Wednesday, April 22, 2015

# 54 ~ Toronto & The First World War, Part VII - Recreation

These Canadian soldiers were caught in some of the first gas attacks, in 1915.  While news of countless tragedies spread across the Atlantic to Canada, those living on the home front struggled to find ways to escape the bad news coming from battlefields at places like Ypres.


This is the seventh in a series of nine posts leading up to the centenary of John McCrae's writing of In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915.  I've planned for articles to be posted over the next several weeks, and to culminate with actives commemorating the centennial of McCrae's poem.

Images of John McCrae or the poppy, or recitals of the poem, In Flanders Field, are usually just relegated to Remembrance Day.  We have come to associate certain images so much with November 11th, that they seem out of place during the rest of the year.  As I publish these posts, I hope that you will find enough about Toronto's history, to make the articles of interest.

John McCrae wrote his poem during the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between April 22nd and May 25th of 1915.  The battle saw the first massed use of poison gas by German forces on the Western Front.  It was a important engagement for Canadian troops ~ for the first time, a group of "colonial" soldiers defeated a European power, on European soil.  Military experts often refer to how engagements like the Battle of St. Julien or Kitcheners' Wood helped to usher Canada into national adulthood.  

However, instead of focusing on an analysis of military activity in Europe, my series of posts will mostly follow how the war was "fought" on the Toronto home front.


This seventh instalment of my series in Toronto during the First World War is on “Recreation”.  It explores what those back home in Toronto did for entertainment during the war.
When the war began in 1914, vaudeville was a highly popular form of entertainment for the masses.  A typical vaudeville performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts that were grouped together into a show.  Types of acts often included musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, acrobats, and jugglers. 
Short silent movies or newsreels of a few minutes long would sometimes accompany vaudeville performances.  Local politicians, like those seen in the photograph below, outside Queen’s Park around the time of the Great War, would appear in newsreels.  But it was also from these newsreels that those in Toronto, and in vaudeville houses the world over, got their news of the war overseas. 

The first instalment in this series, on the outbreak of the war, made reference to both Shea’s Hippodrome and Loew’s Yonge Street theatre.  Both were centrally located near Yonge and Queen streets, and both were amongst the largest theatres in Toronto.  There were a number of smaller theatres all across Toronto where those living in the city would have gathered.  In theatres all over the city, they would have paid a few cents to be entertained by vaudeville and forget about the war, or to gather and gossip with their neighbours, as they learned of the war’s progress from early newsreels. 
The Beaver Theatre opened on November 24, 1913 at 2942 Dundas Street West, a few blocks west of Keele Street. It had a single screen and 1,162 seats. Just a few years earlier, in 1909, the Junction area had just been annexed as a suburb to Toronto. The Beaver was one of the earliest theatres to show silent movies in Toronto.

When the 630 seat Fox Theatre opened on April 14, 1914, it originally had no name.  On opening night, a competition to name the theatre was announced, and for a short time – from April to December of 1914 – it was known as the Pastime Theatre.  At the end of 1914, the name was changed to the Prince Edward Theatre, to honour Edward, the Prince of Wales.  This was a patriotic gesture at a time when Canadians were off fighting in the First World War.  The theatre changed hands in 1937, and in that year, the name was changed to The Fox Theatre.  The Fox Theatre is still in operation today.

The naming of this theatre after the Prince of Wales, in an effort to bolster patriotism, highlights how even as Torontonians were pursuing entertainment as escapism, it was difficult to evade thoughts of the war altogether.

The history of old theatres can be challenging, as many of them went through several name changes.  The Pastime Theatre became the Prince Edward Theatre and then the Fox Theatre.  It still operates today.

In 1910, the Colonial Theatre opened on the southeast corner of Bay and Queen streets.  It had a single screen and sat 477 patrons.  Its construction was a significant milestone, since it was one of the first theatres in Toronto specifically built to show silent movies – before it was built, just about all the movie theatres in the city had been converted from old vaudeville theatres or nickelodeons. 

This photograph from 1918 looks east along Queen Street from Bay Street.  The Colonial Theatre is visible in the background.

The Colonial Theatre was renovated in 1919 using stonework from a demolished building called the Customs House.  The Theatre closed in 1933 and reopened several years later at the Bay Theatre.  The theatre closed again in 1965, this time for good.  It was demolished and the Hudson's Bay complex now stands on the site.

The war would soon infiltrate the entertainment industry, either quietly, as with the naming of the Prince Edward Theatre, or a little more overtly.  Canadians have been supplying Hollywood with noted entertainers for a long time, and one of the most popular stars during the Great War was Toronto’s own Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford was born in 1892, in a blue collar residential neighbourhood near University Avenue and Gerrard Street.  Known as Gladys Louise Smith before she took on her stage name, she was the eldest of three children born to her parents, John Charles and Charlotte Smith.  In 1895, John Smith abandoned his wife, his daughter Gladys, and her younger siblings, Jack and Lottie. 

Mary Pickford's birthplace on University Avenue.  It was demolished in the 1940s and the current Hospital for Sick Children was built on the location.

