Sunday, February 27, 2011

# 20 ~ Highlights from the Oscars, Then and Now

I have to admit, I've never been particularly interested in watching the Oscars.  Other people block off the evening, invite their friends over, prepare special menus and even get into formal wear to watch it all on their televisions.  It does come at a good time, with the celebrations and the hype breaking up the winter blahs, when spring is still a few weeks away.  I absolutely love going to the cinema, but I think that my disinterest in the Oscars might stem from the fact that I don't care what other people have to say about what I've seen.  Either I like a movie, or I don't, and if doesn't matter to me what a critic has to say, then I'm disinclined to see how a movie performs at the Oscars.  Also, to me a movie is a package deal.  I tend not to take it apart and measure up the ingredients, the acting, the music, the sound or music quality or the way in which it was filmed.  I like it when all those elements are cohesive and work well together for a good finished product.

Toronto has a part in the Oscars, of course.  For years, we've been providing fodder for "Hollywood's big night".  We've contributed some of the leading men and women in the movies, and of course, we've been the backdrop for many of them.  Dozens, even hundreds, of movies have been made in Toronto over the last several decades.  "Chicago", starring Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Renee Zellwegger was rather famously filmed in Toronto.  The whole movie was made here, with none of it actually being filmed in Chicago ~ a fact that made the Mayor of Chicago discontented enough to run a scathing editorial in all of the local newspapers.  In most cases, Toronto is rarely actually Toronto; it's Chicago, or Boston, or New York, or every so often, even more exotic locales in Europe or the Middle East.  Last year, there was a great deal of hype about "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World".  Not only was it filmed in Toronto, it was actually set here, too.  The creator of the original series of graphic novels, Bryan Lee O'Malley, had been born in London, Ontario, but set his original work in Toronto, and fortunately, it remained the same in the film version.  The Toronto setting of the film resulted in a great deal of buzz last year.  Last year's "RED" starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren was another film shot in Toronto.  Helen Mirren, who's last major Hollywood role was as the eponymous character in "The Queen", stayed at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, where several scenes in "RED" were filmed.  A visit by the actual Queen in the summer of last year resulted in the sovereign's signature appearing back to back with Helen Mirren's in the hotel's VIP guest book.

NOW : The skylines of Chicago (above) and Toronto (below).  Toronto has been the backdrop in hundreds of movies and television shows, and has portrayed cities all over the world, but rarely gets the chance to play itself.

THEN : In 2010, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" became one of the first big release pictures to not only be filmed in Toronto, but to actually be set here, too.

A short listing of other movies to be made, at least partially, in Toronto over recent years includes "Adventures in Babysitting" (1987), "American Psycho" (2000), along with its 2002 sequel, "Bowling for Columbine" (2002), "Brokeback Mountain" (2005), "A Christmas Story" (1983), "Chloe" (2009), "Cinderella Man" (2005),  "Cocktail" (made in 1988, when Tom Cruise was still a young heart throb and not front cover material for the supermarket tabloids), "Fantastic Four" (2005),  "Good Will Hunting" (1997), "Hairspray" (2007), "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" (2007), "Twister" (1996),  "X-Men" (2000), as well as several installments of the Police Academy and Saw film series.

THEN : "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" (2007) was badly panned by some critics, but I liked it, and it was fun seeing all the Toronto landmarks that appeared in the movie, including King Street West and Allan Gardens.

The other major contribution that Toronto makes to the Oscars is the Toronto International Film Festival.  Every September, celebrities, media and regular every day film buffs gather in Toronto to see the latest that Hollywood has to offer.  Toronto's film festival has come to be regarded as one of the best in the world, second only Cannes, perhaps, for its notoriety.  The screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival have come to be regarded as a kind of touchstone for figuring out who will go on to win big at the Oscars.

NOW : The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the world's best, and is often a key indicator of who will win Oscars.

So, for those of you watching the Oscars tonight, enjoy the festivities.  Get in to the Hollywood hype but don't forget the Toronto connections to what Hollywood churns out.  To close, here is a brief list of some of the historical highlights from the Oscar's history.

A History of the Academy Awards

1929 : the first awards ceremony is held on May 16.  The awards were presented at a brunch held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.  There was an audience of about 270 people, many of whom went to an after party at the Mayfair Hotel.  A total of fifteen statuettes were handed out, celebrating the leading contributions to the film industry made in 1927 and 1928.  A ticket to the awards ceremony cost $5.00.

1930 : a year after it started, the awards ceremony had its first scandal.  Toronto's own Mary Pickford, the world's first internationally renowned movie star, had chaired the voting committee.  She won the "best actress" award for her role in the movie "Coquette".  The rules were quickly changed so that no one so closely associated with the selection of winners could themselves be the recipient of a major award.  "Coquette", incidentally, was Mary Pickford's first role in a talking movie.  Although Pickford had initially embraced talking movies, her career quickly faded after they took hold, and she retired from acting in 1933.  Pickford's next Oscar came in 1976, when she won a lifetime achievement award.  She died in Santa Monica three years later. 

THEN : "Coquette" was Mary Pickford's first talking film role, and a hit at the Oscars.  She controversially won the award for Best Actress, even though she had played a prominent role in setting up not only the Motion Picture Academy but also the awards that they hand out.

