The Willow Theatre, c. 1948. City of Toronto Archives (Series 1278, File 8).
The Willow was located at 5269 Yonge Street, in Willowdale. It was on the east side of Yonge Street, at the corner of Norton Avenue, between Shepherd and Finch Avenues. Built in the late-1940s, it was constructed to serve the needs of the new suburban residential area that was developing after the Second World War, on the north part of Yonge Street. The proposal for the theatre was submitted to the city in the autumn of 1945, by the architect, Herbert George Duerr, but the theatre did not open until June 18, 1948. Duerr designed many theatres throughout Ontario, including the Hollywood and the Scarboro Theatres in Toronto. He was also well known for designing the Village Apartments at 404 Spadina Avenue, in the Forest Hill Village.
The Willow Theatre’s post-war architecture was modern, similar to other theatres constructed in this decade in the suburbs and downtown Toronto. The architectural lines were plain, with an unadorned cornice, its facade mostly cement. However, it possessed an enormous glass-brick window on the ground floor, to the left of the row of glass doors. The decorative art on the facade, to the right of the marquee, was similar to the art on the walls of the auditorium. The theatre contained almost a thousand seats, but there were only two aisles, situated against the side walls, the rows containing 34-35 seats across. If someone were sitting in the middle of the theatre, it would have been difficult to enter or depart the theatre when it was crowded. However, as if to compensate, there were 40 inches between the rows, which allowed extra leg room. The theatre boasted that is possessed “continental seating.” It was a landmark in the community because of its yellow marquee and the prominent yellow signage above it, which created an island of colour on north Yonge Street.
I was never in the Willow theatre, but as a young boy, the father of a friend of mine was constructing a house in the area where it was located. On long summer evenings, I accompanied the friend when his father drove in his truck to Willowdale to work at the home. The friend and I played in the fields near the theatre. In the 1940s, empty building lots were common in the area. It was during these visits that I caught a glimpse of the Willow Theatre. I can still picture it and remember thinking that wished I could have attended a matinee there.
As a boy, I was enthralled by Saturday afternoon matinees. At that age, I thought that stink-bombs in theatres were hilarious. However, I knew that adults took quite a different view. In March 1957, a “stink-bomb” problem developed during the Friday evening shows at the Willow. It continued for three weeks, until the police arrested a 17-year-old boy. Such problems were common in theatres in this era.
In December 1958, the film “Peyton Place” was screened at the Willow. In the 1950s, it was considered a shocking film. There was considerable outcry from the citizens of “Toronto the Good” against the movie when it played at theatres across the city. When it was screened at the Willow, the situation was viewed as even more outrageous as the second feature was, “And God Created Woman.” However, the manager said that there were no problems during the screenings, although he did receive a card written by the “Legion of Decency.” On the card was scribbled, “This is not family entertainment.” In fairness, I doubt that many families attended the screenings, as after all, the films were not exactly of the Walt Disney variety. I remember seeing the film Peyton Place when I was a teenager. I thought it was pretty tame, although some of the scenes with Lana Turner were really “hot.”
The Willow continued screening films longer than most neighbourhood theatres of the city, but with diminished attendance and the increase in land prices, the property was sold in 1987. The theatre was demolished, a condo and offices now located on the site.
Photo, Ontario Archives AO 2316. The auditorium of the Willow with its wide rows of seats, 34 or 35 seats across. The only aisles were located against the side walls. The walls were decorated with modern art, similar to the art on the facade.
The lobby of the Willow, the candy bar with a popcorn machine on the left-hand side. Photo from Ontario Archives AO 2313.
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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)