The pink and silver tinsel over the cash register at Dollar Cinema is a relic of a long-past holiday season. Concessions include off-brand candy, which owner Bernie Gurberg likes to joke is “garden-fresh.” Popcorn costs a dollar and sometimes tastes like it. There are flies in the urinals. The seats creak and sag.
But no one has ever gone to Dollar Cinema for the frills. They go for the simple, almost incredible promise of its name.
Sure enough, seeing a show at the small, second-run theatre in a sleepy mall costs just about a loonie. Loyal and cost-conscious patrons, which describes most of them, can buy 20 tickets for the slightly off-kilter price of $23. (Individual tickets now cost $2.50, up from the original buck.)
If that sounds too good to last, well, it is. The beloved Montreal institution – slightly off-kilter in its own right – is finally bringing down the curtain on an 18-year run. It will close July 31, when its lease expires.
A community of regulars is in mourning. From his usual perch behind the cash, Mr. Gurberg banters with moviegoers lingering to say a sad goodbye. “Oh, I’m not retiring, I still have energy – I’ll come work for you!” he tells one man. To a French couple he quips that admission is $2.50 for her and $1,000 for him, “because rich guys pay more.”
The usual culprits hammering movie theatres – Netflix, the pandemic – helped drive him out of business, he explains. But the cinema was also done in by his stubborn refusal to raise his prices. Sure, he was tempted, he says, but “it wasn’t my model.”
When a business lasts almost two decades selling its wares for a 10th of what the competition charges, the question is perhaps not why it’s finally closing but how it survived so long. In unlocking that mystery, the skeleton key may be Bernie himself.
After a long career in women’s discount fashion – “the needle trade,” as he calls it, “the schmatta business” – he was thinking of opening a different sort of shop in the Decarie Square mall when the landlord showed him a vacant movie theatre.
He wasn’t a cinephile, exactly, but he saw an opportunity. Going to the movies was expensive, and there seemed to be room for a discount option, especially with Montreal in the middle of an economic downturn.
“So I gave it a shot,” he says. “And it was an 18-year shot.”
At first, Dollar Cinema got by on sheer volume, as people flocked there for the novelty and the bargain. In its early years, it actually turned a profit. “When you have a thousand people coming in and you have the popcorn, it’s quite a lot,” Mr. Gurberg says.
This period saw some of his first, and last, major renovations. The original wooden seats kept collapsing under customers, so he had them torn out and replaced.
He hasn’t changed much since. For a time, there was the fabled Theater 3, introduced when the cinema got too busy for its two big screens. Mr. Gurberg simply rigged up a projector and a few seats in an adjoining room. But the need for a third screen waned with the decline in business.
The movies at Dollar Cinema have always tended toward a mix of independent, foreign and months-old blockbusters. Mr. Gurberg says he also made a point of screening “every” Holocaust film.
In any case, the films were only part of the draw. Some people kept coming back for the slightly eccentric warmth of the ever-present owner.
“I like it because he’s very friendly,” says Hoi Lee, simply, on his way to see The Batman.
There were always off-beat, low-budget ways of giving his theatre a personal touch, like the roughly Xeroxed flyers advertising that week’s showings, which have survived alongside a more conventional website.
Above all, there was the way Mr. Gurberg seemed to treat the concession stand like an extension of his living room. You might even find him emerging from a period of pious reflection, right there behind the candy display, where he sometimes dons the tefillin, the small leather boxes containing scrolls of Torah verses that some Jewish men wear for weekday prayers.
After a mostly unobservant life – he just turned 81 – Mr. Gurberg recently found religion. “I’m getting older, so I better make sure that guy likes me,” he says, gesturing vaguely toward the sky. “I’m trying to connect with that guy and see what he wants me to do.”
That guy may even have played a role in the end of Dollar Cinema. Eighteen is a lucky number in Judaism, Mr. Gurberg points out.
Whatever supernatural intervention may have been involved, there is something all-too-explicable about the theatre’s demise. As Montreal’s economy has boomed, the city has gotten pricier, slicker – maybe a little less weird.
Dollar Cinema loyalists point to the dive bars – La Petite Idée Fixe, the Cock n’ Bull – that have either closed or changed beyond recognition, as well as the rising rents driving artists and other low-income people out of affordable homes.
“It’s shifting pretty fast. Everything’s more expensive, and I hear a lot about renoviction,” says Jordi Rosen on a recent Monday afternoon at the cinema.
The fate of Decarie Square itself is up in the air after a developer bought the complex in 2018, aiming to eventually build condos. The cinema’s rent is still reasonable – Mr. Gurberg says he’s not being evicted.
But Kristen Larocque, a regular at the theatre, wonders what will happen to the city if more of these institutions roll their final credits.
“Where’s the flavour, where’s the artists, where’s the essence of Montreal?” she says.
Part of that essence, at least, will soon be going the way of one-dollar popcorn.
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