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!


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