The Revue Cinema Celebrates a Century

Originally published on Torontoist on October 19, 2012.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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. 20121019twentieth1943

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.

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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.

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Toronto Star, August 26, 1972.

Thematic festivals were a staple of the new Revue, ranging from Marlene Dietrich to “Trains, Boats, and Planes.”

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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.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 9

Let’s Have a Sherry Before Dinner!

Originally published on Torontoist on July 10, 2012.

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Liberty, October 1955.

As with many cookbooks from the 1950s, print quality and the passage of time have not done wonders to the appetizing qualities of these special oven-roasted meals meant to be enjoyed with a cheap Canadian sherry. That this fine beverage’s economic benefits are touted as much as its palate-pleasing qualities tends to reinforce the poor image the Canadian wine industry enjoyed among serious oenophiles at the time.

We weren’t able to find much about the Canadian Wine Institute apart from its evolution into the Canadian Vintners Association. We do know that they offered a free home delivery service during the 1950s—newspaper ads published throughout the decade offered prompt service if you ordered three or more bottles over the phone from the nearest wine store. The organization also offered cooking guides rich in suggestions for using sherry in ways other than pickling yourself.

How to Solve a Prop Emergency

Originally published on Torontoist on July 18, 2012.

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The Performing Arts in Canada, Volume 6, Number 1, 1968.

In the midst of a busy summer theatre season, a missing prop can strike terror in the heart of any performance troupe. Sure, skilled actors can improvise around an absent item so well that an audience would never notice its absence, but given all the time devoted to maximizing a prop’s symbolic value during rehearsals, wouldn’t you want a replacement or close approximation? Have no fear—the polymer industry has come to your rescue!

Whether it’s Yorick’s skull or a hand-crafted Godzilla statue that the unfortunate fellow depicted in today’s ad can’t find, a quick run to Toronto’s venerable Malabar costume house to pick up some Polysar XB-407 might have solved his problem. Not that it would do a perfect job of replicating everything—we doubt it would have recaptured the texture of Aunt Ruthie’s old scarf that was borrowed for the production, never mind placating Aunt Ruthie once she discovered the neckwear she’d worn since her flapper days was nowhere to be found.

Who is Canada’s Most Quoted Newspaper?

Originally published on Torontoist on September 11, 2012.

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The Telegram, August 4, 1962.

In the three-way battle for Toronto’s daily newspaper readers during the early 1960s, any minor advantage turned into a selling point. For the Telegram, digging up stats on how often it was quoted proved a matter of pride, especially when compared to its ideological opposite, the Star. The Telegram’s quote tally may have been aided its growing roster of editorial columnists—some of whom, like Douglas Fisher and Lubor Zink, would be associated with the paper and its stepchild, the Sun, for decades.

Not that being quotable helped the top two papers on this list. We ask you to observe a moment of silence for the Telegram (died 1971), the Ottawa Journal (died 1980), and the Montreal Star (died 1979).

Watch Your Feet!

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2012.

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Toronto Star, November 21, 1930.

It was one of silent cinema’s most iconic images: comedian Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock face in 1923’s Safety Last. Seven years later, talkies had arrived and Lloyd attempted to recapture the excitement of that scene in an extended sequence, complete with period slow-talking racial stereotypes, for his second sound feature, Feet First.

The film made its Toronto debut during a late evening showing at the Uptown. The Star noted that the theatre “echoed to laughter” for over two hours, primarily over Lloyd’s antics. As for the rest of the night’s fare, the paper was succinct: “The remainder of the bill is good.”

Additional material from the November 22, 1930 edition of the Toronto Star.

A Poor Crop of Hearts

Originally published on Torontoist on July 28, 2010.

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Left: Stuart Whitman and Sandy Dennis wander through the Ontario Science Centre. Don Mills Mirror, November 11, 1970. Right: poster for The Heart Farm.

Imagine you’re a movie producer in 1970 searching for a location in Toronto to shoot a thriller about organ transplants. The script calls for a semi-futuristic scientific complex. Your problem is solved quickly thanks to the recently opened Ontario Science Centre. Within its walls you shoot a film that you hope will impress viewers of ABC’s Movie of the Week and theatregoers in Canada.

