The University when it opened in March 1949, Photo from Ontario Archives, AO 2108
Map from Google, 2014
Shortly after World War II, Famous Players Corporation commenced planning for a movie theatre to be built at 100 Bloor Street West, in the street’s upscale retail section between Bay Street and Avenue Road. The excavation and the pouring of the cement foundations were completed on April 17, 1947. On March 25, 1949 the University thrust wide its doors to an eager public. The architect had been A.G. Facey, who also designed the Nortown. The University Theatre’s smooth, rounded granite facade was sleek and modern, its lobby two-storeys in height, and its Art Moderne marquee towered high into the sky. Its auditorium contained approximately 1350 seats, installed by the Canadian Theatre Chair Company. It possessed Dolby sound and an enormously wide screen, ideal for screening epic films. However, despite the theatre’s size, it was said to be too intimate to be referred to as a “movie palace.” In a way, this was a tribute to the atmosphere created by the designer of the theatre’s interior, Eric W. Hounsom.
The film on opening day was “Joan of Arc,” starring Ingrid Bergman. Matinees tickets were 75 cents, but it was $1.20 to attend during the evening. A critic wrote, “The film spread itself like a colourful mediaeval tapestry over the screen . . . a pageant, rather than a re-creation of history . . . a spectacle rather than a drama.” Some felt that Bergman was too old to play the teenager heroine, Joan of Arc. Others said that perhaps the theatre was the real attraction, not the opening film.
My grandfather thought the theatre and the film were magnificent. He had been the night watchman during the theatre’s construction and appreciated the complimentary pass he received to view the film. However, the opening meant that he lost his job. My grandmother was relieved, as she thought him too old to be travelling downtown at night to the construction site.
I will never forget the University Theatre. As a teenager and as a young man, I enjoyed many excellent movies in it.” In 1956, I purchased an advanced-seating ticket to view “The Ten Commandments,” and in 1959 the film, “Ben-Hur.” In 1963 I saw “Cleopatra,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Watching “love among the pyramids” was a great thrill. In the 1965-movie “Doctor Zhivago,” directed by David Lean, the winter scenes, filmed in Canada, were gorgeous. However, my rear-end almost froze. Lara’s theme did not compensate, although Julie Christie was “hot.” Despite my perceived sufferings at the University Theatre, I consider myself fortunate to have attended this magnificent venue.
In my mind, Charlton Heston was forever Moses or Judah Ben-Hur. Later, he played the role of Michelangelo in the 1965 film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” based on the novel by Irving Stone. Why he became head of the “National Rifle Association” was always a mystery to me. In the movies, he represented valour and justice, but I was never able to find any justice in promoting unrestricted gun sales. Today, I wonder if conservative-minded Charlton Heston was ever disturbed by the fact that when he performed the role of Michelangelo, he was portraying a gay man.
Eventually, the economics of operating the theatre changed. In the 1980s, the manager of the University stated that even if another film came along such as “Apocalypse Now,” which had played for 52 weeks at the theatre, it was not possible to keep the University open. Eventually, it was offered for sale. The Toronto Historical Board attempted to have it designated a Heritage Building, but the request was denied.
When they locked its doors in 1986, a truly great movie auditorium was lost. Today, the theatre’s façade is part of a condominium. This is all that remains to remind Torontonians of its existence. Great theatres such as the University can never be replaced. Our heritage buildings disappear, and it seems that very few lament their passing. Years later, when they demolished Loew’s Uptown, my sentiments were similar
The University Theatre on May 19, 1980. Photo, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881-Fl.339
Lobby of the theatre, photo from City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, fl. 336
This photo dates from about 1950, but the two feature films on the marquee are from the 1930s. Photo, City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail Collection, 135159
View of the auditorium from the rear of the balcony. City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, Fl.336 It. 18A
The magnificent screen area of the University, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, Fl. 336
The auditorium from the front of the stage area, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, Fl.336, It. 19A
The lobby of the University, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, Fl. 337
The University was the first theatre in Toronto to screen Cinerama. It required three cameras and the theatre was renovated to accommodate its requirements.
Tickets for Cinerama at the University Theatre. Source, City of Toronto Archives.
Program for the special screening of “South Seas Adventure” at the University. Source: City of Toronto Archives.
The facade of the University, which is all that remains of the theatre (August 2013).
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