1932 : Walt Disney thanks the academy for his "Oscar", and the nickname became a reference to the statuettes handed out, and ultimately, for the ceremonies themselves. No one seems absolutely certain who first coined the term "Oscar".  Margaret Herrick, the executive secretary for the academy, is said to have remarked in 1931 on the resemblance of the statuette to her Uncle Oscar.  Eleanor Lilleberg, the executive secretary to Louis B. Mayer, was of Norwegian origin.  She claimed that the statuette reminded her of the Norwegian ruler, King Oscar II.  The original model for the statuette was a Mexican film maker and actor named Emilio Fernandez, and the original sculptor was George Stanley.  The academy officially adopted the nickname "Oscar" in 1939.

1938 : floods in California postpones the awards ceremony for a week, and few stars bother to attend when it is rescheduled.  

1940 : Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Oscar.  She won the best supporting actress award for her role as "Mammy" in "Gone With the Wind".  Much acclaim was made of her winning the award, although she was seated at the back of the auditorium, near the kitchen.  In her later career, many would criticize McDaniel for playing servant roles.  On hearing the criticism, she once quipped, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.00"

1953 : the awards are broadcast on television for the first time, live from RKO Pantages Theatre. NBC pays $100,000 for rights.

1960 : the awards ceremony bags its biggest ever share of the percentage of television viewers, with 82.4% of American televisions tuned into to watch the awards ceremony. "Ben-Hur" wins for best movie.

1971 : George C. Scott refuses an Oscar for his epic role in "Patton".  He actually distinguished himself by rejecting the same Oscar twice.  A letter to the academy accompanied his first rejection, and his missive stated that he "didn't feel himself to be in competition with other actors".  When he was invited to the ceremony a second time, he said, "The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don't want any part of it."  He stayed at home instead, and watched soccer on television.

THEN : Both George C. Scott (above) and Marlon Brando (below) refused their Oscars for what was, for each of them, a landmark role.  "Patton" remains one of Scott's best known works, and "The Godfather" remains a canonical Brando movie.

1973 : Marlon Brando follows in Scott's footsteps, and turns down his Oscar for "The Godfather".  For decades, Brando had been an outspoken representative for several civil rights movements, calling for an end to things like racial segregation in America.  Instead of attending the Oscars himself, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a noted American aboriginal spokesperson, in his place.  Littlefeather appeared in full Apache dress, and used the opportunity to protest the depiction of American aboriginals in movies and television. You can see a clip of Littlefeather at the Oscars here :

Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars  

1981 : Oscars delayed for twenty-four hours after John Hinckley shoots Ronald Reagan.  Hinckley had become obsessed with Jodie Foster, stalking her, sending her love notes and trying to call her on the telephone.  When Foster continued to ignore him, Hinckley made an attempt on the president's life to impress her.  It's one of the reasons why Jodie Foster has kept such a private life, away from the media attention that has infiltrated the personal lives of so many other celebrities.

In recent years, the Oscars have received their lowest television ratings in the six decades that they've been aired.  2003, and then 2008, set records for the lowest numbers of viewers watching the Oscars.  The awards are losing the attention of younger viewers, and this year's co-hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, were chosen at least in part to attract younger viewers.


Interested in cinema?  My new "Cinema and Scandal" tour through downtown Toronto starts this spring.  From vaudeville, to burlesque, to the gritty days of Yonge Street in the 1970s, this one covers it all.  Contact me at or (416) 487-9017.

Check out for information on other tours.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

# 19 ~ The Temple Building at Bay and Richmond streets, Then and Now

THEN : Contrary to popular belief, Queen Victoria was often amused.  Sadly, she never made it to Toronto, so there's no way to tell what she would have thought about seeing our bustling Victorian city in person.

January 22nd, 2011, marked the 110th anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria.  For the most part, the anniversary went unobserved.  In one way, that's not particularly surprising; eleven decades is a long time to hold on to such an event, particularly since there isn't anyone left in Toronto who actually remembers hearing the news of her death.  In another way, though, it provides a bit of a contrast.  Queen Victoria has been the most commemorated British or Canadian monarch out of the whole lot, and here in Canada, there are more streets, schools, parks and various other landmarks named after Queen Victoria, than anywhere else in the world.  Torontonians had an obsession with her.  She came to the throne in the summer of 1837.  Toronto was still little more than a colonial backwater when, as a young woman of eighteen years old, she inherited the kingdom from her uncle, William IV.  We'd only been a city for three years, and six months after her accession, we threw that little debacle known as the Rebellion of 1837.  But at the time of her death nearly 65-years later, Toronto had passed through several growth spurts, and had become an "Imperial City".  We still considered ourselves "British", and Toronto was even nicknamed "The Queen City" in Victoria's honour.

There was a building craze in Toronto throughout Victoria's reign, especially after a great fire in 1849 destroyed a lot of our Georgian remnants.  From 1850 to 1900, we would keep building bigger and higher, racing to build skyscrapers that would compete with anything in America.   Size mattered, but style did, too, and we built our city with a kind of architectural flare that would make city planners boast that Toronto was like a "Paris by the lake".

There were so many Victorian contributions to Toronto's built heritage that I've decided to make "Victorian Toronto" a recurring theme here.  Some of the gems are still with us - "Old City Hall" (1899) is probably the foremost example, but there are many others - but sadly many of them are gone, too.  I will be adding articles on both the saved and the lost.  A half a century after Queen Victoria died, Toronto went through a demolition craze, and sadly, much has disappeared.  It culminated in the 1960s, when city planners wanted all of Toronto to look like Nathan Phillips Square - modern, concrete, and often brutal.

