This photo of the Bay Theatre, directly across from Toronto’s Old City at Queen and Bay Streets, was taken in the 1960s. The featured film on the marquee is “The Small World of Sammy Lee, “ a British crime drama that was released in 1963. When I was a teenager in the 1950s, I remember the Bay Theatre, but was unaware of its importance in the history of Toronto’s movie theatre scene.
When “moving pictures” first arrived in Toronto in 1896, they were shown on a bed sheet in a small space within Robertson’s Musee. People sat on kitchen chairs to view the films. During the next few year, various modest rental spaces were rented in the downtown area to show movies. In 1906, the city’s first permanent theatre, the Theatorium, opened on Yonge Street.
The next advancement in theatre history occurred in 1909, when a building was constructed for the exclusive purpose of screening moving pictures. This was the Colonial Theatre, later renamed The Bay. It was located at 45 Queen Street West, a short distance east of Bay Street. Although it was in a separate building, its heating system was connected to the Simpson’s Store, which occupied most of the city block between Yonge and Bay. The theatre possessed no basement.
This architectural sketch of the theatre is from the collection of the Toronto Reference Library. The theatre’s symmetrical neo-classical-style facade was of brick and stone, containing a conglomeration of fluted columns, arches, pilasters and an overly heavy ornate cornice.
I discovered various data for the number of seats in the interior. The one that was the most specific stated that there were 228 seats in the auditorium, 115 in the mezzanine, and 130 in the balcony, which wrapped around the auditorium. The seats were velour leatherette, with two aisles and further aisles along the sides. Stairs on the east side led to the mezzanine level, and a set of steel stairs to the balcony. The projection booth was atop the balcony in an area referred to as the Gallery.
In 1919, an additional storey was added on the building, built from stones, brick, columns etc. from the demolished Custom House on the southwest corner of Front and Yonge. The original facade of the theatre was already impressive, but the addition of another floor created a building that appeared top-heavy. The windows on the top floor were massive, containing overly ornate surrounds. Unless there were offices behind these windows, they were faux windows to enhance the ornamentation of the facade.
In the photo above, from the City of Toronto Archives (Fonds 1231, Item 85), the remnants from the old Custom House are evident on the upper portion of the facade. When this photo was taken, the melodrama “Tess of the Storm Country,” released in 1922, was showing. The film was an enormous hit for Mary Pickford, the popular Canadian star, who had starred in a silent version of this film eight years earlier. On the ground floor of the theatre, on the west side (right-hand side of photo) was an antique shop, operated by the Franklin brothers, two bachelors, who also owned the theatre.
The Colonial closed in 1933, when the “talkies” (sound films) began to dominate the movie scene. However, the Franklin brothers refused to sell the property. I was unable to discover how the property was employed in the years ahead, but the theatre’s auditorium must have basically remained intact, as in 1950, after extensive renovations, the theatre was reopened, its name changed to the Bay Theatre. It survived in the years ahead by showing B-films, usually offering three films for a single admission price. However, it permanently closed in 1965, because Simpson’s Department Store needed space to expand. The retailer purchased the property and the theatre was demolished. The Simpson Tower today occupies the site.
This photo from the City of Toronto Archives (Series 1244, It. 515 (1)) shows the Bay Theatre when it was the Colonial Theatre, before the 1919 addition was added, employing architectural pieces from the old Custom House at Front and Yonge Streets. The tall building in the background is the Temple Building, Toronto’s first real skyscraper. There is no war monument in front of the Old City Hall.
This photo was taken in the 1940s. The building that had been the site of the Colonial Theatre is on the right, with the large arch over its entrance. This is the same arch that was in the sketch of the Colonial Theatre in the Toronto Reference Library. To the east of it is the ACE Theatre, at 39 Queen West. In the photo is a PCC streetcar, westbound on Queen Street. These streetcars first arrived in Toronto in 1938 and were the original “red-rockets.” The view is looking east along Queen Street, toward Yonge Street. The Simpson’s Store (now The Bay) is in the upper left-hand corner of the photo.
The Bay Theatre in 1959. The marquee advertises the film “Seven Thunders,” released in 1957. It was a World War Two film about two escaped British prisoners of War. The building on the southwest corner of Bay and Queen Streets is a branch of the Bank of Toronto, before it amalgamated with the Dominion Bank to create the TD Bank.
This photo was taken in the early-1960s, as the film on the marquee is “Man on a String.” It was a spy and espionage movie that was released in 1960. In this photo, the shop to the right of the entrance to the theatre, where the two Franklin brothers had sold antiques in earlier decades, was occupied by “Century—Handbag and Luggage Repairs.”
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Recent publication entitled “Toronto’s Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” by the author of this blog. The publication explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It also relates anecdotes and stories from those who experienced these grand old movie houses.
To place an order for this book:
Theatres Included in the Book
Chapter One – The Early Years—Nickelodeons and the First Theatres in Toronto
Theatorium (Red Mill) Theatre—Toronto’s First Movie Experience and First Permanent Movie Theatre, Auditorium (Avenue, PIckford), Colonial Theatre (the Bay), thePhotodome, Revue Theatre, Picture Palace (Royal George), Big Nickel (National, Rio), Madison Theatre (Midtown, Capri, Eden, Bloor Cinema, Bloor Street Hot Docs), Theatre Without a Name (Pastime, Prince Edward, Fox)
Chapter Two – The Great Movie Palaces – The End of the Nickelodeons
Loew’s Yonge Street (Elgin/Winter Garden), Shea’s Hippodrome, The Allen (Tivoli), Pantages (Imperial, Imperial Six, Ed Mirvish), Loew’s Uptown
Chapter Three – Smaller Theatres in the pre-1920s and 1920s
Oakwood, Broadway, Carlton on Parliament Street, Victory on Yonge Street (Embassy, Astor, Showcase, Federal, New Yorker, Panasonic), Allan’s Danforth (Century, Titania, Music Hall), Parkdale, Alhambra (Baronet, Eve), St. Clair, Standard (Strand, Victory, Golden Harvest), Palace, Bedford (Park), Hudson (Mount Pleasant), Belsize (Crest, Regent), Runnymede
Chapter Four – Theatres During the 1930s, the Great Depression
Grant ,Hollywood, Oriole (Cinema, International Cinema), Eglinton, Casino, Radio City, Paramount, Scarboro, Paradise (Eve’s Paradise), State (Bloordale), Colony, Bellevue (Lux, Elektra, Lido), Kingsway, Pylon (Royal, Golden Princess), Metro
Chapter Five – Theatres in the 1940s – The Second World War and the Post-War Years
University, Odeon Fairlawn, Vaughan, Odeon Danforth, Glendale, Odeon Hyland, Nortown, Willow, Downtown, Odeon Carlton, Donlands, Biltmore, Odeon Humber, Town Cinema
Chapter Six – The 1950s Theatres
Savoy (Coronet), Westwood
Chapter Seven – Cineplex and Multi-screen Complexes
Cineplex Eaton Centre, Cineplex Odeon Varsity, Scotiabank Cineplex, Dundas Square Cineplex, The Bell Lightbox (TIFF)