Past Pieces of Toronto: Uptown Theatre

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was the debut installment of the series, originally published on November 4, 2011.

20111104uptown1970

Uptown Theatre, interior, Cinema 1, circa 1970. Photo by Roger Jowett. City of Toronto Archives, series 881, file 169, item 2.

Equipped with the latest in sound technology in its later years, the main auditorium of the Uptown was a great place to see films in which things go boom. As the action unfolded on the screen each punch or explosion reverberated in your seat. Such experiences, and the grand architecture and decor, made the demise of Uptown Theatre so painful: its final corporate parent refused to pay for wheelchair accessibility upgrade.

Loew’s Uptown opened on September 20, 1920 as a 1,600 seat theatre showing pioneering director D.W. Griffith’s film The Love Flower. As the Globe‘s E.R. Parkhurst reported, “it would be difficult to conceive of a theatre more admirably designed for the comfort of its patrons or better adapted for the enjoyment of the very best that brains, equipment and talent can provide in motion picture entertainment.” The opening gala saw appearances from leading lady (and Griffith’s lover) Carol Dempster, movie star/former Upper Canada College student Bert Lytell, theatre owner Marcus Loew, and Toronto mayor Tommy Church. A live orchestra was present, as it would be through the silent era until the Uptown became one of the first theatres in Toronto wired for talkies.

Following a fire in 1960, the theatre underwent renovations that, when officially unveiled to the public in 1962, the Toronto Star saw as a barely a nod to the new post-television reality of movie-going as a social occasion. “In New York,” noted Star writer Wendy Michener, “many houses serve coffee and have a really comfortable sitting-meeting-talking lounge. In Toronto, the only move in that direction to date has been the installation of hot-dog machines.” Perhaps theatre management sensed that Torontonians of the future would be able to snack on frankfurters anywhere downtown.

20111104uptownexterior

Uptown Theatre, 1970. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 111.

Shortly after the 20th Century theatre chain took over the Uptown in 1969, the cinema closed for four months as it was converted into a five-screen multiplex under the eye of architect Mandel Sprachman. Referring to his work on the Uptown and the Imperial Six further south on Yonge (now the Canon Theatre), Sprachman noted that “if I didn’t step in, those grand opulent cinema temples would be torn down and replaced with parking lots and high-rises. What I do is to give old cinemas a new lease on life. Architecturally speaking, I do my damnedest to help the old and new live together.” In the case of the Uptown, the result was a 1,000 seat main theatre for first-run spectaculars (starting with the musical version of Goodbye Mr. Chips), two other mainstream first-run screens, and the two “Backstage” theatres that specialized in art films. The complex was redesigned in eye-catching, playful pop-art influenced colours.

Over time, the Uptown became a key venue for the Toronto International Film Festival, especially as other Yorkville-area cinemas such as the Hollywood and Plaza closed their doors. When the Ontario Human Rights Commission ordered Famous Players to make the Backstage, Eglinton and Uptown wheelchair-accessible in 2001, the chain decided to close the historic theatres rather than incur the cost of required renovations. Famous Players cited a changing market and shifting demographics as the real reasons for the closures, but these were treated with skepticism in the press. The Backstage shut down immediately after the closures were announced in December 2001, and the rest of the Uptown lingered on until it took its final bow during the 2003 edition of TIFF. While the Eglinton survived as an event venue, the Uptown was sold to condo developers. Tragically, the theatre experienced a final burst of reverberating action during demolition work in December 2003 when a section collapsed onto the neighbouring Yorkville English Academy, killing student Augusto Cesar Mejia Solis.