THEN : The Temple Building, built 1895 at the northwest corner of Richmond and Bay streets, and demolished in 1970.  The west wing of "Old" City Hall (1899) is visible in the background.

My very first choice for "Victorian Toronto" is the Temple Building, which was constructed in 1895 at the northwest corner of Bay and Richmond streets.  It is one of those Victorian pearls that's disappeared.  Demolished in 1970, it is one that is still in the memory of a certain generation of Torontonians, and it was one of the last of our grand Victorian buildings to die by demolition. 

The Temple Building was one of Toronto's earliest "skyscrapers".  It was home to the headquarters of the Independent Order of Foresters (sometimes abbreviated simply to "IOF", a benevolent and fraternal society that also helped to manage the financial interests of its members.  The building, located at the northwest corner of Richmond and Bay streets, was an iconic Toronto landmark that towered over downtown Toronto for seventy-five years.

THEN : An IOF postcard shows off the Temple Building, a landmark in Toronto from 1895 until 1970.

When the Temple Building went up in 1895, it was the tallest building in Toronto.  It originally soared to a then-dizzying height of nine storeys, and a tenth storey was added in 1901.  The "skyscraper" - any building over maybe five or six storeys - was a new innovation in Toronto.  We were trying to prove that we were neck-and-neck with any American city when it came to construction, and yet, it was customary to have a veteran American architect consult on such a project here in Toronto.  However, the Temple Building was to be an exclusively "Canadian" project.  The architect of the Temple Building was a Canadian named George W. Gouinlock, and he supervised every aspect of the building's construction.  The frames of Toronto's buildings had evolved since the 1790s, from wood, to stone or brick, to metal.  The Temple Building had a cast-iron frame; it was, in fact, one of the last cast-iron frame buildings in Toronto before steel took over.  Now, Toronto's modern skyscrapers are several dozen storeys of glass and steel, but it was iron that would hold up the weight of the Temple Building.  The brick and stone walls were sturdy, too, and were up to four feet thick.  The weight and texture of the walls helped to blend the Temple Building into the "Romanesque" type of architecture that is exemplified today in nearby buildings like "Old" City Hall, and the Confederation Life Building, located along Richmond Street East between Yonge and Victoria streets.

THEN : This panoramic photograph from 1904 shows the Temple Building towering over Toronto.

Unlike a lot of other Romanesque style buildings, the Temple Building was relatively simple on the outside, unadorned with a great deal of elaborate carving.  The beautiful detailing was on the inside, from the tiles on the floors to the hand-carved panels with their marble insets.  Ornate design would merge with sleek technology, and the Temple Building's elevator - one of the first electric carriages in Toronto, and said to be one of the city's fastest - would herald in the advances that came with the "skyscraper era" over the next century.  The Temple Building would hold the record of Toronto's tallest building for only a few years - the 1899 City Hall and the 1905 Trader's Bank Building were taller - but it was the Temple Building that ushered in a professional revitalization of Bay Street.  Photographs show that in the 1890s, Bay Street was "slummy" and undeveloped; today, it is Canada's financial nerve centre.  The transition started with the construction of the Temple Building.

THEN : An undated photograph shows a dinner held by the Masons in the Temple Building.  It's hard to imagine such an elegant affair being held in one of Toronto's modern glass and steel skyscrapers.

THEN : This photograph from 1920 shows Queen Street from the front of "Old" City Hall, with the Temple Building rising up in the central background.

THEN : Looking south down Bay Street from Queen Street in 1930.  Bay Street has finally become professionally developed, thanks in no small part to the construction of the Temple Building.

It all lasted until 1970, when the Temple Building was demolished to make way for a new 32-storey office tower that came with a construction price tag of $20-million.  The building stands at 390 Bay Street.  A firm known as Teperman and Sons, Ltd., oversaw the demolition of the Temple Building.  The name on their signs became synonymous with the architectural pillaging of Toronto.  The last tenants of the Temple Building left the premises at the end of June, 1970, and within six-months, it was gone. 

THEN : The 1970 demolition of the Temple Building.  The Teperman signs made the company synonymous with demolition in Toronto for several years.
THEN : The 1970 demolition of the Temple Building.

In July of 1970, the Globe and Mail ran an editorial on the demolition of the Temple Building.  It read, in part :

"Want to see a monument destroyed?  Go down to the corner of Bay and Richmond streets, and watch them make gravel of the Temple Building.  It won't go easily or prettily, because it wasn't built with destruction in mind.  It was intended to last like the pyramids. Will the be a headstone to mark where it stood?"

No doubt, that last question was a rhetorical one, but today, there is no commemorative plaque on the Temple Building's successor.

THEN : The Temple Building just prior to the demolition of 1970.

THEN : The Temple Building just prior to the demolition of 1970.

NOW : The site of the Temple Building today, showing the 32-storey, $20-million office tower that took its place.

Monday, February 21, 2011

# 18 ~ Cinemas & Scandals, Then and Now (Part Two)

Please note that this blog entry is a little more explicit than usual.  It contains no graphic visual material, but does discuss some of Toronto's more "adult" history.

In my last article, I talked about the religious beginnings of Toronto, and the hidden allure of the city's burlesque community in the post-World War Two years.  The Lux Theatre, on College Street, had a heyday as a burlesque theatre, and the Victory Burlesque Theatre, at Spadina and Dundas Street West, had an even longer run.  But by the 1970s, the Victory started to find it hard to compete with the even bawdier venues opening up on Yonge Street.

