The Imperial Theatre on Yonge Street in 1972. Photo, City of Toronto Archives
During the 1950s, I worked as a “parcelling-boy” at the Dominion Store on Eglinton Avenue, west of Avenue Road. This statement truly identifies me as “overly mature,” since not only has the name “Dominion Store” been put out to pasture, but supermarkets today no longer hire teenagers to parcel the customers’ groceries. Each Saturday evening, after the store closed at 6 pm, a friend and I journeyed downtown to attend a movie. One of our favourite theatres was the Imperial. This was during 1950s, and the Imperial was not the grand, gold embossed, pristine theatre that patrons attend today to view the live stage productions of David Mirvish. The Imperial had become tarnished over the years. The ornate plaster trim, gold leaf, and faux marble columns from its former days of glory were either painted over or darkened by the passage of time.
In the 1950s, I don’t remember ever seeing the magnificent ceiling of the Imperial Theatre, as the auditorium was darkened whenever we entered. There were no intermissions between film showings. Similar to most people, we arrived at the theatre when it was convenient, unlike today, when patrons enter at the beginning of the film. As a result, only those who entered prior to the start of the day’s screenings, ever caught a glimpse of the ceiling. Thus, a large lobby was not required as people were entering and departing continuously. During the 1920s, when the theatre was built, the vaudeville acts and films were also continuous, so similarly, a large lobby was not needed. This explains why the Ed Mirvish Theatre of today has such a small lobby area.
During the 1950s, my friend and I were attracted to the Imperial because it featured recently released films and its enormous size meant that good seats were readily available. We preferred to sit in the balcony, as it was huge and offered a superb view of the screen, one of the largest in the city. Despite the fact that the glory days of the theatre had ended, the Imperial still managed to create a feeling of grandeur, especially the entrance hallway from Yonge Street.
The films that I remember the most at the Imperial during the 1950s were those that starred Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, such as “Scared Stiff” and “The Caddy,” both released in 1953. Being teenagers, we found their zany antics endlessly funny.
In the 1920s, it was complicated to assemble the land to construct the theatre, because the site had three different owners. However, through a complicated set of leases and purchases, the land was finally acquired. The separate ownerships of the land were to haunt the owners of the theatre in the decades ahead. Similar to today, in the 1920s, property prices on Toronto’s main street were extremely expensive, so it was necessary to construct the auditorium on Victoria Street, with simply an entrance on Yonge Street. This was important as Yonge was where the major foot-traffic of the city passed by. The theatre’s entrance from the west was at 263 Yonge Street, and on its east side at 244 Victoria Street.
When the theatre opened on Saturday, April 27, 1920, it was named “The Pantages.” The theatre was owned by Famous Players, but it was managed by the Pantages organization of Alexander Pantages, and theatre was named after him. He also handled the bookings of the vaudeville acts. The program for the opening of the theatre was listed in the newspapers:
Doors open at 7 p.m.
Promenade Concert at 8 p.m.
Singing of “God Save the King.”
Address by Mayor Tommy Church
“Pantages Pictorial Revue”
The theatre was closed on the following day, as it was a Sunday, when theatres were not allowed to be open. On the Monday following the opening, shows were continuous from 12 noon until 11 p.m. Matinee prices were 25 cents and evening performances were 45 cents. The 3373-seat vaudeville and movie house was the largest in Canada at that time. The day the theatre opened, an article in the Globe and Empire newspaper stated that the theatre was the largest in the British Empire, that its stage decorations were outstanding, and its stage decorations possessed gorgeous colours. The newspaper also stated that the “drop sets” provided novel backgrounds for the vaudeville acts.
The above drop sets are from the 1920s from Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre (today’s Elgin) but are typical of those used for vaudeville in that decade. (photos taken in 2013)
The Pantages Theatre was designed by the architect Thomas W. Lamb (1871-1942). Born in in Scotland, he immigrated to New York City as a boy. He had a distinguished career in his adopted city, where he designed 48 theatres. He also the architect of the Boston Opera House that remains in use today. In Toronto, he designed the Elgin-Winter Garden complex, as well as the Pantages. One of his trademark features was to attach white or cream-coloured terra cotta tiles onto the facades of his theatres. Most of these tiles have disappeared from the Yonge Street facade of the Ed Mirvish Theatre of today, the result of the many alterations throughout the decades. However, they remain on the east facade on Victoria Street.
My father immigrated to Toronto in 1921, a year after the Pantages opened. He fell in love with the city’s theatre scene, one of his favourites being the “The Pantages.” As a child, I heard him tell stories of the great theatre and its risqué comedians. My father enjoyed retelling the corny jokes, even when he was over eighty years of age. He also described the auditorium, with its ornate classical designs on the ceiling, which soared high above the seats like the vaulted canopy of a great palace or cathedral.
The year my father arrived in the city, there was a parrot in a cage on the mezzanine level of the Pantages that possessed only one eye. It was a cantankerous bird that squawked and scolded those who came near it as it cracked sunflower seeds. Sometimes a child or mischievous teenager would try to steal it or poke it with a pencil, causing the bird to raise a raucous. The parrot remained a fixture at the theatre for twenty years.
In 1930, the name of the Pantages was changed to The Imperial, but remained under the ownership of Famous Players. The reason for the change was that Alexander Pantages had been convicted of raping a 17-year-old chorus girl the previous year. His name was removed from all the theatres that his company had managed.
