Tuesday, October 5, 2010

# 5 ~ Toronto's First Movie Theatres, Then and Now

Today, Toronto is known for film production.  We have the third largest film and television production capital in North America, and the third largest live theatre capital in the world, behind only London and New York for live stage theatre.  Every September, film fans and celebrities alike flock to "Hollywood North" for the Toronto International Film Festival, which just wrapped up another year in Toronto.

But it was on Monday, August 31st, 1896, that film got its start in Toronto.  On that day, Torontonians caught their first glimpse of their first moving picture show.  There was no IMAX, no high-definition, no celebrity red carpet ... there wasn't even any sound!  There are early still photograph images of Toronto dating back much earlier in the nineteenth century, but this was the first time that Torontonians saw images that had been strung together and made to move. 

THEN : Robinson's Musee Theatre, opened in December, 1890.

THEN : the dark arrow points to Robinson's Musee Theatre, on Yonge Street south of Richmond Street.

NOW : The modern office block on Yonge Street south of Richmond Street, where Robinson's Musee Theatre once stood.

The site of Toronto's first moving picture show was Robinson's Musee Theatre, located on the southeast corner of Yonge and Richmond streets.  The theatre had opened in 1890, and featured live performances by jugglers, magicians, and tight rope walkers.  On the second floor, a waxworks and curiosity shop entertained visitors with displays of the notorious and the bizarre.  This type of attraction was known as a "dime museum", since admission cost ten cents.  It was the cheapest, most common kind of entertainment that you could have as the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth, at a time before modern movies, television, and downloads off of the internet.

On that historic summer day in 1896, a number of "movies" were shown.  Each was less than a minute long.  It would be decades before sound was introduced to movies, of course, but it would also be years before we had "feature length" movies of over an hour long.  It was an 1896, and the experience of sitting in an air conditioned theatre for three hours to watch "Avatar" while wearing 3D glasses was still over one hundred years away.  These first silent movies were very abrupt and short, without much in the way of a narrative or storyline.  Possibly the first movie of this type was made in 1888, by a French inventor named Louis Le Prince.  This first film was called "Roundhay Garden Scene".  It was two seconds long, and showed a clip of people walking in a garden.  Le Prince is considered by some to be the father of motion pictures. 
You can find a looped version of "Roundhay Garden Scene" online by clicking this link :
Louis Le Prince's "Roundhay Garden Scene"

The first films shown in Toronto were projected using an invention called a "Vitascope", which had been brought into the world by American inventor Thomas Edison - a man who is remembered for his brilliant work that was mostly inspired in the dark.  The Vitascope was one of the first projection systems to be able to show moving pictures to a larger sized audience.

THEN :  Louis Le Prince, the "father of motion pictures".  He disappeared without a trace from a train on 16 September 1890, while travelling through France.  His body and luggage were never found, but, over a century later, a police archive was found to contain a photograph of a drowned man who might possibly have been him.

THEN : An 1896 advertisement for Edison's "Vitascope" silent movie projector.

On September 1st, 1896, the day after Toronto's first movies were shown, a local newspaper called the "Toronto World" reviewed the experience.  It reported that Edison's Vitascope "projects apparently living figures and scenes on a canvas screen ... it baffles analysis and delights immense audiences."

Today's "youtube generation" may be at a loss to comprehend the marvel of the first movie.  When doing tours for younger audiences, I always ask them to think of their favourite celebrity, whether it's Johnny Depp, Brad and Angelina, Lady GaGa or Justin Bieber.  Then, take away the sound of their voice, and imagine that you have never heard them speak or sing.  That gives you a glimpse into watching silent movies.  Now, imagine that you have only ever seen them in still pictures - you've never seen them move or dance or act.  Depending on your level of imagination, you may be able to understand what it was like to live in a day before CDs, before movies, before television, before the internet and iPod downloads.  Imagine following a celebrity all through their career when the only chance to actually see or hear them perform was at a live production.   You can imagine how thrilling it must have been for Torontonians to see their first moving picture show.

Robinson's Musee Theatre went through several changes in management, and was eventually wiped out by fire - that all too common scourge of Toronto's heritage - in 1905.  But the silent film industry grew, and old dime museums and vaudeville houses were converted to show movies.  A whole new genre of celebrity - the "movie star" - was on the way in.  Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Sarah Bernhardt are just a few names that might be known to modern audiences ... they were all early live stage or vaudeville performers who became pioneers in silent movies.

At the end of the nineteenth century, large parts of downtown Toronto were made of poorer housing.  Along Gerrard Street, at University Avenue, in today's "Discovery District" of hospitals, there was housing for Toronto's blue collar working classes.  John Charles Smith and his wife Charlotte were just one of many poorer Toronto families living in the area at the end of the nineteenth century. They had three children, Gladys Louise, Jack and Lottie.  The father, John, was an alcoholic who abandoned his wife and children in 1895, when young Gladys, the oldest of the children, was about three years old.  He died three years later of a cerebral hemorrhage, and his neglected wife was left to take care of the children.  It was hard at the time for a single mother to raise a family; she'd worked for a while as a seamstress and then opened her home to take in boarders.  When young Gladys was seven, one of the boarders suggested that her mother get her into theatre.  That same year, Gladys won a part in a production of "The Silver King" at Toronto's Princess Theatre.  It would be the start of young Gladys' stage career.