Through the twentieth-century, a number of theatres had opened up along Yonge Street, from Queen Street north to Bloor.  These weren't "legitimate theatres", like the Royal Alexandra Theatre, whose debut in 1907 qualifies that venue as the oldest legitimate theatre in Canada, and the only "Royal" theatre operating in North America today.  The "Royal Alex" showed opera, and more esteemed varieties of entertainment, whereas those stages on Yonge Street mostly showed vaudeville, a much more ordinary type of entertainment.  The difference between taking in a show at the Royal Alexandra, and going to a Yonge Street vaudeville house, would be something akin to the difference in taking in opera today, and going to see a movie. Opera was for the sophisticated and established; vaudeville was entertainment for the common man.

The 1950s saw the rise of the suburbs.  Torontonians were moving out of downtown, and heading to quieter developments on the outskirts of the city centre.  "Downtown" entered a downward spiral that would last for thirty years, and Yonge Street ~  the heart and soul of downtown ~ became shabby.  Vaudeville had often played in tandem with short silent films, usually only a few minutes long, at most.  On December of 1928, the first talking movie screened in Toronto.  That night, a crowd of 1,000 came to the Tivoli Theatre, at Richmond and Victoria streets, to see a horror flick called "The Terror".  You can read more about it on a previous post of mine (# 5 ~ Toronto's First Movie Theatres, Then and Now, posted October 5th, 2010), but the screening of Toronto's first talking movie revolutionized entertainment in the big city.

Many of the Yonge Street vaudeville houses managed to stay respectable through the 1930s and into the 1940s, but by the 1950s, things were starting to get worse.  The films screened on Yonge Street took a decided turn towards "B-movies".  Some of them seemed to have real problems keeping up with new releases.  The Biltmore opened at 319 Yonge Street in 1949.  It's opening line-up included "The Prisoner of Shark Island", released in 1936, "The Hurricane", released in 1937, and "The Berlin Correspondent", from 1942.  The Biltmore went under after less than thirty years, closing in 1977.

THEN : The Biltmore Theatre opened at 319 Yonge Street, just north of Dundas Street, in 1949, and just couldn't keep up.  Even when it opened, it was showing movies from the 1930s, and seemed to have problems finding new releases.  It is shown here just before it finally closed, in 1977.  The picture also shows the gaudy big city lights that flashed along Yonge Street in the 1970s.  And you thought it was tacky now ...

THEN : The Downtown Theatre, just before it closed in 1972.  It stood on the site of the present day Yonge and Dundas Square, and was known for B-grade horror schlock, and worse.  In the photograph, the marquee is advertising a run of "Deathmaster", a 1972 gem of a movie about a vampire who leads a group of hippies towards world domination.  Vampires and their armies of mindless followers were a popular theme for horror movies in the early 1970s, but culture has come a long way and now we have the Twilight Saga.
Another theatre from the 1940s was the Downtown Theatre, located right where Dundas Square is today.  It opened in 1948 with 1,059 seats, and was built at a cost of $750,000.  It lit up the intersection of Yonge and Dundas with a marquee that glared with 4,000 electric lights.  During the heyday of the Downtown Theatre, it had one of the busiest concession stands in Canada, selling 7,500 drinks and 2,000 bags of popcorn in an average week.  But it was what was played at The Downtown that really raised eyebrows.  The theatre often played double bills, showing a new feature along with a popular, older vintage flick.  It was mostly of the drive-in gang violence, horror or science fiction variety.  Some notable winners at the Downtown included :

"Count Yorga" (1970) : a horror movie, with the lead character being a vampire gang leader who seemed to take all of his cues from Charles Manson.

"The Incredible Two Headed Transplant" (1971) : the story of a wealthy, deranged scientist who surgically removes the head of a demented murderer, in order to graft it on to the shoulders of his own mentally challenged son.

And the greatest shock of all, to the supposedly prudish audiences of Toronto might have been ...

"The Christine Jorgensen Story" (1970) : the biopic of Christine Jorgensen, the first widely known person to have sex reassignment surgery.   Jorgensen was born on May 30, 1926, as George William Jorgensen.  Returning to the United States after a brief stint in the U.S. Army, Jorgensen travelled to Denmark to undergo sex reassignment surgery.  Jorgensen returned home to New York in 1953, and she was acclaimed as an instant celebrity.  She spent the next several years giving lectures as well as doing a regular nightclub act.  A frequent song in her act was titled "I Enjoy Being A Girl". The 1970 movie, which played at Toronto's Downtown Theatre, was a sensationalist biography of Christine Jorgensen.  Tag lines include "I couldn't live in a man's body", "Sex with a woman was strange and impossible", and "But I had to make it as a woman, there was no return".

The Downtown Theatre was finally closed and demolished in 1972, but not before pushing the boundaries of move advertising in downtown Toronto.

THEN : The movie poster for "The Christine Jorgensen Story" pushed the boundaries for public advertising in downtown Toronto, back in 1970.

THEN : The slightly less scandalous version of the movie poster.

Other theatres on Yonge Street stuck with simple gore.  The Coronet Theatre, at 399 Yonge Street, at Gerrard Street, opened as the Savoy in 1953, with 1,327 seats.  It showed a lot of double bills, with second rate, second run movies.  During a high point, or perhaps low point, it was showing five movies on the same bill, all for only $3.50.  It catered to the masses, and the management and ushers turned a blind eye towards any patrons bringing in their own concessions ... food, beverages of any kind, including liquor, or "anything else" that might help you zone out from the run down nature of the theatre.  One of the memorable double bills at the Coronet in the early 1970s included "Mark of the Devil" running next to "Satan's Sabbath".  Critics panned these as two of the most pointlessly violent movies ever made, both because of the level of violence and the almost complete lack of a plot.  The management of the Coronet agreed with the critics, and as a marketing ploy, handed out "barf bags" for the screening.

