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!

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