“This is the end of this chapter,” Charlie Lawton told a packed house at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Sunday night. “We hope there’s another. We don’t know when it’s going to be, but, we’re not going to give up.” Then he dimmed the lights for the cinema’s final show: a double bill of Night of the Comet and, appropriately, The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s concert film and documentary about ’70s rock group The Band.
The cinema closed for good on Sunday, but it was last December—just before a bittersweet screening of It’s a Wonderful Life—that Lawton, one of three co-managers, realized that mounting financial pressures were probably going to kill the ambitious venture sooner rather than later. “December is when the wheels were set in motion that led us to today,” he said on Sunday night.
Along with partners Nigel Agnew and Alex Woodside, Lawton took on the task of running the cinema in 2010 after securing a mothballed 700-seat theatre in the basement of a condo building at 186 Spadina.
As a business, the theatre was never rolling in cash, but it was propelled by passion (and luck) and, most of all, a sense of community—like a great big living room of like-minded friends.
That community was out in full force for the finale. Watching The Last Waltz (on an original 35mm print) with a few hundred cheering strangers captured what the trio set out to do, and a fitting send-off.
Lawton cited the decline of film in favour of expensive digital projection and the building owner’s desire to sell the space as reasons for closure—though the tangled financial story is extremely complicated.
For now, the Underground’s management is keeping enough equipment to start up again, ideally in a space more intimate than their former digs. The way they’ve insinuated themselves into the film community makes it seem entirely possible that Sunday wasn’t the end, but, to quote Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, the “beginning of the end of the beginning.”