The Odeon Carlton Theatre at 20 Carlton Street was not the first theatre the Odeon chain built in Canada, but it was grandest and considered their flagship theatre. Odeon entered the Toronto theatre scene to offer British films, to compete with the American companies that dominated the screens of the city. The Odeon Carlton was originally named the Toronto Odeon. It remained as the Toronto Odeon as late at 1953.
The theatre opened on Thursday, 9 September 1948, advertised as “The Showplace of the Dominion.” It was an enormous theatre with 2318 seats, containing an orchestra section on the main floor, a loges section (for smoking) and a balcony. The opening night film was “Oliver Twist, “ a British production from J. Arthur Rank Studios, starring Alec Guinness as Fagin.
It was the first theatre in Canada to contain a restaurant, which was on the mezzanine level. It was originally intended to be a fine dining establishment, but the congregation of the nearby Carlton United Church objected to it being granted a liquor licence. This was 1948, and Toronto was a different city in those years. As a result of the objections, a “Honey Dew Restaurant” opened. It was not exactly fine dining, as apart from its trademark orange “Honey Dew” drink, it mainly offered Ritz Carltons (hot dogs) and fish and chips. However, it meant that patrons were able to enjoy a light meal and attend a movie without braving Toronto’s during bitter winter weather or on humid summer days.
In 1948, ushers were paid 50 cents an hour for a six-day workweek. By law, no movies were allowed on Sundays. Ushers earned $10 extra by changing the letters on the marquee that advertised the featured films. The large letters were made of aluminum, so were not heavy to lift up and down. To change the letters, the usher climbed a ladder on a track that curved around the marquee. The track held the ladder in place as it was moved to the various positions required to place the letters. On a windy winter day, it was dangerous work.
In 1953, an elderly lady climbed to the balcony to view the film “A Queen is Crowned, “ the official movie of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The woman thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but when she departed, she told an usher that she was amazed that the theatre was able to fit so many people on the stage. She thought that she had been watching a live stage performance.
The film “The Dark Man” was shown at the Carlton in 1951. To advertise the movie, one of the ushers walked up and down Yonge Street, wearing a large black hat and a mask. He handed out cards that stated “Is your number up? Check at the box office for a free pass.” If the number on the card a person received was one of the numbers that the cashier had listed as a winner, the patron received a free entrance ticket. It was a successful promotional stunt and drew many people to the theatre. The story of the film “The Dark Man” was of a killer who had committed a double murder. A young aspiring actress had witnessed the crimes and was marked for death by the killer.
In 1954, the grandstand show at the CNE featured Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. One of the afternoon performances was cancelled due to rain. The grandstand stars were ushered into the Odeon Carlton by a side door to view the film, “Magnificent Obsession, “ starring Rock Hudson. The following day, Walter Godfrey, who was the assistant manager, since he had allowed them into the theatre, was given a free ticket to the grandstand show and a ten-gallon hat.
During the 1950s, The Hollywood star Dorothy Lamour performed on stage at the Carlton for a week. She was best known for the “Road to . . .” movies. At the Carlton, she appeared alongside the popular quartet, the “Four Lads.” On the closing Saturday night, they held a party for the cast and the employees of the theatre. It was held on the stage, catered by Shopsy’s.
The above photo was presented to employees of the Odeon Carlton Theatre on the occasion of Dorothy Lamour’s visit to Toronto’s Odeon Carlton in the 1950s. Photo from the collection of Walter Godfrey.
With the advent of television, crowds diminished at the theatre and it was no longer profitable to operate a venue of the size of the Carlton. The building was offered to the City of Toronto for $1, but the city refused as they could not afford the expenses required to maintain it. Sadly, the theatre was demolished in 1974.
Above is an official invitation to the opening of the “ Toronto Carlton Theatre.” In 1948, it opened as the “Odeon Toronto,” but in 1956 the name was changed to the “Odeon Carlton,”as by this year, the Odeon Company had other theatres in Toronto—Hyland, Danforth, Humber, and Fairlawn.
One of the pages from the 1948 program for the official opening. It lists the credits for the first film screened in the theatre, “Oliver Twist.”
The theatre was so popular in the 1950s and 1960s that postcards were available. The graphic on the card depicts the theatre on Carlton Street, with the Eaton’s College Street Store on the left-hand side. In front of Eaton’s College is the curved facade of the Kresge’s Store, on the southeast corner of Yonge and Carlton Streets.
The Kresge’s Store on the southeast corner of Carlton and Yonge. The tower of Carlton Street United is visible behind the building.
The Odeon Carlton under construction.
View of the orchestra section of the Carlton. On the right-hand side of the stage is the Hillgreen Lane organ. After the closing of the Carlton, it went to Queen’s University in Kingston. The magnificent curtains were a soft gold in colour. Watching them part at the opening of a film gave a sense that you were about to view a spectacular cinematic experience.
The grand staircase that led from the lobby to the restaurant, loges and balcony. The mural depicts various stages in the production of films.
The lobby of the Carlton at Christmas during the 1950s.
Looking west on Carlton Street in 1958, the Odeon Carlton Theatre visible. Photo from author’s collection.
The Odeon Carlton Theatre in 1971. The tower attached to the theatre contained the head offices for Canada for the Odeon chain. Advertising, bookings, and confections were administered from this site. Photo from City of Toronto Archives.
On the site of the Odeon Carlton today there is a building that contains the “Carlton Cinema,” a small multi-screen theatre complex.
Note: the anecdotes about the theatre, the pictures of the interior of the Carlton and its lobby, and the memorabilia were graciously provided by Walter Godfrey. He commenced working at the theatre as an usher in the early 1950s and became its assistant manager.
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Books by the Blog’s Author
“Toronto’s Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It relates anecdotes and stories by the author and others who experienced these grand old movie houses.
To place an order for this book, published by History Press:
Book also available in most book stores such as Chapter/Indigo, the Bell Lightbox and AGO Book Shop. It can also be ordered by phoning University of Toronto Press, Distribution: 416-667-7791 (ISBN 978.1.62619.450.2)
Another book on theatres, published by Dundurn Press, is entitled, “Toronto’s Movie Theatres of Yesteryear—Brought Back to Thrill You Again.” It explores 81 theatres and contains over 125 archival photographs, with interesting anecdotes about these grand old theatres and their fascinating histories. Note: an article on this book was published in Toronto Life Magazine, October 2016 issue.
For a link to the article published by |Toronto Life Magazine: torontolife.com/…/photos-old-cinemas-doug–taylor–toronto-local-movie-theatres-of-y…
The book is available at local book stores throughout Toronto or for a link to order this book: https://www.dundurn.com/books/Torontos-Local-Movie-Theatres-Yesteryear
Another publication, “Toronto Then and Now,” published by Pavilion Press (London, England) explores 75 of the city’s heritage sites. It contains archival and modern photos that allow readers to compare scenes and discover how they have changed over the decades. Note: a review of this book was published in Spacing Magazine, October 2016. For a link to this review:
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