By the early 1900s, Gladys Smith was touring in plays across America.  In 1907, she appeared on Broadway for the first time, appearing in a play called "The Warrens of Virginia".  The play's author was William deMille, and the cast included his then unknown brother Cecil B. DeMille.  It was the play's producer, though, David Belasco, who found the name Gladys Louise Smith too unbecoming for a young starlet.  He made her adopt the stage name
"Mary Pickford".

Mary Pickford went on to fame and fortune, and became the world's first internationally known female movie celebrity.  She started working with a film director named D.W. Griffiths in 1909, and made 51 movies within her first year as a film performer.  She was initially paid $5 a day, but this was quickly raised to $10 a day.  She was world renowned for her bobbed hair, which soon became all the rage for young girls in Toronto and the world over.  She was nicknamed "America's Sweetheart", and became on of the pioneering women of the Hollywood film industry, but she was born in Toronto.

THEN : A young Mary Pickford, known as "the girl with the curls" and "America's Sweetheart", born in Toronto.
THEN : Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks on a visit to Toronto in the 1920s.
THEN : Mary Pickford and Toronto Mayor Ralph Day leaving Old City Hall in 1940.
THEN : Mary Pickford's birthplace on University Avenue in 1924.  The house that she was born in is the two-storey building in the centre of the photograph.
THEN : Mary Pickford's boarded up birthplace about 1940.  When she returned to Toronto for a visit, she spoke of turning it into a tea room to raise money for children, but the plan never developed.

NOW : The stretch of University Avenue, from Gerrard Street south to Elm Street, where the birthplace of Mary Pickford once stood.  Now it is the site of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.
NOW : This bust of Mary Pickford stands on a site near where her first home stood.  It's located on the northeast corner of University Avenue and Elm Street.

Before the rise of silent movies, the common form of entertainment for the masses was called vaudeville.  Vaudeville had swept through Canada and the United States from about 1880, and it was a variety show type of entertainment.  A series of separate, unrelated acts would appear on stage in the same bill.  Singers, dancers, jugglers, acrobats, tight rope walkers, magicians and even live animal acts would appear on stage along with more literary endeavours, like scenes from more legitimate stageplays and musicians performing opera and classical music.  When the first short silent movies were introduced, they were often shown together with vaudeville.  Eight or ten live vaudeville acts would perform on stage, and then be followed by a short silent movie.  Some of these shorts were actually intended to bore the audience so that they would leave the theatre and make room for the next wave of paying customers.  These poorer quality shorts were called "chasers", because they were intended to chase the audience out of the theatre.  As movies became more popular, vaudeville theatres, nickleodeons and dime theatres like Robinson's, at Yonge and Richmond streets, were converted into movie cinemas.  This would be the trend until about 1930, when talking movies were introduced and the veterans of vaudeville were finally put out to pasture.

For a glimpse into some of the surviving film recordings of vaudeville, take a look at the following two links.  Please note that the first 90 seconds or so of each clip is a rather redundant defintion of and introduction to vaudeville.

Part 1 : Historic Footage of Vaudeville Acts from 1898 to 1910
Part 2 : Historic Footage of Vaudeville Acts from 1898 to 1910

  The first theatre that was purpose built to show movies in Toronto was opened in 1910, on the southeast corner of Queen Street West at Bay Street.  It opened as the Colonial Theatre before later changing its name to the Bay Theatre.  It's more commonly known to Toronto's theatre historians by this second name.  It was a time before multiplexes, and the Bay Theatre had a single screen and contained 477 seats.  It was renovated in 1919, using stonework from a nearby customs building that had been demolished.  It was closed for a time in 1933, and then opened again by late 1949 or 1950.  Final closure came in 1965, and was followed by demolition.

THEN : The Colonial (Bay) Theatre in 1918, pictured in the centre of the photograph.
THEN : The Colonial (Bay) Theatre in 1923, showing the stonework that had been recycled off of another, demolished building. 
THEN : The Bay Theatre in the 1960s just before it was demolished.

NOW : In this contemporary photograph, the Bay Theatre would be located on the site of the entrance to the Hudson's Bay Company, immediately to the left of the blue awning.

Silent movies became more and more popular with general audiences, and the writing was on the wall for vaudeville performers.  If there was one single day in Toronto on which the death knell was rung out for vaudeville in this city, then it was December 28, 1928.  On midnight that night, over one-thousand Toronto movie goers went to see a special screening of a horror movie called "The Terror".  What made "The Terror" special enough for audiences to come out on a cold winters night in 1928?  It was the first talking movie to be shown in Toronto.