Sources: the September 21, 1920 edition of the Globe and the August 16, 1962 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

globe 20-09-18 preview of opening

Globe, September 18, 1920.

globe 20-09-20 opening gala preview

Globe, September 20, 1920.

ts 20-09-20 opening ad

Toronto Star, September 20, 1920.

world 1920-09-20 opening preview

Toronto World, September 20, 1920.

globe 20-09-21 opening night

Opening night coverage by E.R. Parkhurst, Globe, September 21, 1920.

world 1920-09-21 uptown opening

Toronto World, September 21, 1920. 

ts 62-08-16 reopening article

Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

ts 62-08-16 spiral road ad

Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

ts 69-07-31 plans for uptown

Toronto Star, July 31, 1969.

backstage

Uptown Theatre, exterior, Balmuto Street, circa 1970. Photo by Roger Jowett, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 169.

From an interview with Mandel  Sprachman published in the June 21, 1980 Globe and Mail:

What is the role of the architect in the world of split palaces and mini-multiplexes? “If the job involves a palace,” says Sprachman, “I respect the work of the architects before me. I know they’re going to chop away at it, I can feel all the vaudeville people who once performed there–it gets pretty schmaltzy. I don’t want to do it but better me than a parking lot or a standard high-rise apartment building. The trick is to try to make cuts as clean as possible and leave as much as possible of the original building.”

star 1970-04-04 harvey cowan on uptown

Toronto Star, April 4, 1970.

tspa_0115406f_backstage

“Exuberant graphics decorate the Balmuto St. side of the revamped Uptown Theatre on Yonge St.; where the five theatres have been fitted in. The Backstage 1 and 2; entered from Balmuto; are the best part of the whole.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the April 4, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive.

star 1970-12-12 toronto notebook

Toronto Star, December 12, 1970.

An excerpt from Doug Fetherling’s editorial page “Toronto Notebook.” “Marshall Delaney” was Robert Fulford’s film critic alias at Saturday Night magazine.

gm 2001-03-06 threatened

Globe and Mail, March 6, 2001.

gm 2001-03-14 keith norton letter

Globe and Mail, March 14, 2001. 

gm 2001-12-13 closure announced

Globe and Mail, December 13, 2001.

According to the December 12, 2001 Star, other estimated costs to the Uptown complex included $225,000 for a new sprinkler system, and $75,000 for upgrades to the Backstage. A Famous Players official admitted the theatres affected by the OHRC’s ruling would have closed anyway, but the decision “accelerated the plan.” The OHRC ordered Famous Players to pay five complainants between $8,000 and $10,000 each “as damages for loss arising out of the infringement of their rights.” One of the complainants was to receive an addition $2,000 in damages for mental anguish.

From the September 19, 2003 Star, an excerpt from Geoff Pevere’s column on the final closing of the Uptown:

The Uptown was the kind of theatre–old, deep and dark–that made even going to bad movies a little less painful. Even if the movie sucked, the floor was sticky and the guy in front of you kept shifting so you couldn’t see past his mullet, it felt good to be there. When an old movie theatre disappears, as just about all of them now have or soon will, with it go your memories of the emotions you experienced when seeing a movie there. This is what gives its disappearance a sadness that most other victims of dubious urban development lack: These were the places where you remember experiencing things intensely. You went there to feel fear, desire, laugh, pine and momentarily forget what awaited you outside.

star 2003-12-03 uptown collapse 2 knelman

Toronto Star, December 3, 2003.

As for the condo tower completed following the tragedy, Alex Bozikovic does not have kind words in Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, calling it “a tall neo-Deco mediocrity.”

Happy Anniversaries, Globe and Mail!

Besides reading this piece, check out my article for Canadaland on some of the rougher moments of the Globe and Mail’s history, and the related podcast.

gm 1994-03-05 first front page

Reprint of the front page of the first edition of the Globe from March 5, 1844, published in the March 5, 1994 edition of the Globe and Mail. It should be noted that ProQuest and many microfilm runs begin with the May 8, 1844 edition.

The Globe and Mail turns 175 today. Like any institution around for that length of time, it has celebrated many milestone anniversaries, in ways that reflect the views of the times those celebrations were written.

globe 1894-03-05 eatons ad

The largest ad on the 50th anniversary editorial page. The Globe, March 5, 1894.

