Originally published on Torontoist on October 19, 2012.
Exterior of Revue Cinema, 1941. Archives of Ontario, AO 2020.
The Revue Cinema, on Roncesvalles Avenue, celebrated its 100th birthday on Thursday. It has outlived countless other small movie houses, and is now one of the last classic neighbourhood cinemas in Toronto.
A century ago, when the Revue cranked up its first projector, film was only starting to shed its novelty status. The major American studios of the time were doing their best to quash innovation, but they couldn’t. Movies were becoming longer, developing complexity, and stretching the limits of imagination.
Audiences were discovering the magic of the silver screen, which made Martin Scorsese’s homage to the early days of filmmaking, Hugo, an appropriate choice for a free centennial screening at the Revue last night. Just as one of the movie’s central characters, film pioneer Georges Méliès, experimented with the latest in film technology during the first decade of the 20th century, Hugo offered the Revue a chance to show off its latest acquisition: a 3D digital projector funded with an Ontario Trillium Grant.
The continued existence of the Revue is magical, especially given how close it came to permanently shutting down in 2006 and 2007. Community support revived it, and it now operates as a not-for-profit. Coinciding with the Revue’s centennial is the launch of a new membership program. The Revue Film Society (which operates the theatre) hopes the program will fund improvements, such as internal renovations and the restoration of the marquee that collapsed during the venue’s brief closure.
The Revue’s birthday celebrations will continue throughout the next week. It will be screening 17 film classics, from tonight’s showing of Singin’ in the Rain and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to October 25’s bill of It Happened One Night and The Big Lebowski. The films will be introduced by buffs, critics, fashion designers, and the next generation of film fans.
Editors note: the rest of this article was originally presented in a gallery format.
Detail from the 1913 edition of Goad’s Atlas of Toronto. Howard Public School is shaded in blue, the Revue Cinema in green.
During the planning stages of the Revue in late 1911 and early 1912 its owner, the Suburban Amusement Company, faced stiff opposition from school board officials worried about the detrimental effects of “moving picture shows” on innocent youth. Like any new form of entertainment in a morally uptight city, films came under fire for the potentially naughty thoughts they could implant on impressionable minds.
During the Toronto Board of Education’s January 18, 1912 meeting, trustee W.W. Hodgson successfully introduced two motions aimed to prevent the Revue from receiving a moving picture license from the Board of Police Commissioners: a request to the provincial legislature to prohibit the construction of any movie theatre within 1,000 feet of any public school, and a letter to the police commissioners to persuade them to deny the license, as it was only 250 feet away from Howard Public School (then located on Howard Park Avenue). Hodgson believed that movies drained children of morals and money. Fellow trustee Dr. J. Noble feared that films caused a condition he termed “moving picture eye” and moved a motion to have a medical inspector investigate the damage movies did to young eyes. Noble was also on the record for finding censors lax for allowing films into the country which insulted the Canadian military—“We don’t want any Yankee jingoism over here.”
The police board didn’t protest the location of the theatre. When the Revue was granted its license on January 30, 1912, the Mail and Empire observed that “the people living in the immediate vicinity did not object to the granting of the license, and in the minds of the commissioners their views were to be considered in preference to those of people who had previously objected.”
Star Weekly, April 26, 1913.
Given the controversy about the corruptive effects of films on children, it’s not surprising that the Revue lent its name to an advertisement promising “good, clean motion pictures” within a year of its opening. General Film was the distribution arm of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust of studios who attempted to monopolize the movie industry by obstructing independent filmmakers. Like most monoliths, it didn’t stay on top of developments like the growing popularity of feature-length movies. By the end of the decade, only Pathé (later absorbed into RKO) and Vitagraph (later bought by Warner Brothers) remained active out of the trust members listed in this ad, while the studios they tried to suppress evolved into majors like Paramount and Universal. One connection between this ad and the Revue’s 100th anniversary celebrations: among the studios distributed through General was Méliès, the American arm of the Star Film Company run by pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès, a key character in Hugo.
Toronto Star, February 28, 1930.
As the Revue was a neighbourhood theatre, it didn’t receive the large-scale newspaper ads reserved for the downtown movie palaces. It was listed among the community theatres, who received either B-movies or first-run features that had finished their runs elsewhere in the city. Married in Hollywood was a 1929 Fox musical of which only 12 minutes from the final reel is known to survive. Of the films playing elsewhere in this listing, Four Devils is considered among one of the most significant lost silent features of the late 1920s. It was one of a handful of American films helmed by F.W. Murnau, whose credits include the early vampire movie Nosferatu.
Interior of Revue Cinema, 1941. Archives of Ontario, AO 2021.
By 1938, the Revue passed into the hands of Jacob Smith, who hired Sydney Roth to serve as its manager. Besides the Revue, this management team also ran the Kum-C on Queen Street West in Parkdale. They hired local theatre architectural experts Kaplan and Sprachman to remodel the theatre. Among the additions was the theatre’s signature marquee, which would last for the next 70 years. The Revue reached its peak capacity when this photo was taken—543 seats. Cramming in viewers meant sacrificing elements like a candy counter. Hungry patrons waited until 1955 before a proper snack stand was installed, for which two rows of seating was removed.
Toronto Star, July 31, 1943.
By World War II the Revue was associated with the 20th Century theatre chain, which eventually merged into Famous Players. Effects of the conflict on the theatre included 24-hour operation to accommodate shift workers from war production plants, and free milk for children during matinees (which was a treat given milk rations kids faced at home). The condition of the theatre varied during the remainder of its days as a first-run house. An inspection in October 1956 noted that “although this theatre is much below par and needs painting—it is being kept reasonably well maintained.” Renovations shut down the Revue for an entire month during the summer of 1965.
Toronto Star, July 6, 1972. Click on image for larger version.
By the early 1970s, neighbourhood theatres which hadn’t been killed off by television or other factors were finding new ways to survive. While several Toronto theatres switched to porn flicks, the Revue changed from first run to rep house fare in 1972. The new programming began with a Canada Day bill of Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood and the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born—all for a nickel’s admission. The follow-up was a nine-film Marlon Brando festival, which inspired the Star to run a fashion spread based on the actor’s oeuvre.
Toronto Star, August 26, 1972.
Thematic festivals were a staple of the new Revue, ranging from Marlene Dietrich to “Trains, Boats, and Planes.”
Patrons lined up for “Kung-Fu Friday” at the Revue, June 23, 2006. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.
The rep house market in Toronto has waxed and waned over the decades. One of its low points came in 2006 when the last three theatres of the Festival group (the Kingsway, the Paradise, and the Revue) announced their closure, blaming the move on poor ticket sales and DVD rentals. Immediately film buffs and neighbourhood residents formed the Revue Film Society to save the theatre. After a showing of Lawrence of Arabia on June 30, 2006, the Revue drew its curtains for what many feared would be the last time.
The Revue’s future didn’t look promising in early 2007. The building was put on the market. A deal to reopen the theatre fell through. Things hit bottom around 3 a.m. on February 18, 2007 when a heavy load of snow weakened a support chain on the marquee, causing it to collapse to the ground. It seemed like the final insult.
Things began looking up in June 2007 when neighbourhood residents Danny and Letty Mullin bought the property and leased it to the Revue Film Society. After volunteers spent the summer fixing the theatre up, the Revue reopened in October 2007 with a screening of Some Like It Hot. Since then, it has offered up a range of regular programming targeted parents with toddlers, bookworms, foodies, and silent film buffs.
Additional information from the January 19, 1912 and January 30, 1912 editions of the Mail and Empire, and the January 19, 1912 edition of the Toronto Star.