This photo from the City of Toronto Archives (TTC Collection, PC147), depicts the Casino Theatre and the Casino Cigar and Coffee Shop located in the same building. The shop is on the right-hand side of the picture. Valerie Parks, whose name appears on the marquee, was a famous burlesque star during the 1940s. She was known as the “Personality Girl.” Many men attended the casino to view her “big personalities.”
Throughout the theatre history of Toronto, other than perhaps the Victory Theatre on Spadina, there is no entertainment venue that has elicited as much praise, raunchy stories, condemnation and newspaper coverage as the infamous Casino Theatre. It was located at 87 Queen Street West, on the south side of the street, directly across from today’s new City Hall. The antics in the council chamber of the City Hall pale in comparison to those that occurred inside the Casino during the many decades that it operated in the heart of the city.
My father was one of ten sons, who immigrated to Toronto with my grandparents in the early 1920s. My grandmother was a stern woman who held deep religious convictions. She often overheard her young sons talking about a theatre named the Casino, and prayed that they would never darken the doors of such a den of iniquity. The theatre was famous for its raunchy comedians and risqué burlesque acts. My grandfather assured her that her worries were unnecessary, as “the boys” had been well taught to avoid such sin traps. However, one evening the boys decided to travel secretly downtown and visit the famous theatre. It was the early days of the Great Depression, and I suppose they thought that the display of a little bare skin might take their minds off their employment problems. Much to their surprise, when they entered the Casino, they saw their father sitting in the front row. There were many embarrassed faces that evening and creative excuses offered for their lapse of judgment. However, they all agreed that my grandmother should never learn of their escapades.
When I was a boy, I often heard my father and uncles tell stories of their experiences at the Casino and marvelled that my grandmother never overheard them. To the best of my knowledge, when she passed away in the 1960s, she never knew that her husband and sons had frequented Toronto’s most famous burlesque house. I also remember my father saying that during the depression of the 1930s, if he were unable to secure a job, as a last resort he might seek employment picking the fly buttons off the ceiling of the Casino. These were the days before zippers replaced the buttons on the fly in men’s trousers. My brother and I thought this was a great joke and felt very mature, when we finally figured out what it was that caused the buttons to pop.
The theatre was the brainchild of Jules and Jay Allen, two brothers from Brantford, Ontario, who partnered with Murray Little, who owned the Broadway Theatre. Their new theatre was to be a burlesque house. They hired the famous architectural firm of Kaplan and Sprachman. The Casino was to contain an auditorium with a balcony, the combined seating being 1124 seats. Its facade would possess traces of Art Deco. It would have an orchestra pit in front of the stage, and rehearsal space and dressing rooms on the second floor, above the auditorium. Because the Broadway and the Casino theatres would be close to each other, they felt that it would be possible to attract large numbers of male customers. It was the height of the Great Depression, when many men were unemployed. Prohibition was the law, so there were few places where a man could afford to be entertained. It was also an era when films were heavily censored. A burlesque house was ideal to take men’s minds off their problems. All these factors indicated success for a theatre such as the Casino.
The grand opening of the Casino was on April 13, 1936, and it did indeed attract large numbers of men. It was a prudish era, and although the “strippers” and burlesque shows would be considered tame by today’s standards, the stage performances at the Casino outraged many of the “decent” citizens of “Toronto the Good.” They referred to the theatre as a “sin palace.” It was also declared that it attracted the criminal elements of the city. Rumours circulated that some of the showgirls were available for private sessions for male customers with the funds. As well, people said that bookies often collected bets and paid the winners within the darkened privacy of the Casino.
The area of Queen Street near to the Casino contained five budget hotels, several pawnbrokers, and a few budget clothing stores. The Broadway burlesque theatre was in the same block as where the Casino was being built, five or six shops to the east. Shea’s Hippodrome Theatre, a vaudeville house, was nearby on Bay Street, opposite the Old City Hall. All these establishments attracted mainly male clientele. The restaurants in the area were not too classy, the smell of friend onions permeating the air. However, although the Casino was located not too far from Yonge Street, it was discretely tucked away from the prying eyes of wives and mothers who shopped at the city’s main downtown shopping area at Queen and Yonge streets. It was thus an ideal location for a discrete and “naughty” few hours of entertainment.