THEN : "Mark of the Devil" was a 1970 movie that was one of the cinematic gems to play at the Coronet Theatre, at Yonge and Gerrard.  Originally a German film shot on location in Austria, it tells the story of a crazed witch hunter who terrorizes the countryside.  What it lacked in plot it made up for in shock promotion, and was rated "V for Violence", as well as promoting itself as "positively the most horrifying film ever made".  It was actually a commercial success.

But it wasn't the horror movies that gave Yonge Street it's seedy reputation.  The 1970s were a time when those in the public eye faced censorship, and you couldn't always directly express what you wanted to say.  Toronto's central drag earned a nickname as the "Yonge Street Strip", and it was definitely a double entendre.  Many down-at-the-heels vaudeville theatres had turned from the glory days of big releases, to second run movies, to the trash and violence of the drive-in genre, to pornography.  In the early 1970s, pornography was just entering its mainstream phase, at least partly due to the changing laws regarding the public display of such material.  Pornographic movies appeared almost right away, as soon as "movies" themselves were invented, but they were considered obscene, of course, and illegal.  With the advent of home cameras and projection equipment, amateur adult cinema started to appear in the 1940s, and was sometimes seen in public at members only cinema lounges.  The first legislation to make the public display of adult films legal came in 1969, and the rest was history.

It seems strange by today's standards, but in the 1970s, mainstream movie cinemas were showing full length "adult movies".  To put it in perspective, imagine going to your local multiplex today, and having a full length adult movie as an option alongside the latest installation of Harry Potter, the Twilight Saga, or whatever vehicle is currently promoting the careers of Johnny Depp or "Brangelina".  While it's true that none of the really seedy cinemas on Yonge Street were multiplexes, they were mainstream, and adult cinema was often what flickered across their screens. 

This rise in adult cinema from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s gave rise to "porn chic", otherwise referred to in some circles as "the Golden Age of Pornography".  Pornography was becoming increasingly mainstream and much more readily visible.  The adult film industry had many darker currents, including many sexually transmitted diseases that were difficult or impossible to treat, but much of that wasn't seen or acknowledged by the public.  There were those who saw this period as the next step in the "Sexual Revolution", and who welcomed the liberation that porn chic brought to traditionally conservative cities, like Toronto.  There were those who wanted to put an end to government censorship, and the idea of the government choosing what the masses could see and do for their own amusement.  Others rallied against this new liberalism. Religious groups were unanimously against it, of course.  Some other groups argued over the issue.  Some feminists argued that it was just another way to break down social barriers, while others claimed that the new adult entertainment industry exploited women.  There were three landmark adult films which, along with their principal actresses have ... almost ... made it into the popular household lexicon.

THEN : "Deep Throat", made in 1972, was a landmark movie in the world of porn chic. The tag line begged the question "How far does a girl have to go to untangle her tingle?"  For some, it was the hallmark question of a generation, who were looking to break out of the strict censorship that had been imposed on adult entertainment.  Others stood squarely against any overt public displays of "untanglement".  In Toronto, the Yonge Street Strip was the place to catch the tingles from these early mainstream adult offerings. 

One of these early landmark adult starlets was Linda Susan Boreman.  She was born in the Bronx, in New York, in 1949, but became much more widely known by her screen name, "Linda Lovelace". She made a dozen adult movies, but the most popular one by far was the 1972 hardcore movie, "Deep Throat".  It was one of the first adult films to actually have a plot, with developed characters and fairly good film production values.  Despite changing laws, "Deep Throat" was heavily censored and banned in some areas.  Nonetheless, it was a groundbreaking movie, and "Deep Throat" became one of the first critically appraised mainstream pornographic films.  It even went on to be reviewed in the New York Times

By her own admission, Linda Boreman was a sterling example of someone who had been victimized by adult cinema.  She met her future husband, Chuck Traynor, in 1970, and according to Boreman, he soon became her "pimp" and manager, as well as her husband.  Boreman claimed that Traynor forced her into the adult film industry, and often forced her to perform at gunpoint.  Initially, many of her allegations were refuted, but others eventually took Boreman's side.  After the couple split, Traynor continued to have an active role in the adult film industry, and many others claimed to have a strong dislike for him.  Linda Boreman, who had become famous as Linda Lovelace, came out against the adult film industry.  By 1980, she was a leading spokesperson against pornography, and helped to form a group known as "Women Against Pornography".  Boreman became a popular speaker at feminist rallies, universities and colleges, and government hearings.

Along with "Deep Throat", another 1972 feature length adult film became the first of the genre to be widely released in North America.  "Behind the Green Door" featured another one of those early pioneer adult starlets, Marilyn Chambers.  She was born Marilyn Ann Briggs, in Rhode Island, in 1952.  As a teenager, she discovered an interest in modelling, and soon was skipping high school without her parents consent to try to land modelling jobs.  Her first movie role was a minor one, when she appeared in the 1970 film "The Owl and the Pussycat", alongside Barbara Streisand.  

THEN : The 1972 movie "Behind the Green Door", starring Marilyn Chambers, was another early adult movie to either shock or attract the crowds along Yonge Street, during the dirty heyday of the 1970s.

