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Toronto’s old movie theatres—the Royal George on St. Clair near Dufferin

21 Sep

Royal George Sept. 54

This photo of the Royal George is from the City of Toronto Archives. When it was taken, there was a billiard parlour on the third floor, the door going up to it on the west (right-hand) side of the theatre entrance. A shop is on the left-hand side of the entrance. The front of the building is symmetrical, with a parapet above a cornice that consists of decorative rows of bricks that simulate dentils. To the east of the theatre is laneway, which has since disappeared. This photo dates from September of 1954. The film on the marquee, “Sophia,” starring Gene Raymond, was released in 1948. It is strange that a 1920s car is parked in front of the theatre.

The Royal George Theatre at 1217 St. Clair Avenue West, a short distance west of Dufferin Street, was originally was located farther east along the street, on the southwest corner of Dufferin and St. Clair. It opened as “The Picture Palace” sometime during the early years of the 20th century. The building that housed the theatre remains in existence today, and now houses shops, and offices. The Picture Palace was the first theatre to open in the rural Earlscourt District, in the days when it was a remote community above the Davenport Road Hill. The area did not have a streetcar line that connected it to the downtown until 1913, but despite its isolation, it attracted numerous immigrants, mostly from Britain. They constructed houses in Earlscourt as land prices were cheap and there were almost no building codes. It was known at the time as “muddy Earlscourt” as the rains of spring and autumn turned the streets into a sea of mud. It was into this environment that the “Picture Palace” opened its doors.

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This photo from the City of Toronto Archives (SC 231, Item 221) gazes west along St. Clair at Dufferin Street. “The Picture Palace” can be seen on the southwest corner of Dufferin and St. Clair Avenue West. The picture was likely taken about the year 1920, as the streetcar tracks are already in place and movie playing at the theatre was “The Fatal Fortune,” starring Helen Holmes, released in 1919. Because the auditorium of the theatre was aligned east-west, parallel to the street, after the theatre relocated it was easy to convert the building to small shops that faced busy St. Clair Avenue. Apartments were located above the theatre to offset operating costs of the theatre.

When the theatre opened, attending movie houses was frowned upon by the churches and “respectable society.” Several years ago I interviewed a lady who was over 90 years of age at the time. She had lived on Rosemount Avenue, located two blocks south of St. Clair, west off Dufferin. As a child, her family attended the small Salvation Army congregation who worshipped in a small hall beside the theatre, on its west side. The church was named the Earlscourt Citadel Corps. As a child she often passed the theatre and gazed at the advertisements for the films. Her parents had warned her never to enter the theatre, as to do so was very sinful. However, because movies were not allowed on Sundays by law, her church often rented the theatre for special musical programs and religious campaigns.  She was inside the theatre many times on these occasions. She said that she often wondered what sins occurred within the building during the weekdays. One of the farewell services for the Canadian Staff Band of the Salvation Army was held within the theatre. On May 29, 1914, most of the members of this band perished when the HMS Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River, claiming the lives of over 800 victims.

During the First World War, the theatre continued to operate on its corner location. Sometime during the war years, its owners decided to relocate farther along the street, to the west, at 1217 St. Clair. Due to the patriotic fervour created by the war, and because the area was inhabited mostly by British immigrants, the name of the theatre was changed to the “Royal George.”  Its owner was Mr. A. McCullock, and his new theatre contained 456 seats, which was less than in its former location. 

Several years ago, a woman was interviewed whose mother was employed as a cleaner at the Royal George Theatre in 1919. She said that in that year it was Mrs. MCullock who operated the theatre. It is assumed that her husband had passed away. The cleaning woman said that Mrs. McCullock was very kind, on one occasion purchasing a winter coat for her. Mrs. McCullock ran the theatre and sold tickets in the ticket booth, where she always placed a bouquet of flowers. The interviewed woman’s mother, when cleaning the auditorium, lifted the seats to clean and was delighted if she discovered a nickel or penny that had dropped to the floor.

An ex-colleague of mine told me that he remembers attending the Royal George in 1944, when the film “The White Cliffs of Dover” was playing. A woman became hysterical during the screening and an ambulance was summonsed. This was during the war, and he thought that perhaps the emotional impact of the war movie was “too real” for her. 

The Royal George remained as a thriving theatre for many decades, even after the St. Clair Theatre opened in 1921, a block to the east. However, similar to most of the city’s old theatres, the age of television diminished the crowds. In September of 1954, the theatre was for sale for the price of $147,000, but it remained a functioning theatre for another decade. It eventually closed and was converted for commercial purposes.

I have only one connection to the theatre that stands out in my memory. In the early 1950s, when Sunday movies remained illegal, the theatre was rented to the Christian Science Church. I had an uncle who had converted to the religion, and he took my brother and me to a service in the theatre. The guest soloist for the occasion warbled so badly off key that my brother and I had great difficulty restraining our laughter. I find it strange that this memory remains with me after all these years.

Today, the building remains on St. Clair Avenue, but all traces of the theatre have disappeared. The facade has a new layer of bricks. Most who pass by on the street have no idea that it was once the sight of a highly popular neighbourhood theatre.

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The box office and billboards for “Picture Palace Theatre” on the corner of Dufferin and St. Clair (left-hand photo). The right-hand picture shows porch of the small Salvation Army Hall to the west of the theatre, and a shop with a Coca Cola sign on it.

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This view is gazing east along St. Clair Avenue, the Royal George Theatre on the south side of St. Clair.  In the foreground is a Peter Witt streetcar on the Bay Street route. These cars began service in Toronto in 1921, and were employed on Yonge Street until the Yonge Subway opened in 1954. The Bay streetcars ran along St. Clair as far west as Lansdowne Avenue, and on the return trip went eastbound on St. Clair, down Avenue Road, east on Davenport, and then south on Bay St. to the ferry docks. This photo was likely taken in the 1940s. Notice that the theatre marquee is different to the one shown in the 1954 photo.

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The southwest corner of Dufferin and St. Clair in 2013. The yellow building was the site of “The Picture Palace.” Shops have been constructed into the east and north facades of the old theatre. Apartments and offices remain above the former auditorium, but the upper windows have been enlarged. 

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The east facade of the old theatre, on Dufferin Street. The box office of the theatre was located on the corner where the man can be seen standing with his hands in his pockets.

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(Left) The site of the Royal George in 2013, and (right) the theatre in 1954. Notice that the shop to the right of the theatre remains recognizable today.

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The refaced south facade of the former “Royal George Theatre” on St. Clair West in September of 2013.

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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