THEN : Poster advertising "The Terror" at Toronto's Tivoli theatre.  "It's All Talking From Start to Finish!"  This is now thought to be a "lost movie", meaning that no copies are known to survive.

 Many credit "The Jazz Singer", starring Al Jolson, as the first real talking movie, and indeed it did debut before "The Terror".  The American premiere of "The Jazz Singer" had taken place in New York City all the way back in October of 1927, over a year before "The Terror" came to Toronto.  Despite the fact that "The Terror" was the second "talkie" turned out by Warner Brothers, we got it here in Toronto first, with "The Jazz Singer" coming a few weeks later, in the middle of January, 1929.  As it happens, "The Terror" did star May McAvoy, Al Jolson's co-star from "The Jazz Singer".

Audiences were stunned and excited by the thought of a movie with sound.  For the very first time, they could hear not only the voices of beloved - and formerly silent - movie stars, but they could also hear sound effects.  This was an important point with a mysterious horror like "The Terror".  Sound effects definitely added to the creepy atmosphere of the movie.  Reviewers were spellbound.  As one of them put it "`The Terror' will hold you spellbound from beginning to end.  It's spooky, creepy, mystifying ... terrifying beyond belief."  The concept of sound in movies was such a commercial cache for movie makers that they even read out the credits at the end of the movie.

Warner Brothers studios were so excited about the release of "The Jazz Singer" ~ with sound and all ~ that they produced a seven minute advertisement that was circulated through theatres around North America.  This seven minute segment was essentially just an announcer talking about the miraculous invention of talkies, the Vitascope, and praising Al Jolson's theatrical abilities.  The advertisement also contained clips of the New York City opening of "The Jazz Singer", along with some excerpts of the movie.  Perhaps audiences were so thrilled by the invention of the talking movie that they didn't mind watching a seven-minute commerical.

Here is a link to seven-minute "`The Jazz Singer' Premier Vitaphone Promotion".  Please note that near the end of the clip, Al Jolson does appear wearing black face make-up; I apologize for the lack of political sensitivity of movies produced in 1927.

"`The Jazz Singer' Premier Vitaphone Promotion"

At a time when many movie cinemas were charging an admission price of 25¢, the admission price to see "The Terror" was a startling 75¢.  Of course, it cost a lot of money to convert a theatre from a house for old silent movies, into one equipped to show "talkies".  New sound equipment had to be installed, and originally, only the largest of theatres could afford to make the switch.  Of course, silent movies were still produced for several years and many actors were reluctant to go from silent films to new talking movies.  Talking movies were the coming trend, though, and a week after "The Terror" hit Toronto, on January 5, 1929, the Uptown Theatre showed "Interference", which was Paramount Studios first talking movie.

Late 1928 and early 1929 was right at the end of a period of financial prosperity in the city.  There was a boom on, and new construction downtown - Union Station, the Royal York Hotel, and the Canadian Imperial Bank building on King Street had all either just opened or were under construction.  The groundwork was laid for the modern day skyscrapers in our downtown core.  But at the end of 1929 came a shattering economic crash, and the start of the Great Depression.  For those who could scrape together the cost of admission, talking movies provided a little bit of escape in a harrowing time.

The Tivoli Theatre, at the southwest corner of Richmond Street and Victoria Street, had opened in November of 1917, as Allen's Downtown Theatre.  The name changed to the Tivoli in 1923.  Housing about 1,500 seats and a single screen, the Tivoli was run by Famous Players.  The last movie to be shown in the Tivoli was screened in 1964, and the building was sold off and then finally demolished in 1965.  There is nothing at the site today to remind us of this great milestone in the history of Toronto's entertainment. 

And whatever happened to "America's Sweetheart", Toronto's own Mary Pickford?  After making hundreds of silent movies between 1909 and 1929, Pickford did star in a movie with sound.  It was called "Coquette", and was 76-minutes long.  It was a box office success, earning nearly $1.5-million, and winning Pickford an Oscar.  That same year, Pickford appeared with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, in a sound version of "The Taming of the Shrew".  In 1933, Mary Pickford starred in a talking movie called "Secrets".  It was the last movie that she ever made, and it was a commercial failure.  After retiring from the screen, Pickford became reclusive, turned to alcoholism, and eventually died in May of 1979 of a cerebral hemorrhage, the same thing that had killed her father.

THEN : Allen's Downtown Theatre, at Richmond and Victoria streets, in 1919.  The name would eventually change to the Tivoli Theatre.
THEN : The Tivoli theatre at Richmond and Victoria streets in the 1940s.  The Tivoli was where Toronto saw its first talking movie, in December of 1928.

THEN : The Tivoli theatre in the 1960s, just before its demolition.
NOW : The Cambridge Suites Hotel, at the southwest corner of Richmond Street West and Victoria Streets, stands on the site of the Tivoli theatre, the 1928 showcase of Toronto's first "talkie".


  1. what a shame....thanks for posting these pics

  2. Thanks for your work. DO you know the name of the first theatre (i.e. live theatre) in Toronto, and when it was built?
    Thanks again!