227 Front Street East

This story was originally published as an online “Ghost City” column by The Grid on May 7, 2013.

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Advertisement showing Consumers Gas Station A complex. Toronto’s 100 Years by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934).

For Consumers Gas, permission from the province in 1879 to produce gas for heating, appliance fuel, and industrial uses couldn’t have come at a better time. Its main business—providing gas extracted from coal for lamplighters to brighten the city’s street-lighting system—would soon be swept away by electricity. The resulting demand from businesses and homes for the fuel produced in its gasworks at Front and Parliament Streets, especially from areas recently annexed to Toronto, led to the company’s rapid expansion during the 1880s.

Consumers Gas purchased much of the land on the south side of Front between Berkeley and Trinity streets and quickly built a complex of processing facilities eventually known as Station A. Among them was a purifying house built in 1887 at the southwest corner of Front and Berkeley. Designed by the firm of Strickland & Symons, the building was styled to resemble a basilica. As architectural writer Patricia McHugh observed a century later, the building and its neighbouring facilities were “striking reminders of how architecturally accomplished utilitarian factories can be. Rows of great stone-capped piers, pinnacles, fancy brickwork, stepped gables—none of these were necessary to make gas, but they did announce corporate pride and confidence.”

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Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, File 124, File 3, Item 38.

The building processed gas until natural gas pipelines were connected to Toronto in the mid-1950s. Along with sites that eventually became 51 Division and Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre, the purifying house was one of very few parts of Station A to remain physically intact. Food manufacturer Dalton’s purchased the site in 1967, expanding its operations from the neighbouring building, a former woollen mill built in 1882 which Old City Hall architect E.J. Lennox reputedly had a hand in. Dalton’s specialized in maraschino cherries, pleasing cocktail drinkers and dessert lovers across the city. The combined structures became known as the Dalton Building.

The site was purchased in early 1984 by the Canadian Opera Company for offices, workshops, and rehearsal space. It would be the COC’s first permanent home—the company had relied on rentals around the city. Plans also called for a 400-seat performance venue to supplement the COC’s ongoing effort to build a permanent home, a quest which lasted until the Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006. Extensive renovations were boosted by a $1 million donation from the Tanenbaum family, which resulted in the facility being named the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre. The complex opened in stages over three years.

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Toronto Star, February 27, 1986.

The performance space, later known as the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, opened with The Beggar’s Opera on February 26, 1986. “The moral tone of Front Street E. went into precipitous decline last night,” Star critic William Littler cheekily opened his review, “when a perfectly respectable maraschino cherry factory yielded its address to a loud and unruly gaggle of thieves, cutthroats, strumpers, and procurers, otherwise known as the Canadian Opera Company.” Littler felt the space was “the ideal kind of ersatz opera house to accommodate history’s most famous send-up of that supposedly aristocratic form.” The moral tone of the area never recovered, to the delight of those who have toured the facilities or caught a performance there.

Additional material from A Tradition of Service: The Story of Consumers Gas (Toronto: Consumers Gas, 1993), Toronto Architecture: A City Guide by Patricia McHugh (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989), and the November 11, 1984 and February 27, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

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.

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.

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.