Marilyn Chambers moved to California to further pursue modelling and acting, and worked for a while as a dancer and waitress.  Shortly after her 1970 relocation, she landed a job as a model for y"Ivory Snow", in the detergent company's advertisement campaigns.  She infamously became the "Ivory Snow Girl", with a tag line claiming that she was 99 and 44/100 % pure.  The Ivory Snow connection became a running gag in her adult film career, with many of her films including a subtle showing of a box of the detergent in the background.  It was a product placement that was in no way endorsed by the Ivory Snow company.

THEN : Just before launching her adult career, Marilyn Chambers became the Ivory Snow Girl.  She soon shed her 99% pure image, but her former status with the detergent company's advertisement campaign became a running gag in her movies.  I didn't do any research into what impact her later career had on detergent sales.

Although she attempted to get into mainstream entertainment, and advised anyone thinking about a career entertainment against it, Chambers was never the vehement anti-pornography critic that Linda Boreman had been.  Chambers tried to get into mainstream movies and launch a singing career, but neither had much real success.  Chambers ran in the 2004 American presidential campaign, running for Vice President on the "Personal Choice" ticket.  She received a total of 946 votes.  Chambers died in April of 2009.

Third in the collection of cornerstone adult films was "Debbie Does Dallas".  The film debuted in 1978 and starred Bambi Woods, as a young cheerleader trying to make it big.  According to popular legend, Bambi Woods had actually auditioned as a cheerleader for the real life Dallas Cowboys, but was rejected.  The film was commercially successful, and spawned several sequels, including "Debbie Does New Orleans", "Debbie Does Wall Street", and "Debbie Does Dallas ... Again".  In 2001, it was even made into a musical which disappointed some audiences because it contained none of the adult content that had made the movie so popular nearly twenty-five years before.

THEN : The movie poster for "Debbie Does Dallas".  Released in 1978, the title, at least, became almost a household reference to early adult films.  At the time it was released, there were calls to finally clean up Yonge Street.

Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers both had prolific careers, even after they left adult cinema. By way of contrast, little is known of Bambi Woods, the star of "Debbie Does Dallas".  Born in 1955, she was 23 when she portrayed the character that would make her famous.  She appeared in the 1981 and 1985 sequels, and a few other less significant adult movies.  In 1986, there were reports of her death from a drug overdose.  Nearly twenty years later, in 2005, the producers of a British documentary called "Debbie Does Dallas Uncovered" hired a private detective to track down more information on Bambi Woods.  The investigator was unable to prove that Woods had actually died.  A letter was sent to the investigator, and the author of the missive claimed to be Woods herself.  She claimed to have dropped out of the adult film industry because of the abuse that she witnessed, and further stated that she was living as an anonymous homemaker and mother living in Iowa.  There has been no concrete evidence to either support or disprove the contents of the letter, and today whatever became of Bambi Woods, one of the most famous starlets of earlier pornographic history, remains a mystery.

THEN : Bambi Woods made one well known adult movie, and a few minor ones, before vanishing completely.  Today, she'd be in her fifties, although it's not known for sure if she is alive or dead.


THEN : An advertisement from a Toronto newspaper in the 1970s, showing some of the public offerings at the cinemas on the Yonge Street strip.  It's hard to imagine this kind of thing being advertised in a public, mainstream movie theatre today.

Such was the content that titillated Yonge Street movie goers in the 1970s.  By the end of the 1970s, there were calls to clean up Yonge Street.  People were slowly starting to move downtown again, and the city had had enough of scandal and depravity.  Campaigns were raged against the dozens of massage parlours that existed between Queen Street and Bloor.  Along with the large cinemas that overtly showed adult films, there were a number of smaller theatres, hidden away above the retail facades of Yonge Street. Today, there's a "Swiss Chalet" franchise on Yonge Street, near Gerrard.  For several years through the 1970s, the upstairs level contained an infamous "loop" porn theatre, where short porn films of five to ten minutes were shown in "private booths".  These were the sorts of films that Linda Lovelace was making when she began her adult entertainment career in 1970. 

When Yonge Street was finally cleaned up, adult films came down off the big screens, and a number of the small theatres, like the Downtown or the Biltmore, were closed and demolished.  We wanted respectability again along our main drag.  It's strange, now, to hear people complaining of the grotty nature of Yonge Street, because it was so much worse thirty years ago.  The "strip" south of Bloor Street was one long alley of licentious cinema and shady goings-on, and it was avoided by respectable people.  Exploring the nature of Yonge Street at that time can be almost uncomfortable, but it's a part of our municipal heritage that still exists in the living memories of some of our residents.

Only a few of the vaudeville houses that turned into disreputable movie cinemas remain.  Perhaps the most famous is the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, at 189 Yonge Street, just north of Queen Street.  It actually contains two stages in the same complex; the "Elgin" opened in 1913, and the "Winter Garden" debuted in 1914.  Both showed vaudeville until the end of the 1920s, but the Winter Garden closed in 1928, leaving the Elgin to carry on alone for the next six decades.  It went the way of the others, showing respectable talking movies at first, but then degenerating into adult movies.  There was a major restoration of the theatre centre in the late 1980s, and $29-million was spent to refurbish the Elgin and reopen the Winter Garden.  Today it is a respectable set of theatres again, and it serves as a graceful venue for both Opera Atelier and the Toronto International Film Festival, along with a number of other respectable stage productions.  But before it closed its doors for renovation, the last movie to be shown in the theatre during its run down days was screened in 1981.  It was an epic blockbuster of a film called "What the Swedish Butler Saw".   