Charlotte Smith was left to struggle raising three children as a single mother, and worked as a seamstress before opening her house to take in boarders.  When young Gladys, the oldest of the three children, was seven, a boarder suggested that her mother get her into acting.  That same year, 1899, young Gladys Louise Smith won a role in the stage play “The Silver King” at the Princess Theatre in Toronto.  It was the start of her theatrical career.

It was in 1907, while Gladys was appearing in a play on Broadway, that the play's producer influenced her to adopt the stage name "Mary Pickford".  The rest was history, as the saying goes.  

Mary Pickford went on to fame and fortune and became the world's first internationally known female movie celebrity.  She started working for film director D.W. Griffiths in 1909, and made 51 movies during her first year in movies.  Her salary of $5 a day was quickly raised to $10 a day.  She became known for her curled hair, and her hairstyle soon became the rage for young girls in Toronto and the world over.  While she was married to Douglas Fairbanks, the couple were immensely popular, and they were like today's Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – perhaps the most famous couple in the world, at the time.  A pioneer in Hollywood, and dubbed “America's Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford was born right here in Toronto.

Though nicknamed "America's Sweetheart", Mary Pickford was born right here in Toronto.

Mary Pickford on the front steps of the house she was born in, March 23rd, 1924.

By the time that the First World War started, Mary Pickford was one of the biggest names in Hollywood and around the world.  Here in her hometown, Toronto paid testament to her success by renaming a theatre at the north-west corner of Spadina and Queen streets after Pickford.  Originally known as the Auditorium Theatre when it opened in 1906, and later known as the Variety Theatre, it was known for a while as the Pickford Theatre. 

The Auditorium Theatre was eventually renamed the Pickford Theatre.

During the First World War, the Pickford Theatre was one of several theatres in Toronto that participated in recruitment drives.  An advertisement from March 18, 1916, shows a recruitment drive being held at the Pickford Theatre and other such entertainment venues around Toronto.  Another drive, held on May 29, had M.P. W.F. MacLean calling on married men to “join the fight.” Pickford herself helped in the war effort, buying thousands of dollars in subscriptions to the Canada War Loan and appearing in a short recruitment film.

This advertisement from 1916 shows a recruitment drive being held at the Pickford Theatre, and other venues around Toronto.

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and her mother, in Toronto to promote Victory Bonds, circa 1915.

One of the short propaganda films turned out by Canada's National War Finance Committee, starred Mary Pickford as "Mayme", a "thriftless" young woman who eventually learns that "Self denial at home will insure victory abroad."  In the end her character is redeemed and she donates to War Bonds.  You can watch this short film here.

During the First World War, Torontonians were more class conscience than they are today.  In a way, the war would create a new class of heroes, in addition to those who were “at the top” because of their more traditional socioeconomic status.  One of the best known veterans of the First World War – Billy Bishop – would become an iconic hero to Canadians.  Born in Owen Sound in 1894, he was credited with 72 victories during aerial combat in the First World War, putting him in the top rank of Canada’s flying aces.   Bishop actually served in the Mississauga Horse Cavalry, and the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, before going on to become an airborne observer and eventually a flying ace.

Billy Bishop, Canada's First World War flying ace.

Bishop was given leave to return home to Canada in the Autumn of 1917.  He was acclaimed a hero and helped to boost the morale of the Canadian public, who were growing tired of the war.  On October 17, 1917, at Toronto’s Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, Bishop married his longtime fiancée, Margaret Eaton Burden.  She was a granddaughter of Timothy Eaton, and a sister of another flying ace, Henry John Burden.  

Throngs of onlookers and news photographers came out to Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on October 17th, 1917, to watch the  nuptials of Billy Bishop and Margaret Eaton Burden.

The Star newspaper called it “Toronto’s Most Unique Wedding” and turned over most of its front-page to photos. On an inside page, a description of the event was headlined in the spirit of the times: “Army of women struggled for view of happy couple.”  

It noted that Burden had been a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at the Spadina Military Hospital, and described how a “brigade” of 100 of her colleagues, “wearing their smart grey uniforms,” met the happy couple at the church door and sprinkled rose leaves at their feet. “Forty officers of the Mississauga Horse (regiment) made an arch with their swords, under which Major and Mrs. Bishop walked very slowly. A Red Cross van filled with returned soldiers with a band greeted the newly made pair and high up overhead the chimes played merrily.”

Bishop was awarded the Victoria Cross for shooting down four German planes during a solo mission on July 2, 1917. His citation made note of his “most conspicuous bravery, determination and skill.”

Years later, questions persisted about Bishop’s credentials.  How could all of his victories in the air be authenticated, if so many happened on solo missions?  But when he came home to marry at the age of 23, he was already a legend.  Soon after the wedding, he was sent to the United States to help with the war effort: Officially his mission was to help organize American aircraft production, but his main task was actually to stimulate enlistment.

Billy Bishop's medals.


Coming up : My next instalment of the "Toronto & The First World War" series is entitled "Lamentation".  It includes some of the personal stories of those in Toronto who lost loved ones during the war.  Some of these casualties came from well known families, while other stories are seldom recounted today.


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