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.

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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.

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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

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Globe, September 18, 1920.

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Globe, September 20, 1920.

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Toronto Star, September 20, 1920.

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Toronto World, September 20, 1920.

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

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Toronto World, September 21, 1920. 

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

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Toronto Star, July 31, 1969.

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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.”

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Toronto Star, April 4, 1970.

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“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.

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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.

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Globe and Mail, March 6, 2001.

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Globe and Mail, March 14, 2001. 

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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.

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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.”

No Necking Allowed in Long Branch, 1949

The following narrative speaks for itself, as an example of the “Toronto the Good” mentality (present in what was then a suburb) running up against the emergence of postwar teenage culture.

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Globe and Mail, March 10, 1949.

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Globe and Mail, March 22, 1949.

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Box Office, April 9, 1949.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Photoplay Palace Turns Ninety

Originally published on Torontoist on August 18, 2009.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1919 (upper left); Toronto Star, August 18, 1919 (the rest).

It was ninety years ago today that east-enders were first able to enjoy fine entertainment at the theatre that underwent numerous name changes between its opening as Allen’s Danforth and its current incarnation as the Music Hall. Growth in what was considered suburbia in 1919, along with the ease of reaching Danforth Avenue via the recently opened Prince Edward Viaduct, persuaded the Allen’s cinema chain to build a high-quality theatre in the neighbourhood.

The Mail and Empire provided a preview in its August 16, 1919 edition:

After having traced them half-way across the United States and a large portion of Canada, Messrs. Jule and Jay J. Allen received with great relief yesterday the news of the arrival of the 1,800 seats for their new Danforth theatre, which will be opened on Monday evening. The handsome structure is entirely complete and it is promised that it will show the people of Toronto something new in the way of cinema house construction. Although this house has been built largely for the convenience of the residents of the Danforth and Rosedale sections of the city, it is one of the largest motion picture houses in Toronto and among the most modern. There will be no formalities for the Monday evening performance, but the theatre will be open to the general public.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Music Hall, March 30, 2010. My notes indicate Toxie hadn’t been on the premises for awhile. The poster slots are currently filled with upcoming listings deep into 2020. Click on image for larger version.

The theatre marked its 90th with a plaque presentation by Heritage Toronto, followed by a silent feature with live piano accompaniment. As the opening night film exists in fragments, viewers saw another Madge Kennedy vehicle, 1920’s Dollars and Sense. The admission price was sensible—only one thin dollar. It was a fun evening, despite a few technical hiccups.

The Music Hall is still a busy concert venue, marking its 100th anniversary in 2019.

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Photoplay, May 1920.

From the Toronto Star‘s August 7, 1919 description of Through the Wrong Door:

Through the Wrong Door is playing to capacity houses at the Allen this week, and the exvellent feature which is offered more than justifies the large crowds. Light, gay, and amusing, Through the Wrong Door is frankly composed to chase dull care away, and it is so well interpreted by Madge Kennedy and the cast in general that the effect is a very pleasant one. She softens and beautifies by some very fine acting the role of a bright young girl who throws over her fiance abd elopes with a man she scarcely knows. In the new dignity of one who sympathizes with the man her own father has deliberately tried to ruin, who she is assisting to achieve natural justice, she plays the part so convincingly that the sudden change of mind and heart is not only excused, but approved most cordially.

Motion Picture World, June 5, 1920.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Coming Christmas Day—The Odeon York!

Originally published on Torontoist on December 20, 2011.

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Toronto Star, December 24, 1969.

Things opened on Christmas Day: presents under a tree, cards from dear friends, bottles of wine at the dinner table, old family wounds, and movie theatres.

Yes, movie theatres.

Catching a film on December 25 is a tradition for lonely souls eager to escape painful reminders of the holidays, for families and friends to flee chaotic Christmas celebrations for a few hours, and a shared cultural experience for those who don’t celebrate Christmas in the first place. With a large pool of customers to draw upon, especially on a day when few other businesses are open, why not use Christmas to debut a splashy new cinema?

Parents may have welcomed the York Theatre’s opening bill on December 25, 1969, since neither of the main attractions was suitable for younger audiences. We suspect kids were content to stay home and play with Santa’s deliveries. Viewers could take the theatre’s spiral staircase to see a farce (Cactus Flower) or a foursome (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice).

Blockbusters graced the screens of the York until 2001. After operating as an event venue and fitness club, the site became the Madison condo project.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, September 19, 1984.

The York occupies a sentimental spot in my heart, as it was the first place I saw a drama intended for grown-ups, as opposed to family-friendly blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi. We ate dinner at Harvey’s on the northeast side of Yonge and Eglinton, then walked over to see Amadeus. Nine-year-old Jamie was impressed, following along without being bored.