Despite having two Oscar winners (Sandy Dennis and Burl Ives) in its cast and a budget twice that normally allocated to TV movies, The Heart Farm went into cardiac arrest after encountering local film critics. The plot: a millionaire (Ives, Cat on a Hot Tin RoofRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) establishes Science City (guess where!), a research centre where all of the experts just happen to have the same blood type as he does. Seems our benefactor has a bum ticker and figures he’s good for only one more heart attack. A researcher (Stuart Whitman, The ComancherosNight of the Lepus) is the lucky donor of a new heart…whether he likes it or not. Dr. Whitman falls in love with a blood specialist (Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Out of Towners), and both figure out what’s really happening. The film turns into a James Bond-esque ski chase through the Rockies as agents working for Ives attempt to secure his key to immortality.

Interior sequences were mostly shot in Toronto during May and June 1970. When the Star interviewed Dennis (who had visited Kleinburg, Ontario several years earlier to shoot the controversial drama The Fox), the paper seemed more obsessed with her odd fashion sense than her acting talent. Clad in a beige turtleneck poncho, “she looked more like some fey wayward waif straight off Yorkville than your genuine 33-year-old, Oscar-award-winning star.” Apart from a reference to his toupee, the Star was gentler to Ives, even if it allowed him to admit that things might not have been going so well at a Yorkville soundstage. “I was skating on thin ice yesterday,” he told the paper. “Couldn’t remember my lines. It doesn’t roll yet. Not like Tennessee Williams does…But it will, it will. [stage whisper] After I rewrite it.” Producer Terry Dene was happy with the assistance he received from the Science Centre after awkward scheduling elsewhere. “They bent over backward to help us,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We screened our rushes in their film theatre, and late at night they’d even crank up the laser beam when we needed it for a shot.”

All involved could have used lasers and other advanced technology for personal protection after their masterpiece was unveiled. The first local review appeared in the November 11 edition of the Don Mills Mirror. Writer Kirk Brown was impressed with the Science Centre’s potential as a film set, but that was as far as his enthusiasm extended. He felt the film “abuses the Centre by depending on its futuristic design to set an atmosphere for a bad story and all too familiar plot… The actors have as much impression as a smudge of chocolate ice cream left by a scoop on a vanilla serving.” Especially unsatisfying was the romance between Dennis and Whitman, whose love scenes were “pathetically clumsy.”

But the critical knives were only beginning to sharpen…

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Toronto Star, November 20, 1970.

Outside of a showing at the Science Centre, the film ran briefly at the Yonge cinema downtown. The fleeting run was too long for the Star’s Urjo Kareda, whose review was merciless from the get-go:

Well, we’ve touched bottom now: The Heart Farm is the first out-and-out Canadian-made bomb, a movie beyond redemption…In a way, you can only bring yourself to believe in the existence of movies like The Heart Farm if you imagine them being thought up in the dim hours of the morning and somehow filmed in those couple of hours before the sunrise cleared everybody’s head.

Nobody involved in the hapless film escaped Kareda’s scorn, whether it was the stars (“Anyone who’d let the twitchy Miss Dennis play around with their corpuscles is beyond help”), the skiing sequences (“touchingly, the film has substituted lyrical scenes of downhill skiing for scenes of actual passion between the two”), or the misuse of the Science Centre (“photographed to look like a particularly unconvincing cardboard set”). Even Dolores Claman, composer of Canada’s other national anthem, was fingered for a score that resulted in “awful, signalling music” which left “no crudity unturned.”

As far as we can tell, The Heart Farm (which was also known as The Man Who Wanted to Live Forever) has never been released on video and hasn’t surfaced online. So much for its quest for immortality.

Additional material from the June 6, 1970 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the May 30, 1970; June 13, 1970; and November 23, 1970 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: My Dinner with Chewbacca

Originally published on Torontoist on July 6, 2010.

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Toronto Sun, November 20, 1977.

We wonder if the phones at the Toronto Sun were overwhelmed with calls from early Star Wars zealots incensed to discover that their beloved “wild wacky Wookie” (other articles couldn’t decide how many “e”s Chewbacca’s species required) was being compared to a carpet. Goofy writing didn’t deter the ten lucky winners who weren’t devoured by actor Peter Mayhew during dinner at the CN Tower. After seeing their picture with the costume-less giant printed in the Sun, contest victors who still hadn’t had their fill of Star Wars could still catch the movie at a handful of big screens around Metro Toronto where it had settled into a long run, including the Elane (at Eglinton and Danforth), Fairview Mall, Mt. Pleasant, and the Varsity.

