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.”

Censoring TIFF

Originally published on Torontoist on September 9, 2013.

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Once upon a time, there was a film festival that strove for international recognition. Its organizers hustled to bring a wide range of films and a touch of glamour to their fair city. As with any ongoing event, it experienced growing pains, and while the festival did ultimately succeed in cultivating a cosmopolitan image, there were occasional embarrassing moments along the way.

For the first decade of the Festival of Festivals (as the Toronto International Film Festival was known until 1994), programmers fought the guardians of public morality. Provincial censors—known at different times as the Ontario Board of Censors and the Ontario Film Review Board—wielded their power whenever they felt the festival was getting too naughty. Battles over the content of films at times threatened to derail gala openings. While the negative publicity fuelled public curiosity, it occasionally raised questions about Toronto’s suitability as a film-fest desination. Even after the festival earned an exemption from the censors in 1987, some of the films shown were still banned from general release.

Below are several examples of TIFF films that earned the wrath of the censors. Some of the clips included are NSFW.

Je, tu, il, elle (1977)
Director: Chantal Akerman
Starring: Chantal Akerman, Claire Wauthion

This film, selected as part of a programme assembled by French director Agnès Varda, ran afoul of Ontario’s morality enforcers because of its final 13 minutes. Provincial censors ordered 1,000 feet of celluloid cut in order to expunge footage of two women making out on a bed. Watching the film two decades later, critic Brian Johnson observed that “you can’t ‘see’ much, just two look-alike bodies all mixed up, a tangle of limbs and hair.” He suspected that the censors were “confounded by the idea of two women making love for an eternity.”

The festival pulled the film.

Five years later, when censors refused to permit the screening of Pierre Rissient’s Cinq et la peau, programmers didn’t substitute another film. A sign was placed outside the theatre during the scheduled time explaining why the screen was dark.

In Praise of Older Women (1978)
Director: George Kaczender
Starring: Tom Berenger, Karen Black, Marilyn Lightstone, Helen Shaver, Susan Strasberg

Can a film be censored “artistically”? That’s what censor Donald Sims promised would happen when, a week before In Praise of Older Women opened the 1978 festival, the board wanted to excise two minutes. Co-producer Robert Lantos vowed the film would be run uncut, despite the fact that doing so would put the licenses of the theatre and its projectionist at risk. Both sides compromised on cutting a 38-second scene involving Berenger and Lightstone making out behind a couch.

It was a publicity goldmine. Papers across the country commented on the furor, increasing demand for tickets from people eager to see a dirty movie. The festival sold 2000 tickets for a screening at the 1600-seat Elgin Theatre, assuming there would be no-shows. Problems arose when somebody noticed that each printed pass admitted two. The result was a mob scene, where those denied entry hissed “fraud!” as they stood in the rain outside the theatre. Those without seats were urged to go to a slightly later screening at the New Yorker Theatre.

Those inside the Elgin applauded federal secretary of state John Roberts’s opening speech. He told the audience that “because of the actions of the Ontario censor it is time for an active affirmation that censors shouldn’t tell people what they should or should not see.” Though an on-hand censor was shown proof that the edited version would be screened, careful camouflaging during the cycling of reels between the Elgin and the New Yorker ensured the audience saw the film in all its uncut glory.

Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981)
Director: Bonnie Sherr Klein
Featuring: Margaret Atwood, Kate Millett

The censor board approved one uncut screening of this National Film Board documentary about the porn industry. An overflow crowd inspired festival officials to request permission for another screening. The board refused, prompting the Star to wonder, “Was the censor board perhaps fearful that one showing of a film will not corrupt an audience, but a second might?” After the festival, screenings of the film were restricted to private venues, and for adults only.

The attention paid to Not a Love Story typified the festival’s relations with censor-board chair Mary Brown, whose tenure from 1980 to 1986 was characterized by controversy. Her objections often raised the profiles of the films she insisted on cutting. According to former festival director Helga Stephenson, “Silly old Mary Brown filled some theatres with some pretty tame stuff. The ranting and raving was a very good way to get the festival into the minds of the public, but internationally it was hugely embarrassing. And it filled the theatre with the wrong people, because they came looking for nothing but blow jobs, and they found themselves in the middle of a long, hard, boring film waiting for a few seconds of a grainy image showing something that looked vaguely like a male sex organ.”

The Brood (1983)
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle

One of the highlights of the 1983 festival was a retrospective of David Cronenberg’s work, the first time a Toronto-reared director was honoured. The censors spoiled the fun by insisting that the commercial cut of The Brood, which it approved in 1979, be used. That version hacked out a 50-second sequence depicting Samantha Eggar birthing a broodling and snacking on the placenta. “While ideally we believe the festival should only run full-length versions and without cuts of any kind,” observed festival director Wayne Clarkson, “saying we wouldn’t run a print that has played in Ontario many times over the years seemed unreasonable. It’s very difficult to say anything else when the director and the distributor have agreed to cuts.”

We suspect an uncut print will be part of TIFF’s upcoming salute to Cronenberg.

Fat Girl (2001)
Director: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Arsinée Khanjian

Though the festival earned a blanket exemption from the censors, the films it screened weren’t guaranteed to escape problems after the festivities. The board refused to approve a general release for Fat Girl following the 2001 edition of TIFF, because of scenes of sexual content involving underage girls. The film was approved in other provinces and in other jurisdictions known for stringent classification systems, like Great Britain. Newspaper ads in British Columbia screamed “Banned in Ontario.”

Additional material from Brave Films, Wild Nights by Brian D. Johnson (Toronto: Random House, 2000), the September 8, 1978, September 15, 1978, and November 22, 2001 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 20, 1981 and September 14, 1983 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, September 9, 1978.

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Globe and Mail, September 15, 1978.

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Toronto Sun, September 15, 1978.

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Cover to the 1981 festival program.

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Editorial, Toronto Star, September 20, 1981.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Your Festival of Festivals

Originally published on Torontoist on September 4, 2007.

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Source: Toronto LifeSeptember 1985.

With this year’s Toronto International Film Festival kicking into high gear, it seems appropriate to look back to the advertising for its tenth edition, back in the days when it was known as the Festival of Festivals.

Besides today’s ad, Toronto Life also featured an article on the festival, highlighting its first decade and offering a preview of that year’s fare. The “Tribute to” event was scratched for 1985, after the debacle surrounding the previous year’s salute to Warren Beatty (cost overruns due to a switch in hotels from the Sutton Place to the Four Seasons and footing the bill to jet Jack Nicholson in, plus Beatty’s decision to sit in the audience for most of the night instead of onstage with Siskel and Ebert). New features included a series of pre-festival free screenings in High Park and “Open Vault,” a series of restored silent films with live musical accompaniment.

The magazine also offered their picks and pans:

What to See: Joshua Then and Now (the opening night gala), La Historia OficialThe Devil’s PlaygroundColonel RedlKiss of the Spider WomanThe Funeral and a restored version of Way Down East.

What to Avoid: Dim Sum (“You can tell it’s authentic because people talk very slowly and never say anything very interesting”) and Mishima (“More a graduate seminar than a movie”).