For the Globe’s 50th anniversary in 1894, a lengthy retrospective editorial was published. It began by celebrating George Brown’s role in Confederation and the development of Canada, then discussed the political evolution of Great Britain over the previous half-century. Those hoping for any insight into the development paper itself will be disappointed—instead, there’s a whole paragraph devoted to how British colonization spread civilization around the world:

Though in the extension of her colonial empire grave faults can be ascribed to Britain, it must be conceded that her aim has been higher than conquest and plunder. The aim of her statesmen has been to plant colonies, to extend civilization and to establish free institutions. Under this policy Canada has grown into complete self-government, and so have the Australian colonies, whose growth since the discovery of gold has been phenomenal. A far more difficult problem for statesmanship is India, with its teeming population diverse as to race, religion, caste, education and intellectual power, jealous of each other and of the dominant race, and as yet far from being prepared for self-government. The progress of exploration and discovery in Africa has been marvelous and has involved Great Britain in new and weighty responsibilities.

After discussing European history, the editorial ends with scientific and social changes. This section has a distinctive whiff of “Toronto the Good” about it, such as the observation that “the temperance movement has brought about an immense improvement in the drinking habits of the people.” It concluded by noted that “scientific theory and theological dogma have sometimes clashed; but the mightiest achievements of the age are due to the happy union of practical science with practical Christianity, and what has been done is only an earnest of what may yet be done by the combination of these forces.”

globe 1919-03-05 75th anniversary front page

Illustrations by C.W. Jefferys, the Globe, March 5, 1919.

The paper was in a far more celebratory mood when it marked its 75th anniversary in 1919. A special section kicked off with a series of C.W. Jefferys illustrations marking changes in agriculture, commerce, industry, and transportation. Globe president William Gladstone Jaffray wrote a statement. A pair of excerpts:

It costs over $2,400 per day to produce The Globe. This amount has to be found, and something more for interest on capital. It is obvious, therefore, that a paper must earn money, and a goodly amount thereof, to meet its daily expenses. If to make ends meet, and something more, is necessary to every successful enterprise, it is particularly necessary in the newspaper business, because the daily paper is entrusted with the guarding of public interest as well as the influencing of public opinion. Such great responsibility can be successfully undertaken only by that newspaper which rests upon a firm foundation. If handicapped by deficits and debts, sooner or later it is in danger of falling into the hands of or becoming the prey of those who will use it more or less against the public welfare.

We have seen many times over the ensuing decades the mischief resulting from media which fell into those who use their publications to harm public welfare.

In this second excerpt, Jaffray describes how he tried to keep the Globe financially independent and less susceptible to outside influence:

It is my conviction as publisher of The Globe that I should hold aloof from any financial investments, the advancement of which possibly might conflict with the public interest. As chief owner of The Globe, it has been urged upon me to state, in the first place, that the control of the capital stock of The Globe is in the hands of myself as the largest shareholder, and that the remaining shares necessary to constitute the majority holding are held by other members of the family of the late Senator Robert Jaffray; in the second place, that my holding of stocks other than Globe stock is limited to a very few shares of small value in two or three privately owned companies, which shares have been and still are for sale at the first reasonable market. This statement should convince readers of The Globe that there are no financial relationships to influence its direction and its policies.

globe 1919-03-05 75th anniversary page 7 editors

Next, editor Stewart Lyon provided a retrospective, reflecting on the Brown era, followed by a vow that the paper, even though it supported the Union government during the 1917 federal election, “has not gone over to Toryism.” As Lyon put it:

That would be a betrayal of all for which this paper has stood during seventy-five years. Its association with Liberalism is not that of a mouthpiece, but of an ally in the promotion of all good causes, and of an honest critic when the leaders of Liberalism lag in the advance, or turn aside into what seem to be unprofitable by-paths.