Mayhew took a weekend off from his day job as an orderly in England to attend the Vantastic van show and dine with the contest winners. Columnist Sylvia Train was impressed with the sheer size of the seven-foot-plus visitor while lunching with him at the Courtyard Café (“One of my hands spread out fitted easily in his palm”). Show organizers had difficulty finding a hotel bed suitable for Mayhew’s frame until they finally located one at the Bristol Place, where he was quickly besieged with autograph requests from the staff and their families. When the limousine company hired for Mayhew discovered his claim to fame, they donated their services in exchange for a set of autographed pictures. When asked if he had been approached to reprise his role in “Star Wars II,” Mayhew responded: “They have offered me the part and though I haven’t accepted as yet, I’m sure I will.”

Additional material from the December 2, 1977 edition of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Here are winners of the Sun‘s contest to have dinner with a wookiee, as presented in the December 2, 1977 edition of TO’s daily tabloid.

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From the same edition, columnist Sylvia Train compares her size to Mayhew’s. As she succinctly put it, he was “really big.” Special note was note was made that “though he is large he’s perfectly proportioned,” so that readers wouldn’t worry about the man suffering from any size-related physical deformities (who wanted to talk acromegaly or other disorders in a fluffy entertainment column?).

Vintage Toronto Ads: Connecting Canadians and Cannibals

Originally published on Torontoist on January 19, 2010.

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Cinema Canada 13, April/May 1974.

How do you attract attention to a film-production facility deep in the heart of west Etobicoke in the mid-1970s? Follow the trend of many theatres trying to stay in business at the time—offer a hint of nudity. To ensure the right amount of Canadian content, ask the model to seductively grasp a maple leaf.

The “recent original productions” hit theatres between 1972 and 1975. Most of the titles listed are safely classified as B-movies, most with a sprinkling of international talents to bring in bookings—want to see an undersea disaster epic with Ernest Borgnine that isn’t The Poseidon Adventure or an early Tommy Lee Jones vehicle? The best known of the bunch might be Cannibal Girls, a 1973 horror-comedy that helped launch the careers of Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, and Ivan Reitman.

Filmed in ten days around Richmond Hill with a twelve-thousand-dollar budget (most of which appears to have gone towards grooming Levy’s hair and moustache), Cannibal Girls turned a tidy profit after it was picked up for distribution by American International Pictures. At a horror film festival in Spain, Levy and Martin earned best actor and actress awards for their work.

Local critics were unimpressed—the headline over Clyde Gilmour’s review in the Star stated “Cannibal Girls show movies at near worst.” The veteran reviewer felt that the movie could make Canadian filmmakers proud in one respect: “Despite the fact that the Americans outnumber us ten to one, Canadians needn’t take a back seat to our southern neighbours in the manufacturing of lousy movies.” Gilmour found that director Reitman and writer Robert Sandler produced a flick that was “bumbling, tasteless and relentlessly sophomoric. The acting is terrible; the editing, chaotic; the direction so lacklustre that it doesn’t even give us a close-up of the evil parson when he makes what is clearly meant to be an electrifying entry into the story.”

As for the film’s gimmick, a chime to warn delicate audience members of gore to come, Gilmour felt “a bell at the beginning of the whole movie and a chime at the finish would have been a more sensible procedure.”

Besides brief glimpses of the future SCTV stars, watch for an appearance in the trailer by Fishka Rais (Igor from The Hilarious House of Frightenstein) as a friendly neighbourhood butcher.

Additional material from the June 11, 1973 and November 8, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star.

Tales from the Tivoli Theatre

Vintage Toronto Ads: An All-Talking Night at the Movies

Originally published on Torontoist on April 21, 2009.

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Toronto Star, September 21, 1929 (left) and August 31, 1929 (right).

For Toronto moviegoers, 1929 saw major changes at many of the city’s theatres, which were busy wiring up competing sound systems as silent films gave way to the talkies. The first all-talkie film to debut in Toronto made its appearance on December 28, 1928, when a crowd gathered at the Tivoli at Richmond and Victoria streets to see a midnight screening of The Terror, a thriller presented with the sound-on-disc Vitaphone system.

