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Memories of Toronto’s Eglinton Theatre

28 Aug

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The Eglinton Theatre at 400 Eglinton Ave. West, its yellow-brick auditorium to the left of the canopy and marquee, behind the row of shops that were owned by the theatre.

In the mid-1920s, the area of Forest Hill was opening for development. Its main street, Eglinton Avenue, still contained many open fields, though a few shops had appeared. As the area’s population continued to grow, an immigrant from Sicily, named Agostino Arrigo Sr., saw the advantages of building a theatre in the district. His dream was that it would set the standard for Toronto. Many feel that he succeeded when he struck a deal with Famous Players to construct a theatre at 400 Eglinton West, one block west of Avenue Road. It was designed by the architectural firm of Kaplan and Sprachman, which created the Parkdale, St. Clair, and Runnymede, as well as seventeen other theatres in Toronto. The Eglinton cost $200,000, an astronomical amount of money at the time. To reduce costs, the theatre’s auditorium  was built parallel to the street, to allow shops to be constructed to the west of the theatre entrance, which could be rented to offset operating expenses. The Eglinton was considered the flagship theatre for Famous Players in Canada.

The Eglinton theatre opened on April 2, 1936, during the Great Depression. It was a decade when movies were one of the few forms of entertainment that people could afford, and movies offered an escape from the dire economic conditions of the times. The opening-night film was Jack Oakie’s “King of Burlesque.” The line-ups were long, the patrons paying 35 cents for orchestra seats and 45 cents for the loges (the smoking section) and the grand circle. These prices were high, as the next week the orchestra seats were 25 cents.

The Eglinton was one of the finest art deco-style theatres ever built. In 1937 it was awarded the “Royal Architecture Institute of Canada Bronze Medal” for achievement in advanced art deco design. The theatre was inspired by the “Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago” of 1933, which the architect, Harold Kaplan, had attended. The crowning glory of the Eglinton Theatre’s signage was the neon-lit tower that soared above the canopy and marquee. At the top of the tower was a pylon, split into three sections, with a flashing ball mounted on top.

When it was built, the theatre’s interior was considered sleek, modern and attractive. Patrons entered through a well-appointed mirrored lobby and descended several steps to the lower lobby. It contained shiny metal trim, coloured neon lights, and a fireplace. A large circular mirror was above the fireplace’s mantle. The auditorium contained subdued neon lights of different colours, etched glass panels, rich fabrics and hand-carved statues, with art deco-style chandeliers on the ceiling.

Many great movies were screened at the Eglinton throughout the years. During 1965 and 1967, the “Sound of Music” played for 146 weeks. Evening performances commenced at 8:15 pm and ended at 11:30 pm. There were also 2 pm matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. For the “Sound of Music,” 20th Century Fox was determined that the opening night of the film would be spectacular. The company paid for extensive renovations to the theatre, even though they were not the owners. Its art deco features remained untouched, but the seating in the orchestra section was reduced from 1100 to 800, and the balcony from 500 to 300. This allowed the theatre to install wider, more comfortable seats. The theatre also received new carpeting, and new projectors and a new screen arrived from the United States.

When “Dr. Doolittle” played at the Eglinton, there were many afternoon matinees for children, especially during the summer months when school groups arrived in the city. The manager at the time developed chicken pox from the children, even though he was in his mid-thirties.

I remember that in 1968, I saw “Finian’s Rainbow” at the Eglinton. Other mega films that played at the Eglinton included “How the West Was Won,” and Windjammer Holiday.” For the film “Hello Dolly,” a large picture was installed in the outer lobby. It showed Miss Streisand in an all-white gown, descending a red-carpeted stairway in the Harmonica Gardens Restaurant. For all the mega movies at the Eglinton, there was reserved seating, referred to as “hardticket” films. Films that played between mega hits were called “fillers,” and the tickets for them were “strip tickets.”   

In the 1970s, “Gone With the Wind” played (a return engagement). In 1983, the James Bond film “Octopussy” was shown.

Attendance at theatres declined over the years, and in April of 2002 the Eglinton closed. Interestingly, the reason for its final demise was a dispute over providing wheelchair access. The owners decided that to provide this feature was too costly, considering the income derived from the theatre.

Many theatre lovers in Toronto retain fond memories of this great theatre. Fortunately, the building was not demolished. It is now a special events venue named the Eglinton Grand, and its spectacular marquee still shines brightly on the avenue at night.

Note: I am grateful to Michael Allen Bronstorph, a manager at the Eglinton, for information on the theatre.

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The Eglinton Theatre in 1936, the year it opened. Photo, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 345

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            Interior of the Eglinton in 1947. Photo, City of Toronto Archives.

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View of the Interior rom the front, gazing back toward the orchestra and balcony. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 346.

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Lobby of the Eglinton in 1947. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 346.

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            The Eglinton in 1947, photo from the City of Toronto Archives

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The marquee and entrance of the Eglinton Theatre, now the “Eglinton Grand” (2013)

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The magnificent canopy, marquee and sign on the old art deco theatre.

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The theatre’s box office and a view gazing from the interior of the box office toward the buildings on the south side of Eglinton Avenue. There is a small chandelier inside the box office. (Photo: Sept. 2013)

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                               The chandelier inside the box office

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Outside lobby of the theatre which is now the entrance to the “Eglinton Grand,” an entertainment venue.

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           Doors from the outer lobby that lead down into the foyer (photo 2013).

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The segmented pylon at the top of the tower, with the ball at the pinnacle that appears to revolve because of the flashing lights. 

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Although the interior of the theatre has been altered to provide banquet space, the exterior of the old theatre remains as impressive as the day it opened in 1936.

To view the Home Page for this blog: https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/

To view previous blogs about other movie houses of Toronto—old and new

https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/links-to-toronto-old-movie-housestayloronhistory-com/

To view links to other posts placed on this blog about the history of Toronto and its buildings:

https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/links-to-historic-architecture-of-torontotayloronhistory-com/

Recent publication entitled “Toronto’s theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” by the author of this blog.

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                 To place an order for this book:

https://www.historypress.net/catalogue/bookstore/books/Toronto-Theatres-and-the-Golden-Age-of-the-Silver-Screen/9781626194502 .

 

 

 

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