 10:37 am

Playhouse Cinema Hamilton

From vaudeville shows and early motion pictures “with no expense spared” while the Great War raged on; to a home for Italian cinema and even ‘blue’ movies in the turbulent ‘60s; to live theatre and a Christian art house for inner city kids; Hamilton’s Playhouse Cinema has seen it all in its 109-year existence.

For Jacob Tutt, freshly graduated from Wilfred Laurier University’s business program with a love of film, the Playhouse’s history was certainly known, but still an hour’s drive from his Waterloo digs and a long way from being top-of-mind and home.

Until one day in the late winter of 2018 when he woke up and it literally was home.

Tutt and his parents, John and Wendy Tutt, bought the theatre – a stunning example of Beaux Arts architecture – five years ago and got to work renovating the historic structure. For six months of that project, Jacob Tutt lived upstairs in the theatre and got to watch it all come together from his bedroom in the projection room.

But the story of how the Paradise was reborn goes back to 1985 when John Tutt, himself freshly graduated from Laurier with a business degree and a love of film, teamed up with fellow Laurier student Chris Polci and a $5,000 bank loan to bring repertory cinema to Waterloo with the opening of the Princess Theatre.

Polci bowed out a year later to go back to school but Tutt soldiered on and eventually he and his wife Wendy added the nearby Princess Twin theatre to the growing empire, all without any public funding, grants or tax dollars.

Though they were both happy to offer curated movies and art house films at the two Waterloo locations, their pal, Hamilton filmmaker Terrance Odette, was encouraging them to bring their cinema model to the Steel City.

In 2017 City Kidz (the Christian art house folks) put the Playhouse up for sale and the Tutts, with son Jacob now along for the adventure, saw an opportunity to not only restore a rare, historic cinema, but also to participate in the revitalization of the creative Barton neighbourhood.

On February 12, 2018 they bought the place.

“It all happened very quickly,” Jacob Tutt remembered. “It really was a whirlwind. We had a look and we saw the potential.”

The seats were 70 years old and none of the projectors were working, but the 104 year-old plaster was intact and preserved. “There was a lot of work to do but the ‘bones’ were very good.”

“The opportunity was right so we made a family decision.”

The renovations took a year, with the younger Tutt first taking four months to live in France as an exchange student as part of his business program. When he returned he moved in upstairs in the projection room, which became his home for the next six months.

“My bedroom was in the projection booth. Every day I would wake up and look down into the theatre and see the progress being made.”

The lobby took up most of the work and after the family got the necessary approvals from the City of Hamilton the brand new, 105 year-old Playhouse Cinema opened its doors to the public March 1, 2019 with a showing of Cinema Paradiso.

The new owners got a year in of theatre paradise before the whole world came crashing down, but that first year was special, as Hamilton theatre goers, starved for quality programming, returned to the downtown Playhouse in numbers to see art house films, Hollywood blockbusters and international classics.

“It was phenomenal,” Jacob Tutt said of that first year, before the COVID-19 pandemic dropped into town for an extended run. “It exceeded all our expectations.”

The family were able to sell 5,000 paid memberships and enjoyed 50,000 visitors in that first year, which was enough to carry them through the shutdowns that followed.

“Covid came almost exactly a year after we opened but we had a year to establish our core audience,” he said. “People found out what we were doing. They brought us through the pandemic.”

The pandemic was declared on March 17 and the theatre was shut tight until July when it re-opened with attendance restrictions. Periodic restrictions followed, with the second lockdown happening between November 2020 and July 2021. There was a third, three-week lockdown in January 2022 before the theatre was able to open for good in February.

It was a tough time for the family, as it was for any business trying to put paid butts in the seats, but they got through it thanks to Hamilton movie lovers, who rewarded the new owners by supporting the Playhouse one movie ticket at a time.

“As soon as we re-opened people flocked back to the theatre,” said Tutt, with the Playhouse showing a bunch of Oscar-nominated films as it came out of lockdowns. “People were hungry to see them.”

As an art house theatre, the Playhouse primarily focuses on art and independent films, as well as international cinema, lower budget Hollywood movies and award-winning film festival flicks.

“But we like to sprinkle some big Hollywood movies in as well.”

The Playhouse is also the only theatre this side of Toronto still showing movies on a 35-mm projector as most movie houses have long since moved to digital production. “We keep the old projectors maintained and whirring,” Tutt said.

The dream of the Playhouse family is to be a cultural hub; a true independent art house cinema that offers great films and programming for Hamilton’s downtown and beyond.

“We’re going to keep doing the good work of screening films in Hamilton,” Jacob Tutt said of the Playhouse, located on Sherman Avenue, just east of Hamilton General Hospital and a stone’s throw from Tim Horton’s Field.

The numbers aren’t yet at pre-pandemic levels but he hopes they can continue to grow the audience in the coming months and years.

“We want to expose more people to what we do at the Playhouse. We’re getting there.”

Playhouse Theatre Timeline

April 16, 1914 – Public announcement in Hamilton Herald for construction of a $20,000 theatre on Sherman, north of Barton

Early November 1914 – Playhouse Theatre is open to the public. Shows in the 700-seat theatre would be vaudeville or motion pictures with “no expense spared”!

1951 – Long-time owner Anthony Patzalek begins renovations to the Playhouse Theatre, including a sloped concrete floor, the installation of 650 new seats, an updated heating & ventilation system, remodeling of the theatre interior to follow current ‘Art Deco’ taste, renovated washrooms and offices and a new marquee on the façade. The beau-arts appeal of the theatre was preserved.

1960s – The Playhouse Theatre is sold to an Italian family and becomes Hamilton’s premier Italian cinema house, showing Italian films and Hollywood films dubbed in Italian.

1980s – With cinema admission declining and under new ownership the Playhouse begins showing ‘blue movies’ in between Italian offerings to fill seats.

August 1990 – The theatre closes as a commercial cinema.

1995 – The Playhouse is purchased on a loan from the City of Hamilton for $225,000 by Theatre Terra Nova. Soon after the live theatre production company folds.

1997 – Todd Bender of City Kidz purchases the Playhouse, intending to grow his Christian arts program for inner city kids. City Kidz remained at the Playhouse for 20 years.

February 12, 2018 – The Playhouse Theatre is sold to the Tutt family of Princess Cinemas in Waterloo. A year is spent restoring the then 104-year-old theatre to its original décor.

March 1st, 2019 – The Playhouse Cinema is re-born, showing first-run art and independent films to downtown Hamilton and beyond. The Playhouse re-opens with a sold-out crowd to Cinema Paradiso.

March 26th, 2019 – The Playhouse Cinema sign is raised into place. The sign, purchased from a collector’s farm in Dundas, was removed from Brantford’s Sanderson Centre. Restored by Sunset Neon, the sign has quickly become a local landmark and beacon for independent cinema in Hamilton.

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