By the end of summer silents were quickly on the way out, as the major studios built soundstages and converted films already in progress to talkies. The movies in today’s ads were among the early wave of sound films to hit the city. Madame X was a venerable weepie that has been filmed at least ten times since 1910. This ad captures the anguish displayed in this version by star Ruth Chatterton, who was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. She lost, as did director Lionel Barrymore.

For lighter fare, one could have headed to the Uptown to catch the Marx Brothers in a musical based on one of their Broadway hits, The Cocoanuts. The plot found Groucho managing a Florida hotel during the height of the 1920s land boom, with intermittent production numbers. His character’s name, Mr. Hammer, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like Rufus T. Firefly.

Terror at the Tivoli

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on May 16, 2009.

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Toronto Star, December 28, 1928 (left), January 5, 1929 (right).

Dateline: Toronto, December 28, 1928, the corner of Richmond and Victoria streets. Over a thousand people gathered at the Tivoli theatre to attend a midnight screening of the first all-talking feature to play in TorontoThe Terror. The crowd was treated to a tale of an organ-tinkling homicidal maniac preying upon guests at an English hotel, with sound provided via the Vitaphone system of giant record-like discs synchronized with the film.

The “What Press Agents Say About Coming Events” section of the following day’s Toronto Star gushed about the film:

In this sensational production not one single title appears on the screen, but every character in the play speaks every word of his and her part. This weird and wonderful picture is the most astonishing mystery play ever produced…you will be absolutely thrilled to the depths by this stirring and amazing story. But The Terror is not without comedy and one is forced to laugh between every gasp at the humorous and comical incidents.

Critics, especially those across the Atlantic, weren’t as enthusiastic. The New York Times noted that reviewers in London felt the film was “so bad that it is almost suicidal. They claim that it is monotonous, slow, dragging, fatiguing and boring.” Other reviewers felt that star May McAvoy’s voice was so squeaky that it could be classified as a sound effect.

The novelty of sound drew crowds to The Terror until it wrapped up its run at the Tivoli on January 18, 1929. The next film promoted on the theatre’s marquee was another May McAvoy flick that made movie history two years earlier: The Jazz Singer. While one can watch Al Jolson sing “Toot Toot Tootsie” on DVD, little apart from the sound disc is known to exist of The Terror.

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Tivoli Theatre, possibly mid-1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124. ID 0148.

Originally called the Allen, the theatre served as the premiere venue for its namesake chain in the city, whose other venues included what is now the Music Hall on Danforth Avenue. The theatre was purchased by Famous Players in 1923 and officially reopened as the Tivoli that November. The stadium-style theatre boasted a wide, bright screen and an orchestra led by Luigi Romanelli. Prestige pictures were the favoured fare, for which audiences had to book their seats in advance. Its wide stage allowed it to run 70mm Todd-AO films in the 1950s. The curtains were drawn for the last time in late 1964—as demolition neared the following summer, the marquee displayed one final, grammatically dubious message: “Teperman’s Tearers Strikes Again.”

Additional material from the July 28, 1965 edition of the Globe and Mail, the November 18, 1928 edition of the New York Times, and the December 29, 1928 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This is a strong contender for being one of the shortest Historicists ever, suggesting that I was scrambling for content that week. Don’t expect this one to ever appear in any future print compilation. This piece demonstrates how the column was still evolving a few months into its run – frankly, it’s indistinguishable from later Vintage Toronto Ads columns.

Saluting Saturday Night at the Movies (and Magic Shadows) with Elwy Yost

Part One: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Originally published on Torontoist on January 2, 2008.

Vintage Ad #439: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Toronto Life, December 1985.

Nobody likes to be stranded during the holiday season due to car trouble. Whether it’s a dead battery, unexpected snowfall, or executing a 180-degree spin into the ditch alongside the 401 on the way back to the city, inclement weather and Murphy’s Law often combine to make this a busy time of the year for auto clubs like CAA. Even beloved weekend movie hosts occasionally require their assistance.