Best of all, I was a big boy now! Bring on the non-kiddie films!

(I went to kid-friendly flicks for a few more years)

I wonder if my father thought it might spur me to share his love of classical music. If so, it didn’t, though I briefly explored his Mozart records when we returned home.

Given the timing of Amadeus‘s release, this may have occurred either on my last trip to Toronto before my grandmother moved down to Amherstburg or the first visit there after she left the city.

By the time I moved to Toronto in 1999, the York was nearing its end. At the time, the few remaining non-rep house single or double screen cinemas in the old City of Toronto were heading toward their demise. A survey of the scene by the Star in January 2001 indicated that Cineplex Odeon was operating the York on a month-to-month basis and a “For Lease” sign was already out front. Elsewhere, Famous Players did not renew the lease at the Plaza in the Hudson’s Bay Centre, while the fates of the Eglinton and Uptown waited for a ruling in a human rights complaint regarding accessibility (the result of which was used as an excuse for their closure).

Sometimes when an old movie house closes, we can’t help feeling that there’s something more being demolished than the broken seats and torn carpets in the lobby. For some of us, our vivid memories of movies that mattered to us long ago are all wrapped up with memories of the way we were, who was with us at the time, and, of course, the odd little details about those places where we gathered long ago waiting in the dark for something wonderful to happen. – Martin Knelman, Toronto Star, January 21, 2001.

Vintage Toronto Ads: D-Day

As the reprints of older Vintage Toronto Ads columns wind down, this is the first in a new, occasional series. 

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Front page, Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

As Canadians participated in the D-Day invasion, newspaper advertisers expressed their feelings, hopes, and prayers about its outcome. Here is a sampling of some of those ads, as published in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

Simpson’s department store suspended its normal sale ads for several days, starting on D-Day with a full-page prayer taken from Francis Drake’s attack against the Spanish at Cadiz in spring 1587.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

Near Simpson’s Queen Street flagship, the public gathered for a prayer meeting outside (Old) City Hall. Elsewhere in the city, schools held special assemblies, and all Anglican churches prepared for special services at 8 p.m. that evening. St. Michael’s Cathedral reported people streaming into the church as early as 7 a.m., many of whom were wives and children of soldiers serving in Europe. Special services were also scheduled at several war productions plants, including Massey Harris and, out in Malton, Victory Aircraft.

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Toronto Star, June 7, 1944.

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Globe and Mail, June 9, 1944.

Simpson’s followed up the prayer ad with two spotlighting leaders of the invasion. There was also an invasion-tinged full page spot marking King George VI’s official birthday celebration, even though his actual 49th birthday wasn’t until December.

By contrast, rival Eaton’s continued with their normal advertising, only adding an invitation published on June 6 from Mayor Frederick Conboy to attend a civic prayer service in front of City Hall two days later.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

For regular updates on the invasion, moviegoers could catch the latest at the Uptown and Loew’s (now the Elgin) theatres on Yonge Street.

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Toronto Star, June 7, 1944.

Radio listeners could follow CBC’s invasion coverage. CJBC, the flagship station of the CBC’s recently formed Dominion Network, swapped frequencies with CFRB in 1948 and moved to 860 AM.

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Globe and Mail, June 7, 1944.

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Globe and Mail, June 9, 1944.

Two examples of ads from the business community.

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Globe and Mail, June 7, 1944.

A listing of some of the Ontario residents who took part in the invasion.

Finally, a pair of editorials: one from the city, one from an outlying area.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944

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Orono Weekly Times, June 8, 1944.

Days of Carltons Past

Originally published on Torontoist on November 25, 2009.

When the house lights come up for the last time at the Carlton Cinemas on December 6, it won’t the first time Toronto moviegoers will witness the closing of a theatre by that name. One version was a neighbourhood venue, the other a grand palace. Guess which one of those two is still standing?

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“The gang’s all here. The Frantics comedy show on CBC radio enjoys a cult following of nutty fans and 375 of them showed up for the taping of the one hundreth show at CBC studios on Parliament St. last night. Funny costumes were de rigueur; of course. Particularly on Grey Cup day.” Photo by Dick Darrell, 1984. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0048344f.

The first theatre to bear the Carlton name welcomed audiences to 509 Parliament Street in Cabbagetown between 1930 and 1954. After the projectionists were sent packing, the building was used as a CBC production facility, primarily for radio. Since the Mother Corp’s departure to Front Street, the building has served as a dance space and currently houses 509 Dance and the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre.

