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

globe 20-09-18 preview of opening

Globe, September 18, 1920.

globe 20-09-20 opening gala preview

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.”

Vintage Toronto Ads: Dining With Monks

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2011.

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Toronto Calendar, March 1979.

Toronto has seen theme restaurants come and go, from tiki bars like Trader Vic’s to anime-centric cafes in Scarborough. One of the oddest had to be The Monks, an eatery tucked away near Yonge and Bloor where the wait staff were decked out in monastic finery. Based on a two-star (out of five) review in Toronto Calendar magazine, the food required divine assistance.

A restaurant dedicated to good honest food at humble prices is an act of Christian charity among today’s inflationary eateries, but management here sometimes leaves discriminating diners praying for more goodness and less humility in the preparing of an imaginative sounding repast, served in the casual comfort of stucco arches and high-backed plus chairs by waiters cutely clad as clerics.

For starters, the fish pate of sole and salmon is a good choice for its light smack of dill—though mushy asparagus spears accompanying it are less enjoyable. The house salad, too, tends to be a woody concoction of iceberg lettuce topped with a salt-and-pepper vinaigrette. However the carrot puree—a daily soup—is smooth, tasty and not overrich. Accompanying wines are on a slightly higher price plane than the food.

For a main course the hungry man may turn to “choice cuts from the carvery of brother Mark,” for a platter of roast suckling pig which, on a recent sampling, was tough. But those with smaller appetites may find the “sturdy nets of brother Peter” more rewarding if they nibble on a seafood kebab of two shrimp, scallops, mushrooms and small pieces of red snapper more or less unseasoned, but moistened by a buttery hollandaise. A smooth end to the meal is mocha mousse, one of the “tantalizing confections of brother Zachary.” Or throw all caution to the wind with Monks coffee or brandy, Benedictine and whipped cream.

The Monks is a popular, affordable and central spot with a festive air. With a little more attention to food, it could be as pleasing to the palate as to the purse.

Additional material from the June 1979 edition of Toronto Calendar.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

So how many of “Toronto’s most famous restaurants” did Pedro Cabazuelo found? A quick scan of ChefDB shows he was owner or part-owner of at least 10 dining destinations between 1974 and 1981, along with stints as either chef or maitre d’ at several others.

Cue a trip into an archival wormhole leading to a parade of newspaper stories and reviews…

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Toronto Star, October 14, 1972.

Digging through the G&M and Star archives, here’s the earliest article referencing Cabezeulo, which spotlights a paella recipe.

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The headline doesn’t inspire confidence (“ho hum, another old house converted into a French restaurant”). Toronto Star, June 15, 1974.

According to a 1974 Star review, La Bastille (51 St. Nicholas Street) was operated by Cabezuelo and two former waiters who had previously worked together in Niagara Falls. The restaurant’s name was inspired by the partners coming together on July 14 (Bastille Day).

Reviewer Howard MacGregor’s opening sentence did not inspire confidence:

The thing about La Bastille is that you really want the place to work. It’s a small restaurant subdivided into three tinier rooms specializing in simple, French-provincial coooking. Fixed-price lunch and dinner menus in two of the rooms (La Guillotine and La Donjon) should please those who need an estimate of what it’s all going to cost before ordering. An a la carte menu and a kitchen that stays open until 3 am are the extra attractions of Les Oubliettes, the cellar room where buckwheat crepes, a favourite Breton dish, is one of the specialties.

MacGregor observed the main floor La Guillotine room was so compact that “if you’re at all self-consciout about overheard conversations (either yours or theirs), then this room isn’t for you.” As for the food, MacGregor felt that “someone in the kitchen had a low estimate of Torontonians’ taste buds.” On top of everything else, the restaurant lacked a liquor license. Overall, he felt it could quickly improve “by putting a little more zing and spice into its cooking.”

Two years later, Star reviewer Judylaine Fine was much happier with the fare at La Bastille, calling it “a wonderful place to go for a leisurely lunch.” She also noted that “Pedro Cabazuelo might not be a big-money restaurateur in Toronto, but he sure has his fingers into a couple of nice pies. Those pies are not high-priced or ritzy. They are charming restaurants where you can wine and dine in a homey, friendly atmosphere.”

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Globe and Mail, November 15, 1978.

Joanne Kates’s review of The Monks, which was far more positive toward the food than the one I included in the original post.

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Starweek, December 30, 1978.

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Globe and Mail, April 7, 1979.

A few words about The Monks from Mary Walpole’s advertorial column.

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Globe and Mail, November 29, 1978.

The Monks concept soon took up more of his time…

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Globe and Mail, December 6, 1978.

