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 originally posted on December 30, 2011.
Opening ad for the Odeon Hyland, Toronto Star, November 17, 1948.
It was a dicey proposition: testing out a brand new movie theatre, and the Shakespearian adaptation that was its opening attraction, by filling the first showing with high school students. It was especially dicey after rowdy teens had recently disrupted a recent festival honouring the Bard at the Eaton Auditorium (now the Carlu). But Odeon Theatres officials felt that filling the new Hyland theatre with students from Northern Vocational High School (now Northern Secondary) for the afternoon presentation of Sir Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet on November 22, 1948 was worth any potential mishaps.
According to the Star, the kids were alright:
The kids at the showing were well-behaved, far from rowdy, and occasionally spell-bound. But they also chose to laugh in the wrong places and spoiled, for some of us, the complete beauty of many performances…Incomplete understanding of the drama rather than any intended rudeness was undoubtedly responsible for these unfortunate outbursts.
We’re certain many other patrons laughed at the wrong time during the Hyland’s half-century of operation at 1501 Yonge Street. When the theatre closed in February 2001, the experience of moviegoing at Yonge and St. Clair vanished with it.
Opening the Hyland faced greater challenges than pleasing teenagers. During the fall of 1948, the city instituted daily blackouts due to power shortages. As opening day neared, power cuts increased to twice daily during the working week—one in the morning, and a 45-minute blackout starting at 7 p.m. These cuts affected the final stages of construction, including the installation of kitchen equipment and sales of advance tickets to Hamlet. With the front of the house not ready, ticket sales were moved to a nearby drug store which, as the Star reported, confused one customer:
A lady, who doesn’t believe in signs, joined a queue in front of the theatre, in hope of getting reservations for Sir Laurence Olivier’s screen masterpiece. Finally she got to the head of the line and was most provoked to learn that she’d wasted a half hour to be interviewed for a job as usherette.
Despite these problems, tickets for Hamlet sold quickly. By the beginning of December, the house was booked solid through Christmas.
Toronto Star, April 12, 1950.
One of the Hyland’s greatest assets in its early years was manager Vic Nowe. His promotional skills drew people to see both the feature attraction and the award-winning tie-ins he devised. A lobby display of Victorian wallpaper designs during the run of Oliver Twist in 1949 was so popular that it toured other Odeon locations. To promote Tight Little Island the following year, Nowe saluted the film’s Scottish setting by covering the theatre’s entrance in plaid and offering performances in the lobby by highland dancers and bagpipers. When The Lavender Hill Mob ran in late 1951, the Hyland let the first 50 men wearing bowler hats a la star Alec Guinness in for free.
Lobby of the Odeon Hyland. Archives of Ontario.
As British cultural influences waned in Toronto, the near-exclusive programming of films from the mother country at the Hyland gave way to Hollywood blockbusters. When the theatre was split into two screens in the early 1970s, it followed a trend that affected several of the city’s remaining large single-auditorium cinemas.
By 1999, declining attendance led Cineplex Odeon to convert the Hyland into a showcase for art films. The theatre was still capable of drawing people—it grossed over $50,000 in three days in December 2000 as one of a trio of cinemas that carried the initial run of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—but the move was seen as a sign its days were numbered. When Cineplex Odeon was granted interim bankruptcy protection two months later, the Hyland was closed immediately. Anyone who attempted to phone the theatre for the day’s bill on February 16, 2001 was greeted with a generic recorded message: “We are honoured to have had the opportunity of serving your community. Thank you for your patronage and support.” Those arriving at the theatre in person were advised to head to the Varsity.
Demolished in 2003, the site of the Hyland is now the entrance to a Green P lot and a walkway named after another former Yonge and St. Clair landmark, longtime CFRB morning show host Wally Crouter.
Sources: the November 19, 1948, November 23, 1948, and February 17, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.
Globe and Mail, September 16, 1959.
During the late 1950s, the Hyland served as a venue for several local film societies, including the A-G-E Film Society of Toronto, the French Cine Club, and the Toronto Film Society. Until voters approved general Sunday screenings in 1961, the offerings of these societies were among the few legal ways to see a movie on the Sabbath.
Boxoffice, October 16, 1972.