THEN : The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, in 1982, in preparation for restoration.  The marquee promises that the Winter Garden will bloom again.

THEN : "What the Swedish Butler Saw" played at the Elgin in 1981.  The theatre was then closed and restored.  The scandalous days of Yonge Street was coming to a close, and Toronto once again drew a breath of respectability. 


My new "HOLLYWOOD NORTH : Cinema and Scandal" tour will be coming soon.  Look for it on the website :

... or contact me by e-mail at

We uncover Toronto's burlesque era and the gritty fall and rise of Yonge Street in the 1970s, of course, but we also discuss some of the personal scandals that befell some of Toronto's early performers and theatre managers, and a whole lot more.  Contact me for details!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

# 17 ~ Cinemas & Scandals, Then and Now (Part One)

All in all, Toronto has a  pretty clean reputation.  Sometimes, we brag about the low crime rates and how safe our city is.   Sometimes, we complain that we can't smoke in bars and can't buy a bottle of wine in the corner store at 7 o'clock on a Sunday night.  Some of us even avert our eyes when we get a whiff of that sweet smell of a funny brown little cigarette being smoked, not quite clandestinely enough, as we promenade through a public park or take a stroll down Yonge Street.  So, we generally accept the pros and the cons of Toronto's reputation of being "Toronto the Good".

It started with all those churches in Toronto back in the 1800s.  The Presbyterians got an early start here, and they had an avid, hotheaded love of the Puritanical.  They had a dour love of their church and its ways, and they tried to press it on our early city with an iron will.  It may come as a surprise that our first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, spawned an illegitimate son in his teenage years back in Scotland.  The child simply had to have a baptism; even the parents of bastard children agreed that this was a necessity.  So Mackenzie and the child's unwed mother sat in the middle of circle in the local Presbyterian church, and made a public confession of their sin of "fornication".  It was a mandatory humiliation that needed to be undertaken before the child could be acknowledged.  He left his infant son, and lit out for England and later Canada in search of work.  He never saw the child's mother again.

The Methodists, too, were an early religious sect in Toronto.  Their first church went up near King and Jordan streets in 1818, and to prevent any distraction during Divine Worship, the men sat on one side of the church and the women on the other.  The Methodists had an influence in early Toronto that was greater than their numbers.  Because of the influence that the Methodists had here, Toronto was nicknamed "the Methodist Rome", and they put their stamp on the morality of our city.  There was no theatre on a Sunday, of course, and it was illegal for money to change hands in an act of commerce on the Lord's Day.  Drinking was looked down upon throughout the week. 

Hart Massey was a good example of the upright ~ and uptight ~ Methodist gentleman in Victorian Toronto.  He gave an endowment to build a concert hall and in 1894 it opened its doors as "Massey Hall".  Massey was a staunch Methodist, and since theatre was disapproved of, he stipulated that it only be used to stage concerts.  To this day, Massey Hall only features concerts, and never plays.  One wonders what pious old Hart Massey would have made of some of the acts that have played his hall in recent years, like Eddie Vedder, KISS, Iggy Pop and Marilyn Manson.  He insisted that the lease to Massey Hall stipulate that no alcohol would be served on the premises for ninety-nine years after it opened.  Take a close look at the billboards next time you walk past Massey Hall.  You'll see that the lounge in the basement, opened after a late twentieth-century renovation, is called "Centuries Bar".

THEN : The auditorium of Massey Hall in 1890.

THEN : This photograph from 1890 shows Hart Massey's vision for Massey Hall on a Sunday ...

NOW : ... and this recent photograph shows the sort of thing that goes on in Massey Hall today.



Shopping on a Sunday was a big taboo in Toronto, throughout much of the nineteenth century.  The laws were strictly enforced, and shops even got in on the act.  The big downtown stores turned away customers and shunned those passersby with a lust for commerce in their eye, by drawing drapes over their store windows.  Even "Window Shopping" was forbidden on a Sunday. 

I remember being a kid at the end of my high school career, when the management of the big local shopping mall announced that they would finally open on a Sunday.  Some of the retailers were for it, and others were against it, but they had all signed a lease and all had to comply with the mall rules.  One store protested by only allowing one customer in to their store at a time.  And this was, perhaps, in the last few months of the 1980s.  The 1990s were just around the bend, and Sunday commerce was still a hotly debated topic of conversation in "Toronto the Good".

That was two decades ago, now, and recently there has been buzz about allowing major malls, like the Eaton Centre, to open on formerly "off limits" Statutory Holidays, like Christmas. 


THEN : Eaton's College Street store (now more commonly called "College Park"), shown here in 1956.  The windows are curtained over to help prevent shoppers from their sinful commercial desires on a Sunday.

THEN : The windows of Eaton's College Street store curtained off on a Sunday in 1956.

THEN : The windows of Eaton's College Street store curtained off on a Sunday in 1956.

THEN : The windows of Eaton's College Street store curtained off on a Sunday in 1956.  When the new Eaton's mall on Yonge Street, between Queen and Dundas streets, opened in 1977, it replaced the College Street site as Toronto's "Eaton Centre."
NOW : Christmas shoppers at the Eaton Centre.  Perhaps soon, we will have an extension on "last minute Christmas shopping", and will be able to round out the lists on the morning of the big day.  No more curtains will cover the windows, or keep the shoppers at bay.  "Away to the window, they'll fly in a flash, to tear open the shutters and bring in the cash ..." 