Lyon also notes the social ills the paper would like to vanquish:

The Globe most sincerely believes that in this land of opportunity the door of hope should be flung wide open. No child should be permitted to go hungry or unlettered. No one in the vigor of life should be without useful occupation. No aged person having faithfully performed the duties of a good citizen should be neglected and forgotten when the shadows begin to fall. To the furtherance of these and all other good causes the Editor pledges his best endeavors.

There was a greeting from Brown’s son. Biographies of the paper’s directors. A tiny reprint of the first front page. More greetings from Canada’s three oldest newspapers (Quebec Chronicle, Montreal Gazette, and Halifax Recorder). Accounts of the life of farmers in Canada West in 1844.

globe 1919-03-05 75th anniversary page 5 mackenzie king

Excerpt of Mackenzie King’s contribution to the March 5, 1919 Globe.

Among the dignitaries asked to provide their memories of working for the Globe was William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was just months away from becoming federal Liberal leader. King joined the paper in fall 1895 as one of several reporters hired in preparation for the upcoming federal election. By the mid-1920s, King’s relationship with the paper was strained.

globe 1919-03-05 75th anniversary page 6 parkhurst

The Globe, March 5, 1919.

Music and drama editor E.R. Parkhurst recalled an incident early in his career which happened at a rival paper (which later merged into the Globe) when a prank went horribly for the local food industry. Cat lovers may want to skip this one.

globe 1919-03-05 75th anniversary page 6 lundy

The Globe, March 5, 1919.

One of several articles about families who had read the Globe since the paper began. The section also included a long list of “charter subscribers whose descendants are on the Globe’s lists to-day” or whose patronage of the paper stretched back at least 50 years.

gm 1944-03-04 100th anniversary front page

Globe and Mail, March 4, 1944.

The paper’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1944 began with a front page salute from publisher George McCullagh.

gm 1944-03-04 100th anniversary editorial cartoon

There was an editorial cartoon…

gm 1944-03-04 100th anniversary poem

…the inevitable poem…

gm 1944-03-04 100th anniversary many moves

…and a history of the paper’s physical locations. It would subsequently move to the Telegram’s former offices on Front Street west in 1974, and its current location on King Street East in 2016.

gm 1944-03-04 page 15 cw jefferys illustration

Click on image for larger version.

C.W. Jefferys returned for an anniversary illustration, depicting the paper’s original home on King West. If you look carefully, you may notice a top-hatted George Brown emerging from the office with a paper under his arm. Below the drawing, veteran journalist Hector Charlesworth outlined the paper’s history. In the sports section, columnist Jim Coleman noted that the paper ignored sports during its first quarter-century, as “the only game in which George Brown…was interested was politics, and he confined his athletic activities to throwing curves at his political opponents.”

gm 1944-03-04 page 15 mulock

Globe and Mail, March 4, 1944.

A few words from the “oldest Globe reader” Sir William Mulock, who passed away a few months later. At the time, the Mulock (who, depending on the source, was either 100 or 101) was still serving as chancellor of the University of Toronto.

gm 1944-03-04 simpsons ad

Advertisement highlighting the Globe and Mail’s staff and syndicated features, March 4, 1944. 

I’d share material related to the paper’s 125th anniversary in 1969, except that there isn’t any. A search for “George Brown” during the anniversary week that March only finds articles related to the college bearing his name. There was a lone article in November 1986 marking the 50th anniversary of the merger of the Globe and the Mail and Empire.

For the 150th anniversary in 1994, Cameron Smith wrote a three-page story outlining the paper’s biggest stories, followed by a masthead listing 800 employees.

Unfortunately, an anniversary magazine celebrating the occasion does not appear to have been preserved on ProQuest, leaving us with the editorial above, and a Margaret Wente column on women and the G&M. “The world can change fast,” she concluded. “Back when we were 16 years old, none of the women who write and edit the ROB ever dared imagine we would be here, doing this. I hope I’m still around 20 or 30 years from now when today’s 16-year-olds are running the paper, to see whose stories they’ll be telling then.”