The Casino offered three films per day, as well as a comedian, a love band, and a girlie show. City historian, Mike Filey, wrote in an article in 1993 in the Toronto Sun Newspaper that the Casino offered “every type of performance allowed by law, and some that weren’t.” The girls in the chorus who could dance reasonably well, were placed in the front row. The girls behind them simply went through the motions. Chorus girls were paid $27.50 a week, but the striptease girls were paid about $300 per week, for 24 shows. This was very tempting money during the 1930s. One young woman who was hired as an usherette, since she was attractive, was persuaded to try her luck on the stage. She was pleased with the raise in pay. It is not known if they placed her in the front line or if she was one of the “rhythm” girls in the back.
In January of 1937, a few minutes after midnight on a Sunday, the “Monte Carlo Girls” were on stage at the Casino. In April 1936, the “Lovely Ladies Ensemble—Paris Nights” was the highlight. Gypsy Rose Lee also performed at the Casino.
Newspaper ads for the shows at the Casino (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1278, File 40.)
The above photo (City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, fl. 344) is a publicity picture for “Carmella,” who was billed as “The Sophia Loren of Burlesque.” She starred at the Casino in 1948. On one occasion, the Casino screened the film, “The Case of Mr. Conrad,” a short movie depicting a gallbladder operation. During the two times it was screened, 14 men fainted. In the late 1940s, the Casino was fined $100 for over-crowding. This was considered a steep amount, as the usual fine was $20, even though the maximum by law $200.
During the 1950s, the Casino attracted rising stars who wanted to hone their skills in front of live audiences. They were housed at the Ford Hotel, at Bay and Dundas, within walking distance of the theatre. In this decade, the hotel was one of the best in the city. During this decade, stars such as Burl Ives and Gordon McRae appeared, as well as the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Boyd, and Lillian Rush.
An ad in the Toronto Star newspaper of February 16, 1952, for the Casino.
During the years, teenagers sometimes skipped school to attend the Casino. To them, the shows were sexy and exotic. The usual ploy was for the boy who was the tallest or the most mature looking, purchase the tickets. On one occasion, the principal of a Toronto high school suspected that his students were going to the Casino. He parked his car on Queen Street, and sat in the auto observing the theatre entrance. It was not long before he saw a group of his students appear at the theatre’s box office. He confronted them. The next day, they appeared with their parents in the principal’s office. It would be interesting to have been a fly on the wall when this encounter occurred inside the hallowed precincts of academia.
There is an orange slip of paper in the file for the Casino in the City of Toronto Archives (Series 1278, File 37) that reveals an amusing story. Apparently the Casino kept a cat on the premises as a “mouser.” The feline sometimes wandered on stage during performances. It did this one evening when a comedian was on stage. He stopped his act, gazed down at the cat and said, “Scram pussy. This is a monologue not a catalogue.”
In September 1957, audiences were delighted by “Claudette the Torrid Temptress and the 7 Lucky Girls.” The main film of the day was “Abandon Ship” starring Tyrone Power. The 1950s was also the advent of TV into the living rooms of the nation. It soon took its toll on theatre attendance across the city. The program that had the most effect was “Hockey Night in Canada.” Young men began viewing hockey games instead of the girls and adult films at the Casino. Then, the Horseshoe Tavern at Queen and Spadina mounted a TV screen above the bar and commenced broadcasting hockey games. The marriage or beer and hockey began. Times became increasingly difficult for the theatres throughout the city.
However, in the 1960s, the theatre continued to attract some well known performers—Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Toronto’s famous quartet the Four Lads, Johnny Ray, Patti Page, Gene Nelson, and Mickey Rooney. These performers stayed at the Royal York rather than at the Ford Hotel.
In 1961, the Casino attempted to clean up its act. It was remodelled and renamed the Festival Theatre. However, all attempts to revive its fortunes failed. When the new City Hall was planned for the land across the street from the theatre, it was deemed that the theatre was sadly out of place. It was time for the grand old burlesque and strip joint to disappear. It was demolished in 1965, and the Sheraton Hotel was constructed on the site.
The balcony of the Casino (City of Toronto Archives, Series 881-File 350)
Johnny Ray signing autographs at the Casino (left) and Nova Scotia-born Hank Snow at the theatre (right)
The Casino in January 1952, when Gordon McRae was on stage at the theatre.
A performance at the Casino, the audience being mostly male. The small orchestra pit can be seen.
This photo from the City of Toronto Archives (Series 1106, It. 103) was taken in 1965, when the theatre was being demolished.
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