While the first Carlton was geared to its neighbourhood, the second theatre to bear the name was designed as a showcase for British cinema giant Odeon’s post-war entry into the Canadian market. The chain spent two years and two-and-a-half million dollars constructing the Odeon Toronto (as it was originally known) at 20 Carlton Street, with the resulting product outlined by John Lindsay in his book Palaces of the Night: Canada’s Grand Theatres:

In the auditorium, hundreds of hidden lights constantly changed colours on the smooth plastered walls. This frequently changing light and colour was accomplished through a patented lighting panel called a “Thyratron, painting with life.” The enormous two and a half ton contour (sculpted) curtain rose slowly, it various motors lifting each swag to a predetermined height. The curtain also changed colour to match the changing colour of the walls of the big auditorium. The smooth line of the balcony swept around in a great gentle curve flaring out at the side walls to accommodate large aisles. The auditorium held 2,300 richly upholstered seats, although it was spacious enough for 3,000 or more, and every inch of the floor was broadloomed. The woodwork was light blonde and the mural on the grand staircase was in pastel tones depicting the theme of picture making. The trim was stainless steel with huge areas of mirror and other glass. The Odeon Toronto’s marquee with its huge vertical sign was the biggest Toronto had ever seen before or since.

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Globe and Mail, January 7, 1949.

“Toronto had a North American movie premiere last night fit to make the most premiere-hardened citizen of glamorous Hollywood lift his eyebrows,” gushed the Globe and Mail when the Odeon opened on September 9, 1948. “It was what they call a ‘brilliant premiere,’ noted the Star. “That is to say, a lot of people gathered in the lobby to exchange small talk.” British actors Trevor Howard and Patricia Roc provided the star power, with the latter joking that the theatre was “really too good for Canada. We have nothing as grand in London, and if you don’t want it—well, we’ll just take it home with us.” Howard played upon his mother’s Canadian roots, noting that when Odeon offered to invite his local relatives to the opening, sixty-two responded. After a few words from assorted dignitaries on stage, the curtain drew back and the audience saw the Canadian premiere of David Lean’s version of Oliver Twist.

As the Odeon chain spread throughout Toronto, it ceased making sense to refer to this theatre simply as the Odeon, so its name was officially changed to the Odeon Carlton in 1956. Business continued to be brisk for the next decade—several accounts from around the time it closed referred to a successful run of Thunderball during the winter of 1966 that saw a steady stream of sold-out crowds during the seven daily opportunities to see 007 in action. The theatre also proved to be the last movie house in Toronto to regularly entertain the audience with live organ music from the “magnificent console” its ads touted.

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Odeon Carlton, summer 1972. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 158.

By the early 1970s, the theatre’s size worked against it. Average weeknight crowds of two hundred and fifty patrons were not enough to pay the bills, so the site was sold to a developer. Burt Reynolds was the last star to grace the Carlton’s screen when White Lightning entertained the closing night crowd on September 27, 1973. When organist Colin Corbett played a farewell number, audience members rushed to the stage to ask for more. The credit roll was aborted and Corbett resumed playing tunes like “Auld Lang Syne.”

The imminent threat of demolition provoked a last minute rush of ideas on preserving the theatre. Alderman Art Eggleton spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt by city council to apply a heritage designation to stave off the wrecking ball, while the Canadian Opera Company proposed to convert the Carlton into an opera house/ballet venue. While opera officials had starry-eyed visions of the possibilities that the site offered (mostly because it wasn’t the O’Keefe Centre), National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director Celia Franca had a clearheaded view of the situation. She felt the rush to look at the Carlton was an emotional one based on the circumstances and that nobody had investigated the site too deeply. Despite a few protests and notions among city councillors to expropriate the property, demolition began in late November. The seats were passed around to other Odeon cinemas and a theatre chain in Vancouver, while the organ was shipped to Queens University and installed at Jock Harty Arena.

Cinemaphiles would have to wait until 1981 for films to show again at 20 Carlton, although the address was now applied to a new building slightly east of the original.

Additional material from Palaces of the Night: Canada’s Grand Theatres by John Lindsay (Toronto: Lynx Images, 1999) and the following newspapers: the September 10, 1948, October 6, 1973, and November 24, 1973 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the September 10, 1948, and November 23, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

The Carlton’s closure was shortlived, as it reopened under new management in June 2010. As of November 2017, it’s still in business. The Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre currently occupies 509 Parliament.

BEHIND THE SCENES

If you compare this version of the post to the original, you may notice some changes. Some are subtle, like moving around images. One isn’t: replacing the original lead image, which was a contemporary shot of 509 Parliament with an archival photo. By this time, I was starting to use Torontoist’s great pool of photographers for images where appropriate. There may be some cases in upcoming posts where I’ll reach out to the photographers to ask permission to use their shots, otherwise you should expect substitutions of images I took or relevant archival material.