On May 29, 1931, Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra had its debit appearance at the Imperial. In 1933, the movie star George Raft, who often played gangsters in films, made a personal appearance at the theatre. The Evening Telegram newspaper reported on March 6, 1950 that when a movie starring Gregory Peck was playing, a thief snatched $1500 from an usher of the Pantages who was transferring the cash from the box office to the main office inside the theatre. The thief escaped among the Saturday-night crowds on Yonge Street.
In 1972, following a 9-month run of “The Godfather,” the theatre closed for renovations. When it reopened the following year, the magnificent theatre had been divided into six separate auditoriums and renamed “The Imperial Six.” The architect for the conversion of the theatre into a multiplex venue was Mandel Sprachman, a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Architecture. The balcony had been of sufficient size to create a separate enormous auditorium.
In 1986, Darth Drabinsky, the CEO of Cineplex Odeon, purchased the property. He reopened the theatre on December 12, 1987, and for a brief period continued to show movies. However, he dreamt of restoring the property as a venue for live theatre and wished to return it to its former glory. This was when the complicated land ownerships from the 1920s caused difficulties. Fortunately, these were eventually settled and Drabinsky was free to proceed with his ambitions. The last film screened before it was closed for restoration was “Die Hard,” starring Bruce Willis.
Under Drabinsky’s supervision, the theatre was meticulously restored. The seating capacity was reduced from 3373 to 2200. The soot and grime, as well as the many layers of paint that obscured its original beauty were removed. Backstage areas were improved and computerized stage lighting added, as well as a new sound system.
When it reopened in 1989, with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Musical “Phantom of the Opera,” theatregoers were once more able to enjoy the opulence of the original Pantages. The musical was to remain on stage for over ten years, attracting crowds from all over Ontario and the United States. I saw “The Phantom” three times during its long run. However, the first time was the most memorable, since it was when I first glimpsed the theatre after its restoration. I thought of the stories my father had told me, and realized that his descriptions of the “Pantages” had indeed been accurate. Even today, when I attend the theatre, at intermission I walk down an aisle toward the stage area to view the vaulted ceiling. I recall how my dad had described it, in all its glorious splendour.
After Darth Drabinsky’s theatrical empire collapsed, the Pantages was purchased by Clear Channel Entertainment and became the Canon Theatre. Following a legal battle, David Mirvish purchased the theatre, and it was renamed the “Ed Mirvish Theatre” on December 6, 2011.
Although many of the structures from North America’s golden age of theatre-building have been demolished, the Empress of Canadian Theatres—the Ed Mirvish—continues to offer live performances, reminding us of the days when such entertainment venues were referred to as “movie palaces.” There could never be a more fitting tribute to one of the city’s most generous benefactors—Ed Mirvish—the King of Retail.
Hallway leading from the Yonge Street entrance to the auditorium, in 1930. Toronto Archives, Series 1287, File 87
The staircase in the Pantages, leading from the Yonge Street entrance. Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 265
Auditorium of the Pantages, Toronto Archives, Series 1278, File 87
The Imperial Theatre in 1930, Photo, Toronto Reference Library
The above photo from the City of Toronto Archives gazes south on Yonge Street from near Dundas Street, on December 21, 1935. The Imperial Theatre is on the left-hand side of the street. The theatre’s marquee is similar to the one that exists today on the Ed Mirvish Theatre. The banner strung across the street advertises the visit of “The Weaver Brothers,” a comedy team that starred in thirteen movies. They began their careers in vaudeville and specialized in playing unusual instruments. They were the first musicians to employ a handsaw to play a melody.
The staircase and rear of the auditorium of the Imperial in November, 1947. Toronto Archives, Series 1287, File 87.
The Imperial Theatre in 1972, the final year that it operated as a single theatre, before being divided into six auditoriums and renamed “The Imperial Six.” The Downtown Theatre at Yonge near Dundas is visible further north up Yonge Street.
The theatre in 1973 or 1974, after it became the Imperial Six in 1972. This photo from the City of Toronto Archives was taken when Yonge Street was a pedestrian mall.
View of the auditorium in the Imperial Six that had formerly been the balcony of the Imperial, City of Toronto Archives, Series 122, File 881, It. 241
The foyer of the Imperial Six, showing the staircase that led to the downstairs theatres, City of Toronto Archives, Mendel Sprachman Collection
The theatre in the summer of 2012, after it became the “Ed Mirvish Theatre.” The canopy over the entrance is similar to that of the old Pantages and once more there are rows of white terracotta tiles on the facade. In 2012, there was a partial pedestrian mall on Yonge Street.
“The Ed Mirvish Theatre” and the surrounding buildings on Yonge Street in the summer of 2013. The building to the right of the theatre, constructed in 1874, was there when the Pantages opened in 1920.
The Victoria Street facade of the Ed MIrvish Theatre, containing sections of cream-coloured terra cotta tiles on the walls, as designed by Thomas W. Lamb.
Ornate designs on the canopy of the Victoria Street facade of the theatre.
A view of the Victoria Street (east) facade of the Pantages in 1930. Photo gazes north on Victoria Street. Toronto Archives, Series 1278, File 87.
This photo of the theatre, taken in 2013, on Victoria Street, the view gazing south.
The Victoria Street entrance to the theatre in 2013.
The Yonge Street entrance to the theatre and the grand staircase that leads to the upper lobby. The ceiling is particularly noteworthy. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives.
The canopy over the doorway on the east facade of the theatre. Large Corinthian pilasters are attached to the brickwork above the canopy.
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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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