Memories of Toronto’s Shea’s Hippodrome Theatre

Shea's, 1921

In the 1950s, as a teenager, I remember sitting in the plush seats of the enormous balcony of Shea’s Hippodrome Theatre on Bay Street, a few doors north of Queen. I still remember the thrill of anticipation when the theatre’s lights dimmed and the great red-velvety curtains swept open to herald the beginning of a film. The screen was so wide that I felt as if I were gazing at an 180 degree view of a landscape or street scene. In close-up shots of the movie stars, the size of the picture created an intimacy that was never equalled until Cinerama and I-Max, the latter technology pioneered in Toronto.

When Shea’s opened on April 27, 1914, it was the largest vaudeville house in Canada. The total cost of the theatre was $245,000, an enormous amount of money in that day. Two Ontario-born brothers, Jerry and Michael Shea were the enterprising businessmen who built the theatre. They were later to relocate their residences to Buffalo, New York. Many stars of vaudeville played at Shea’s. Red Skelton credited his appearance at the theatre with giving him the exposure that led to stardom.  

The front (east) facade of the Hippodrome contained white enamelled bricks. On the north and south corners of the facade facing Bay Street were towers topped with glass and copper. The theatre’s interior was lavish and ornate, a true “movie palace” of its day. Its auditorium had intricate plaster mouldings in colours of ivory and gold. On the ceiling there were decorated panels that formed a massive dome. The theatre contained 1500 seats in the orchestra section and another 1500 in the balcony. The rear rows of the balcony were reserved for “smokers,” and were referred to as the “smoking loges.” There were 12 opera boxes with heavy brass railings, as well as a full-size orchestra pit. The 46-foot lobby was the largest in Toronto at that time, with tickets booths on either side of the lobby to reduce ticket lines. The interior of the Pantages Theatre (now the Ed Mirvish Theatre) of today in many ways resembles the splendour of the old Hippodrome.

The word “hippodrome” is a Greek word that referred to the enormous oval stadiums where the ancients held chariot and horse races. Perhaps the most famous hippodrome was the one in Constantinople (Istanbul). Until recently, its outline remained visible in the modern city. It was located near the famous Blue Mosque. The word “hippodrome” was borrowed from the ancients during the 20th century and generally referred to large entertainment venues. Sometimes the word was added to venues that were far from grand, in an attempt to add prestige to their titles. In the case of Shea’s Hippodrome on Bay Street, the name was entirely appropriate.

In 1924 Shea’s Hippodrome presented a new marvel—the “phonofilm”—invented by Dr. Lee De Forest. It combined the media of radio and moving pictures to create a “talkie.” It photographed sound waves simultaneously with the pictures, allowing the people on screen to talk and sing. The sound was contained within a 1/4-inch strip on the side of the film. People heard Eddie Cantor sing, accompanied by a symphony orchestra. Within a week of the opening of the new media at Shea’s, my father and his girlfriend Mary, attended and were thrilled by the talking, singing characters on the silver screen. After they left the theatre, they went for coffee at Bowles Lunch on the southeast corner of Queen and Bay Streets. They chatted enthusiastically about the new form of entertainment.

My father and his girl friend attended the Hippodrome again on New Year’s Eve in 1926 to see Mary Pickford in Rosita. Returning home on the Yonge streetcar, at the stroke of midnight, he leaned over and gave Mary a New Year’s kiss. In later years, my dad told me that she said to him, “My goodness. Kissing on streetcars is becoming a habit with you.” He never confessed what caused her to utter the remark, but he always possessed a naughty grin when he told the story.

One of the reasons that my father attended Shea’s in 1926, was because they had recently renovated the theatre and reopened it to the public. Now, along with the films and vaudeville acts, a Wurlitzer organ had been installed, at a cost of $50,000. They hired the famous organist Roland Todd to perform on the grand instrument.

The theatre advertised itself as the “Home of Vaudeville,” and in December of 1929, it presented “The Ziegfeld Show Girls” and “Nick Lucas the Crooning Troubadour,” along with the film “The Girl from Havana,” starring Lola Lane and Paul Page.

In the 1930s, Shea’s on Bay Street, opposite the Old City Hall, was on the edge of Toronto’s old theatre district. Massey Hall, the Pantages, Lowe’s Yonge Street, The Winter Garden, the Photodrome Theatre, the Colonial (Bay) Theatre, and the notorious “strip joint” the Casino, were within walking distance. As well, other smaller theatres on Yonge, Bay, and Queen Streets were close. Shea’s was one of the best attended of all the theatres.

In 1932, a young girl from Orillia was visiting Toronto with her dad, and they attended Shea’s Hippodrome. They were amazed when the huge Wurlitzer organ rose from the floor to stage level and commenced filling the vast auditorium with its magnificent sound. The movie they saw was “The Bride of Frankenstein,” and the girl said, “It scared the bejabbers out of me.” I am certain that many others can relate similar stories of the times they visited the theatre.

In 1941, the Abbott and Costello movie, “Buck Privates” played for fourteen weeks. This was the longest continuous screening of a single film in Toronto up that time. It was Universal Studio’s biggest hit of the year and firmly established the popularity of the comedy team of Bud Abbot and Lou Costello.

In 1942, a woman asked the manager of Shea’s if they could slow down a section of the film, “49th Parallel,” as her son who had passed away was in that part of the movie. She had seen the film seven times up to that point. The manager explained that her request was impossible to fulfill, but he gave her free passes to see the movie as many times as she wished.

In 1956, Elvis Presley’s first movie, “Love Me Tender,” played at Shea’s. However, on December 27, 1957, because attendance at the theatres had lessened, due to the onset of the medium of television, the great theatre closed. The theatre’s organ was sold for less than $500 and relocated to Maple Leaf Gardens on Carlton Street, east of Yonge Street. Today, (2014) it resides in Casa Loma. After the theatre was demolished, the site where it had been located became a part of the eastern section of Nathan Philips Square, where the New City Hall is located. 

Picture of Shea’s at the top of this post is from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231 Item 0842(1). It was taken in taken in 1921.


The interior of Shea’s Hippodrome in 1914, the year it opened (photo from Construction Magazine, 1914, in the Toronto Reference Library).


The box seats in the theatre in 1914. Photo from Construction Magazine.


The lobby and stairs to the balcony. Photo from Construction magazine, 1914.

f1231_it0840a[1] Shea,s  1953 - Ref Lib.

    Shea’s Hippodrome, c, 1918, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, It. 0840a

                                Shea's 1919

            Postcard printed in 1919. City of Toronto Archives.


Interior of Shea’s, the organ evident to the left of the stage. City of Toronto Archives.

G and Mail 111523

Gazing north on Bay Street, with Shea’s theatre on the west side of the street. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail Collection, 111523.


View looking north on Bay Street, the marquee of Shea’s on the left, c. 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, It. 7300 


Shea’s  Hippodrome c. 1945, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 153.


         The interior of the theatre, Ontario Archives, RG 56-11-0-325

Shea's Hippodrome 1959

The theatre in 1956, the year before it closed and was demolished. The film “Country Girl,” starring Grace Kelly is advertised on the marquee and a sign on the south wall of the theatre advertises a forthcoming attraction, “Love Me Tender, “ starring Elvis Presley.

                      Shea's Hippodrome

Shea’s in 1956, the photo taken from the rear window of a 1949 torpedo-back Pontiac. The automobile in the foreground is a Buick.

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Recent publication entitled “Toronto’s theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” by the author of this blog. The publication explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It also relates anecdotes and stories from those who experienced these grand old movie houses.  


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