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The Carlton Cinema reopens

Small-film haven is a place for 'movies that can't find a home'

The neon café is gone, and there’s a sort of Holiday Inn chic going on in the newly refurbished lobby, but the Carlton Cinema has returned.

Under the previous management of Cineplex Entertainment, the Carlton had become the byword for indie, alternative and queer movies, showing flicks that had little chance of competing with blockbusters for screen time at the local mega-movieplex. Sure, the theatres were tiny, with itty-bitty screens and seats that doubled as torture devices, but if you liked subtitles and high art, it was the place to be.

When Cineplex pulled the plug last year, many worried that alternative film had lost an important friend in the downtown core. Thankfully, the Rainbow Cinemas/Magic Lantern group stepped in to reupholster, repaint and reclaim their status as one of Toronto’s best downtown art-house theatres.

Theatre manager Chris Ciavaglia is quick to point out that reopening the Carlton meant more than some new carpet and a lick of paint.

“It’s a complete renovation,” says Ciavaglia, who pegs the cost at around $1.5 million. “Everything from the carpets to the projectors. It was a huge job, but we really wanted to honour the rich history of the theatre while bringing it up to date.”

And what about those infamous seats, apparently designed for double-jointed dwarves with iron asses? Ciavaglia laughs. “People always ask me the same two questions: are we going to play the same kinds of movies, and are we going to update the seats.”

Thankfully, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Anyone who has suffered physical agony for the sake of a great three-hour Swedish film will find leggy comfort in the Carlton’s new seats. Furthermore, the 40-degree heat wave outside is completely obliterated by a frosty new air-conditioning system.

And while some will miss the café in all its neon splendour, a new mural by Fred Harrison goes a long way toward keeping up appearances inside. It features scenes from a painting that graced the original Odeon theatre (later demolished and rebuilt as the Carlton) alongside scenes of modern theatregoers with classic historical elements.

There’s also a piano for closet tinklers to plunk out a tune. It’s all part of the theatre’s plan to create a cozy environment that encourages customers to congregate and linger.

“I want people to come in and feel comfortable,” says Ciavaglia. He feels the Carlton’s ambiance sets it apart from the more mainstream movie chains, as does the management’s commitment to foreign and independent film. Future plans include a potential partnership with film festivals, and, yes, plenty more for the queer viewer.

“If there are LGBT movies that can’t find a home, then that’s what this theatre is going to provide,” Ciavaglia says. “If the community supports it, then that’s what we’re looking for.

“The big theatres do a fantastic job for the people who want to see Twilight in IMAX,” Ciavaglia says, “but there are others who want a different sort of movie and atmosphere. We want the Carlton to be at the top of their list.”