Yup, the ByTowne is so old that it might be even considered “olde” by some young whippersnappers.
Local entrepreneur Hyman Berlin built the Nelson cinema through the fall and winter of 1946, and opened the doors on February 10th, 1947. According to the full page ad in the Ottawa Citizen which trumpeted the grand opening of the Nelson, the cinema had all the modern conveniences, including an air conditioning system and the very best in ‘terrazzo’ flooring.
The first film was something called “Johnny Frenchman” and admission was 25 cents. Of course, if you wished to be seated in the ‘loge’ (balcony), where you could smoke, admission was steeper at 35 cents.
There were 980 seats in the Nelson when it opened its doors, but they must not have been filled to capacity: “Johnny Frenchman” closed in less than two weeks, and hasn’t been heard of since.
Only a few years after opening, Mr. Berlin leased the building to the Famous Players chain of cinemas, an arrangement which lasted nearly forty years. A concession stand was put in sometime during the 1950s, and was later moved to its present location. In the early ’60s, the Nelson was improved, with a bigger screen and 70mm projection facilities. The seats were replaced too, with seating reduced to about 790.
With the new equipment, the Nelson became home to many long-running film ‘events’. “The Sound Of Music” enjoyed a very long tenure in 1965, followed by other grand musicals like “Funny Girl”. Patrons might recall seeing “El Cid”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “The Exorcist” here for the first time. Later, the cinema played host to big box-office hits like “Jaws”, “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”, “Star Trek” and some of their respective sequels.
In 1988, with Famous Players no longer wanting to run single-screen cinemas, they moved out and the Berlin family sold the building. It became the ByTowne, continuing an independent programming policy that had been started at the Towne Cinema (on Beechwood Ave.) back in 1973. Since then, the ByTowne has improved the screen and projection, completely renovated the washrooms and installed new seats with improved legroom (which brought capacity down to its current 650 seats). Digital projection was installed in October 2011.
For more information on the early years of the Nelson, we highly recommend the book A Theatre Near You by Alain Miguelez, which details all of Ottawa’s cinematical (and theatrical) history.