Before gaining fame as a movie host, Weston native Elwy Yost’s occupations included stage actor, high school English teacher, employee in the personnel department of A.V. Roe during the Avro Arrow controversy, and television quiz show panelist. Yost’s first film show was Passport to Adventure, a mid-1960s CBC series in which features were presented in a serialized format alongside interviews with performers. When Yost began his film-hosting duties for TVOntario in the 1970s, he utilized the serial format for Magic Shadows on weeknights, while a rich archive of interviews with filmmakers and critics provided the context for the feature presentations on Saturday Night at the Movies. The bubbling enthusiasm he displayed for films during his 25-year run on TVOntario helped inspire a generation of film geeks. For his final broadcast in 1999, Yost screened Speed, written by one of those he inspired, his son Graham.

While waiting for his vehicle to be pulled out of the snow, one wonders if Elwy and the driver discussed movies with well-framed towing sequences.

Part Two: Curtains Fall on Saturday Night at the Movies

Originally published on Torontoist on November 13, 2012.

When the phrase “plan that looks to future” sits atop a press release, it’s often code for cutbacks or reallocation of resources. So it is with a missive released today by TVO, which buries the axe amid plans to direct reduced provincial funding into digital children’s and current affairs programming. Not until paragraph six does the bombshell hit: Saturday Night at the Movies (SNAM), currently the longest running movie program on television, will soon load its final reel.

According to TVO CEO Lisa de Wilde, “When Saturday Night at the Movies began almost 40 years ago, it broke new ground but now entire TV networks and web services are dedicated to movies.” While this may be true, those other services lack the extensive archive of interviews TVO has built up since SNAM debuted in March 1974. Those other services offer studio-produced puff pieces and PR junket quality featurettes on movies, but they don’t reach into the mechanics of filmmaking as SNAM’s conversations do. Since the late 1990s, the series has been included in York University’s film curriculum.

Beyond fulfilling TVO’s mandate as an educational broadcaster SNAM, especially during Elwy Yost’s quarter-century run as host, turned a generation of viewers into film connoisseurs. As Torontoist’s Christopher Bird noted in his obituary for Yost last year, “He was the friendliest man on television who wasn’t Mister Rogers, because he had the best job ever: he got paid to talk about movies, and movies deserved better than cynicism and snark to someone like Elwy Yost.” His manner and the show’s excellent programming choices helped the series become the network’s highest-rated series.

To a child growing up in a pre-cable household during the 1980s, SNAM was a gateway to classic movies that weren’t regularly shown on television. Under Yost’s warm guidance, it was a place to discover films that they only knew through stills in picture books, to understand who Groucho Marx was beyond the inspiration for gag glasses, spot Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos, and crack the mystery of “Rosebud.”

Besides SNAM, TVO also announced that it is ending Allan Gregg in Conversationafter 18 years. While Big Ideas is being cancelled as an ongoing series, the network indicates the lectures will reappear as an occasional segment of The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The total cuts announced today will save TVO $2 million and axe up to 40 jobs. But amid the carefully vetted talk about fiscal realities and leveraging efficiencies, a little magic has been lost.

Part Three: More Than Turning On a Projector

Originally published on Torontoist on November 20, 2012.

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Globe and Mail, November 5, 1975.

Last week, we reported that TVOntario is cancelling Saturday Night at the Movies after almost 40 years on the air. Today’s ad from the show’s early days sums up the things that made it a hit: an enthusiastic host, smart programming choices, and the use of the medium as “a springboard for discussion, ideas, feelings and—education.”

Saturday Night at the Movies was prominently featured in the network’s “TVOntario opens eyes” print advertising campaign during the mid-1970s. Today’s ad gives a feel for the range of films the series was showing at that time: Hitchcock thrillers, swashbuckling adventures, and Cold War–paranoia sci-fi.

Sharing space in this ad is host Elwy Yost’s weeknight gig, Magic Shadows. To fit the half-hour slot, movies were split up, serial style, and curated by Yost in a less formal manner than the Saturday-night feature bills. The show featured an imaginative—if slightly frightening to children—animated opening sequence.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Here’s a sense of what Magic Shadows was like, via a series of intros from its presentation of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

TVO’s online archive includes several episodes of Talking Film, which thematically compiled Yost’s interviews (and was another series I ate up as a kid).

Combined, all of Yost’s TVO film shows, combined with the guidance of my father and devouring many library books, helped me develop an appreciation for cinema that remains today. The few times I watched the series after Yost’s retirement, it always felt like something was missing. I think it was his sense of infectious enthusiasm, mixed with a deep appreciation for film history, that made the package work.