City of Toronto Archives, Series 881 Fl. 251
In the 1970s, the downtown section of Yonge Street had deteriorated, especially between College and Dundas Streets. When the Eaton Centre opened in 1979, the area south of Dundas was revived. The new mall was instantly popular with Torontonians and attracted thousands of tourists as well. On the northwest corner of the Eaton Centre was a ten-storey parking garage. In the basement of the garage was a 25,000 square-foot space that attracted the attention of Nathan A. Taylor (Nat) and Garth Drabinsky. They formed the Cineplex Odeon Corporation in 1979, as they realized the possibilities of the space in the Eaton Centre as a site for a movie-theatre complex. It was in the heart of the city at Yonge and Dundas and easily accessible by public transportation. As well, the area had much foot traffic.
To create the theatre complex, the huge space below the parking garage was converted into a series of small theatres, all under the same roof. They coined the word “Cineplex” for the theatre—a contraction of “cinema complex.” Mandel Sprachman was hired as the architect. He had designed theatres for several decades, having been the architect for many theatres across Canada and also had restored the Elgin/Winter Garden Theatres. He also had considerable experience in converting large theatre auditoriums into smaller venues, as he had redesigned the Hollywood, Imperial, and Loew’s Uptown Theatres into multi-screen complexes.
Multi-screen complexes allowed theatre owners to screen several movies in the same building, catering to the different tastes of viewers. Thus, increased revenues were generated without increasing costs for rent, taxes, and heating. Nathan Taylor also had experience with operating multi-screen complexes, as he had opened one in Ottawa and had previously divided the Uptown Theatres into the Uptown Five.
The Cineplex Odeon Eaton Centre was a natural extension of the multi-screen concept. When it opened on Tuesday, April 17, 1979, it contained 18 auditoriums, each containing 50 to 100 seats—about 1500 seats in total—the largest movie-theatre complex in the world at that time. The auditoriums were grouped into four sections, located on two different floors. A rear projection system was employed to screen the films, which caused the edges of the pictures to be slightly blurred. Few patrons seemed to notice, as the auditoriums were attractive and the seats comfortable. The aisles were on both sides of the auditoriums, which meant that no seats were jammed against the walls.
The main lobby was capable of holding 200 people. Designed to resemble a “Common Room,” Canadian art was displayed on the walls. Patrons were able to gather before attending a movie or linger after a film. A cafe and bistro were included, offering a wide variety of foods. Computerized ticket-vending machines were installed and it was possible to purchase tickets in advance, even a day or two ahead. By employing these machines, and by staggering the times the movies started, crowding was reduced. No tickets were sold after a film began, preventing interruptions during viewings. A year or two later, the tickets were colour-coded, with eye-catching directional signs on the theatre walls to guide people to the appropriate auditorium. In 1981, three more auditoriums were added to the complex, bringing the total to 21, and the total number of seats to over 2000.
In the early years, Cineplex Odeon Eaton Centre offered specialty films and foreign films, many of them with sub-titles. It was not profitable to screen these in larger theatres, as the appeal of a single movie might be quite small. However, in smaller auditoriums, even if only 30 to 35 patrons saw a film in an evening, it remained profitable. To further reduce costs, the theatre dealt directly with foreign producers or distributors to get Canadian rights. Films that were popular were shown in more than one auditorium.
Cineplex Odeon Eaton Centre opened at a time when movie theatres were struggling, since home video players were becoming popular. Another difficulty was that two major movie chains monopolized film distribution rights in Canada. Cineplex Odeon Corporation threatened to sue under the anti-combine laws, and succeeded is loosening their strangle hold. Thus, in the 1980s, Cineplex Odeon Corp. was able to offer major Hollywood releases, similar to the theatres in malls of today. Having gained success, Cineplex Odeon expanded its theatre chain across Canada and into the United States.
In its glory days, the complex in the Eaton Centre allowed patrons a wide range of movies, all in one building. Teenagers took great delight in trying to slip into another auditorium after they had seen the movie they had first paid to view. Movie buffs viewed films not available in larger theatres, as well as the current Hollywood hits. At the confection stand, popcorn and other treats were available. According to a documentary film about Drabinsky, which was screened several years ago at TIFF, this was the first time that buttered popcorn had been available in theatres—a “Toronto-first.”
During the 1990s, viewing films on small screens became less popular as television sets increased in size and the quality of home videos improved. With the decrease in revenues, Cineplex Odeon Eaton Centre slowly deteriorated. The seats and carpets became tattered and the auditoriums appeared shabby. To attract customers, films were offered at bargain prices and special deals were advertised. However, these attempts failed and the theatres began to attract the street crowd, such as those who attended the Rio Theatre on Yonge Street. They were seeking a warm place in winter, and in summer, a place that was air-conditioned. In their eyes, the multiplex theatre was a twenty-one room hotel, each room having many seats in which to sleep and a huge TV screen to watch movies. The price of entrance and the location made it ideal for their purposes.
Attendance continued to dwindle. Cineplex Odeon Eaton Centre closed on March 12, 2001 and was demolished shortly after.
Lobby of the Cineplex Eaton Centre, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881 fl.251
A ticket for the Cineplex Eaton Centre on opening day, Tuesday April 17, 1979. City of Toronto Archives.
The Cineplex at Yonge and Dundas in 2014 (originally the AMC), built on the same concept as the Cineplex Eaton Centre. Suburban movie complexes have followed the same concept of design for the past few decades.
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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)