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Canada’s Heritage Minutes Are the Rocky Horror Picture Show for History Nerds

American audiences are well-accustomed to seeing their history come alive on the big screen. They have Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan. We have "I smell burnt toast."
May 15, 2015, 2:47pm

Old-school theatre marquee for an old-school event. Photo by the author

The quizmaster is stumping no one. Everybody in this packed Toronto movie theatre knows exactly who invented basketball.

"James Naismith!" they shout in unison.

Nerdy and nostalgic Canadians have gathered at the Carlton Cinema for a childhood history lesson—or 40—on a Wednesday evening. It's the premiere of the newest of Canada's Heritage Minutes, preceded by 40 of the old ones and a round of trivia about them. The event's free tickets were snapped up in all four host cities: Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, and Calgary.


Will and Thuy Tien arrived at the sold-out Toronto show first, securing seats up front.

"I guess it was an obvious nerd event to check out," says Will, who fittingly, heard about it through Nerd Nite, which promotes events with the tagline "Be there and be square."

The 100 people gathered in the theatre are a mix of friends and couples, mostly in their 20s and 30s. They could be awaiting any playfully ironic screening—maybe The Room or The Rocky Horror Picture Show—but instead they're clutching complimentary kiddie combos and getting ready for a trip back in time.

"This is the perfect event. It's free and it's nostalgia and it's Canadian history. Those are my three favourite things," says Danielle, who memorized the Minutes growing up in Halifax.

She's not intimidated by the prospect of tonight's Minutes marathon, which will feature half of the 80 Heritage Minutes produced.

"It's a challenge. A Canadian challenge," she said.

It turns out, it's a challenge that every person here has been preparing for their entire lives. As each minute springs onto the screen, people join in to recite the classic lines, like "The medium is the message!" and "But I need these baskets back!" and "Johnson. Molly Johnson."

The premiere marks the return of the Minutes to movie screens after a 20-year absence. Back in the early 1990s, they used to screen at theatres and drive-ins before the feature presentation.

"We wanted to bring the Minutes back to the big screen because that's the way a lot of people have experienced them and remembered them, so we thought that could be a lot of fun," says Davida Aronovitch, who leads the Minutes program at Historica Canada.


While they're beloved, no one is taking the Minutes overly seriously tonight. We laugh at the giant costumes, the overwrought acting, the dramatic musical scores.

"I'm going to dress my child like that," one girl vowed when the little boy who named Winnie-the-Pooh appeared on the screen with his unfortunate bowl cut.

The brand new minute, about the Nursing Sisters in the First World War, is well received, greeted with whoops and claps. It's consistent with the new style of the Minutes, which are less theatrical and have a more contemporary look and feel.

"We try to make the editing a bit quicker, we try to make the storylines and the drama move a little bit faster and the visuals are kind of bigger, more epic, more cinematic," Aronovitch says.

Still, there's something about those classics.

"There's a level of camp that the old ones have. But the new ones are compelling," says Melanie, who owns them all on DVD. She stumbled on the Historica Canada store when she went online to rewatch old Heritage Minutes. As you do.

American audiences are well-accustomed to seeing their history come alive on the big screen. They immortalize it in Hollywood blockbusters like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan. In Canada, we immortalize ours in bite-size Minutes. And we can't get enough of them.

When the screen fades to black, somebody screams out, "MORE!"

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