Photo fundraiser helps historic Cornwall theatre survive pandemic

·2 min read
Photographer Jason McNamara is offering people prints of a photo he took 11 years ago of the 80-year-old Port Theatre, in exchange for a donation to help the independent cinema stay afloat. (Spilt Milk Photography - image credit)
Photographer Jason McNamara is offering people prints of a photo he took 11 years ago of the 80-year-old Port Theatre, in exchange for a donation to help the independent cinema stay afloat. (Spilt Milk Photography - image credit)

It was 11 years ago that photographer Jason McNamara snapped his prized photo of the Port Theatre in Cornwall, Ont.

The lighting was ideal. The bricks popped. The faded, dilapidated marquee hearkened to times past.

McNamara has since sold hundreds of copies of that sepia-tinged photo, and now — with the Port and other small cinemas hit hard by Ontario's COVID-19 restrictions — he wants to use it to help them out.

He's asking people to donate whatever they can to the nearly 80-year-old theatre, which has been closed since the end of March, in exchange for a free copy.

"I made enough off that Port print over the years [to make] mortgage payments and [put] food on the table for my family," McNamara told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

"I thought, you know, maybe there's something I can do."

'Can't run on nostalgia'

Opened in December 1941, the Port theatre — originally known as the Roxy — and its distinctive marquee have been an unmissable sight on Montreal Road in the eastern Ontario city for decades.

Since the pandemic hit, however, it had to pivot from films and live music, seeking grants and selling takeout popcorn in an attempt to keep the lights on.

Jason McNamara took this photo of the 80-year-old Port Theatre, an independent cinema in Cornwall, Ont., in 2010.
Jason McNamara took this photo of the 80-year-old Port Theatre, an independent cinema in Cornwall, Ont., in 2010.(Jason McNamara)

"We've taken quite a bit of money out of our own personal accounts to pay the monthly bills," said Larry Sylvain, the Port's owner.

"I don't want to sound like we're totally desperate. We had a pretty successful year in 2019, and we're sort of living off the proceeds from that year, along with the donations. [But] I don't actually think anybody thought that this would run 13 months-plus."

As of Friday, donations directly from the photo promotion had hit more than $2,500, McNamara said, with people also giving money to the Port directly — a sizeable amount, but not the foundation of a sustainable business plan.

That's why he's also urging people to visit the Port in droves, once it's safe and legally permissible to do so.

"Unfortunately, things can't run on nostalgia. It's a business and it does need support," said McNamara, who fondly recalls seeing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the theatre when he was a kid.

"So I would like — when this is over — [for] it to be packed every day. Get there, spend your dollars."