Of all the restaurants mentioned here, the Duke pubs are the sole survivors in 2019.

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Globe and Mail, July 28, 1979.

Next restaurant concept: Winners. By 1981 it was gone, replaced by Fortuna Village, a Chinese restaurant which retained some of its decor.

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1979.

One wonders how many parties across the city were enhanced with feasts served by robed “monks.”

A fast-food Monks Kitchen soon opened at the southeast corner of Yonge and Adelaide, alongside two other Patrick Chan owned eateries (Bamboo Court and a Mr. Submarine franchise).  Various incarnations of The Monks were intended for properties Chan owned around the city.

Note the Uptown Backstage cinema entrance in the background.

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Globe and Mail, December 1, 1979.

Besides the locations teased here, a Monks restaurant also opened in Mississauga. All locations cloistered themselves away for good within a few years.

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“Head Chef at Monks on Front St., Pedro Cabezuelo has worked at 10 major Toronto restaurants in 10 years. A good chef is hard to find and ‘you’ve got to steal staff,’ he says.” Photo by Jeff Goode, originally published in the February 22, 1981 Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0021141f.

By the early 1980s, Cabazuelo faded from the city’s food pages. Apart from an ad promoting cooking demonstrations at Eaton’s in 1985, he reappeared in 1995 at a new restaurant at the old address of La Bastille on St. Nicholas Street. “After 12 years,” an ad proclaimed, “Pedro Cabazuelo has returned to Toronto to open Cypre’s, an inviting oasis on this charming tree-lined street. It’s a forest-green den for intimate affordable dining.” The ad touted the restaurant’s proximity to TIFF and Forever Plaid (then running at the New Yorker Theatre).

Toronto Life gave Cypre’s a one-star (out of four) review:

Some Latino tang — the tiny downstairs in burnt-orange glaze (more serene than it sounds) — though it’s really everyeater-land (Thai noodle chicken, Szechuan beef pasta, venison-veal sauced by red grapes and white raisins). Some overcooking or puzzling blandness. Wines skip about.

Additional sources: the November 21, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail; the September 9, 1995 edition of Starweek; the April 1996 edition of Toronto Life; and the January 31, 1976, and December 24, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: D-Day

As the reprints of older Vintage Toronto Ads columns wind down, this is the first in a new, occasional series. 

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Front page, Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

As Canadians participated in the D-Day invasion, newspaper advertisers expressed their feelings, hopes, and prayers about its outcome. Here is a sampling of some of those ads, as published in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

Simpson’s department store suspended its normal sale ads for several days, starting on D-Day with a full-page prayer taken from Francis Drake’s attack against the Spanish at Cadiz in spring 1587.

star 1944-06-06 page 2 prayers at old city hall

Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

Near Simpson’s Queen Street flagship, the public gathered for a prayer meeting outside (Old) City Hall. Elsewhere in the city, schools held special assemblies, and all Anglican churches prepared for special services at 8 p.m. that evening. St. Michael’s Cathedral reported people streaming into the church as early as 7 a.m., many of whom were wives and children of soldiers serving in Europe. Special services were also scheduled at several war productions plants, including Massey Harris and, out in Malton, Victory Aircraft.

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Toronto Star, June 7, 1944.

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Globe and Mail, June 9, 1944.

Simpson’s followed up the prayer ad with two spotlighting leaders of the invasion. There was also an invasion-tinged full page spot marking King George VI’s official birthday celebration, even though his actual 49th birthday wasn’t until December.

By contrast, rival Eaton’s continued with their normal advertising, only adding an invitation published on June 6 from Mayor Frederick Conboy to attend a civic prayer service in front of City Hall two days later.

star 1944-06-06 page 19 invasion news at movie theatres

Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

For regular updates on the invasion, moviegoers could catch the latest at the Uptown and Loew’s (now the Elgin) theatres on Yonge Street.

star 1944-06-07 page 14 cjbc ad

Toronto Star, June 7, 1944.

Radio listeners could follow CBC’s invasion coverage. CJBC, the flagship station of the CBC’s recently formed Dominion Network, swapped frequencies with CFRB in 1948 and moved to 860 AM.

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Globe and Mail, June 7, 1944.

gm 1944-06-09 ibm ad

Globe and Mail, June 9, 1944.

Two examples of ads from the business community.

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Globe and Mail, June 7, 1944.

A listing of some of the Ontario residents who took part in the invasion.

Finally, a pair of editorials: one from the city, one from an outlying area.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944

orono weekly times 1944-06-08 editorial

Orono Weekly Times, June 8, 1944.

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.