Toronto’s old movie houses—the Rio on Yonge Street

                   Rio Theatre

The Rio Theatre was one of the first movie houses opened in Toronto. Located at 373 Yonge Street,  a short distance south of Gerrard Street, it opened in 1913 as “The Big Nickel.”  In the late 1930s, it was renamed “The National,” and in 1943 became “The Rio.”

To the best of my knowledge, I never attended “The Rio. This was because in the 1950s, I was a suburban kid, and if I travelled all the way downtown to attend a movie house, it was because I wished to see the latest films that Hollywood offered. The movies at “The Rio” were several years old, and if I wanted to view these films, there were several neighbourhood theatres to fulfill this need.

In the latter years of the Rio’s existence, it showed four films consecutively, before repeating the sequence, beginning at 9 am and continuing until 4 am. Because the admission price was cheap and the long hours it remained open, it became a favourite place for the homeless to escape the cold or for people to recover from the results of inebriation before they returned to the street. Thus, it had gained a reputation as a hangout for “Rubbydubs,” as teenagers referred to drunks in that decade. The theatre deteriorated to such an extent that prior to its closing in 1991, the seats were extremely tattered and material was falling from the ceiling.

One of the reasons that I remembered “The Rio” was because it was across the street from the Swiss Chalet Restaurant, which in the 1950s was highly popular. The chain commenced in 1954, its first location at 234 Bloor Street. I believe that the Yonge Street restaurant was the second one they opened. There are now over 200 locations.  As a teenager, I felt I was dining at the Ritz when I ordered a half-chicken dinner at the restaurant. “The Rio” has now disappeared from the Yonge Street strip. On the premises is now an adult video and novelty store. However, the Swiss Chalet remains and is popular as ever, although its original location on Bloor Street has now been demolished for a condo. 

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The Rio in 1913, when it was named “The Big Nickel.” The second floor was rented for other purposes, which was typical in this era, as it provided extra income. This was especially important on Yonge Street, where property prices and rental charges were expensive. Photo is from the web site of Christopher Walczak.

large[1] (2)  1950 C of T archives 

“The Rio” in 1950, featuring the film “Captain Boycott,” released in 1947. It was typical to show films at “The Rio” that were several years old. Notice that in this photo, one of the original windows can be seen on the second floor, from the days when the theatre was “The Big Nickel.” (City of Toronto Archives)

2011318-yonge_mall[1]  Toronto archives

The Rio in the early 1970s, when the Yonge Street Mall was in operation. (City of Toronto Archives)

Rio 3

The site of “The Rio Theatre” today, where an adult movie and novelty shop is located.

Rio 2

The second-floor level of “The Rio” that originally provided extra income for the owners. The windows over-looking the street from the days when the theatre was “The Big Nickel,” have disappeared except for the one that is in the centre position, and it is covered over.

Rio Theatre

This undated photo from the City of Toronto Archives shows “The Rio” and the surrounding buildings on Yonge Street.

To view the Home Page for this blog:

To view previous blogs about other old movie houses of Toronto

The Ed Mirvish Theatre (Pantages, Imperial, Canon)

The now demolished Downtown Theatre on Yonge Street south of Dundas

The Orpheum Theatre on Queen St., west of Bathurst

The Bellevue Theatre on College Street that became the Lux Burlesque Theatre

Old movie houses of Toronto

The Odeon Carlton theatre on Carlton St., east of Yonge St.


The Victory burlesque and movie theatre on Spadina at Dundas:

The Shea’s Hippodrome Theatre on Bay St. near Queen

Attending a matinee in the old movie houses of Toronto during the “golden age of cinema”

The University Theatre on Bloor St., west of Bay Street.

Archival photos of the Imperial and Downtown Theatres on Yonge Street

The Elgin/Winter/Garden Theatres on Yonge Street

The now vanished Avon Theatre at 1092 Queen Street West

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2 thoughts on “Toronto’s old movie houses—the Rio on Yonge Street

  1. Surely the last honky-tonk on Yonge. Hookers used to solicit you from the doorway where they huddled to get out of the wind. (Funny thing though… I worked in a film lab back then, and a lot of the exploitation film we worked on only showed up in their all-nite bills).

  2. Anyone know if the Rio ever (ie ca 1940s-1950s) gave away small promotional bags of glass marbles. These had an inexpensive black-and-white header which read “Rio Theatre” and the name of a movie start being shown at the Theatre at the time. Any help appreciated.

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