But while the store windows were still sashed on a Sunday, before the malls were open, and long before Iggy Pop or Marilyn Manson flung themselves across the stage of Massey Hall, there was an illicit underground in Toronto.  The term "burlesque" has been around for hundreds of years, and in its early incarnations, it was any form of theatre that used caricature or parody to poke fun at more serious subjects.  By the last few decades of the 1800s, Victorian burlesque was often a musical that poked fun at a well known play, ballet or opera.  Gradually, though, more and more risque elements were thrown into Burlesque theatre.

By the early 20th century, the burlesque seen in North America was a blend of satire, performance art and early "adult entertainment".   Almost all of the performers were women, and the show included elaborate sets, colourful costumes, appropriate music and lighting, and sometimes, a bit of a novelty, like fire-breathing or contortionism.  The comedy and the "spoof" were still there, but the plot was becoming less important.  The women on the burlesque stages wore as little as they could get away with, and dialogue and dancing were increasingly sexually suggestive.  By the 1930s, it had boiled down to a striptease.  The burlesque shows got away with as much as they could.  From the 1940s through the 1970s, the burlesque dancers of Toronto couldn't go "all the way", but it was the closest thing to on-stage nudity that their customers could see.

THEN : By the middle of the twentieth century, burlesque had transformed from clever musicals based on parody, to the early versions of today's "adult entertainment".  Burlesque was a popular form of "underground entertainment" in Toronto from the 1940s through to the 1970s.  Although full nudity was prohibited, the performers would get away with showing as much as possible.  There were only two prominent venues for risque burlesque in "Toronto the Good".

Between 1945 and 1975, there were two principal venues in Toronto for "Burlesque" style entertainment.  One was the "Lux" theatre, located at 360 College Street near Bellevue Avenue.  It opened as the "Bellevue" in 1937, with seating for 787 patrons.  It only lasted two decades before closing in 1958.  Now a retail block, mostly made up of computer stores, has taken its place. 

THEN : The Lux Theatre at 260 College Street in the 1950s.

THEN : Audiences line up outside the Lux Theatre on College Street in the 1950s, responding to signs that advertised the "exotic" and "adult entertainment".

THEN : Burlesque beauties arrive at the Lux on College Street in the 1950s.

THEN : On stage at the Lux Theatre in the 1950s.

Toronto's other burlesque theatre had a longer run.  The "Standard" theatre opened in 1921, on the northeast corner of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West.  There was seating for 1,272 patrons.  Originally, from 1921, it was a venue for the nearby Jewish community in Kensington Market.  Classic Yiddish works were performed, and even some other pieces, like Shakespeare, were translated into Yiddish and put on stage at the Standard.   Even before its days of showing burlesque, the Standard was home to scandal of a different stripe.  It was the home of Toronto's Jewish left-wing political activism, and was used by groups like the Progressive Arts Club.  In 1929, Toronto police raided the Standard when they received a tip that it was hosting an event to commemorate the death of Vladimir Lenin.  The "Standard" era came to an end in 1935, when the theatre was closed and renamed "the Strand".  It became a more mainstream movie theatre. 

The name changed again, in 1945, when the theatre became the "Victory" Theatre.  This was when it became a home to burlesque.  Along with the Lux, on College Street, it showed the closest thing to nudity that Toronto's theatre goers could get.  The Lux and the Strand were both popular with local university students, and operated in close proximity to the University of Toronto campus.  When the Lux closed in 1958, the Victory became Toronto's only showplace for burlesque, and for nearly two decades, it enjoyed a monopoly.  Eventually, though, it began facing competition from adult theatres and modern strip clubs.  The Victory faded and was closed in 1975.  By the time the Victory closed, the surrounding neighbourhood was now prominently Chinese.  The Victory soon became a Chinese language cinema, and was known as the "Golden Harvest" and then the "Mandarin".  The cinema was finally closed in 1990, a victim of all of those pirated, bootleg DVDs for sale in Chinatown.  The building still stands; there is a branch of the Royal Bank on the west side of the building.  Along Dundas, towards the east side of the building, are a couple of discount variety stores.  This is where the backstage of the theatre would have been.  Every time I walk past, I can't help imagine those men who formed the beginnings of Toronto's "trench coat set", waiting outside in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the Victory's dancers.

THEN : The Standard Theatre, as it was then known, at the northeast corner of Dundas and Spadina in 1930.

THEN : The Victory Burlesque Theatre in the 1950s.

NOW : The site of the Standard Theatre, and then the Victory Burlesque Theatre, today.


THEN : A poster for "Hollywood Burlesque", a film released in 1949.  It was made up entirely of a burlesque show that had been recorded the year before.  Hillary Dawn was the closest thing that the movie had to a "big name", and while she was a moderately popular dancer at the time, she is largely unknown today.

By the 1970s, burlesque was a dying art.  The laws had loosened and even wilder stuff was now allowed on stage.  The sleaze would move east, to Yonge Street, and throughout the 1970s, the shows got worse and worse.  If you think Yonge Street south of Bloor is bad now, it can't shake a stick at how bad things got back a few decades a go.  A clean up would come at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s, but perhaps what was eradicated would make good content for "Part Two" ... coming soon.


My new "HOLLYWOOD NORTH : Cinema and Scandal" tour will be coming soon.  Look for it on the website :

... or contact me by e-mail at

We cover Toronto's burlesque era, of course, but also discuss some of the personal scandals that befell some of Toronto's early performers and theatre managers, and a whole lot more.  Contact me for details!