The Island Theatre at Centre Island, Toronto Islands, Photo by John Milne, from the City of Toronto Archives
Even in the 1790s, the islands in Toronto Harbour, though close at hand, were viewed as a world away. Their idyllic mood and tranquil lagoons rarely failed to charm and enchant those who visited their sandy shores or strolled among the ancient willows. In the early 19th century, a time when travelling to the hinterland of Toronto was difficult due to a lack of roads, the Islands were a favourite place to hunt or picnic. This attitude remained true in the final decades 19th century, even after hunting on the Islands was no longer possible. From the 1890s until the late-1950s, they were popular for summer homes and day trips from the mainland. However, in the years following the Second World War, owning an automobile became more affordable for many families. As a result, those with cars usually preferred to drive to the lakes north of the city.
The Island Theatre was constructed on Centre Island at the beginning of the last decade before the automobile dominated the holiday plans of Torontonians. Because of the popularity of the movies, a theatre was built at 4 Iroquois Avenue, on Centre Island. It was on the southern part of the Island, west of Manitou Road, a short distance from the Lakeshore. Its concrete foundations were poured in March 1950, and the structure was completed by the end of the year. It opened its doors in 1951, under the management of Charles Murphy. It possessed 705 seats, which included the balcony, where there were only three rows of seats. Access to the balcony was from stairs on either side of the foyer. The interior of the theatre was devoid of any artwork or ornamental designs.
Today, it might seem strange to open a movie theatre on the Islands, considering that Toronto’s summers are short and the weather is notoriously unpredictable. However, in 1951, the Islands had a considerable number of permanent residents. Its school had 450 pupils and enrolment was rapidly expanding. As well, there was also the influx of summer tourists. The first year the theatre was in operation, it was successful. However, in 1952, Torontonians suffered through one of the wettest summers on record. Day after day, the rains continued, causing the lake levels to rise. The Island were badly flooded. Manitou Street, the main Street of the village on Centre Island, became a canal. Businesses suffered greatly. The Island Theatre was no exception. The theatre’s manager that year was “Hobby” Hobson. He hired Durnan’s water taxi service to ferry patrons to the theatre.
The following year, attendance at the Island school doubled and the outlook for the Island Theatre seemed brighter. However, attendance did not continue to grow, and its finances were soon in trouble. I sometimes wonder if many people that travelled to the Islands simply preferred the outdoor space, rather than sitting inside a movie house. I visited the Islands many times during the 1950s, and never once attended the theatre. As a matter of fact, I do not recall ever having seen it.
The final nail in the coffin was when Metro Toronto unveiled a new plan for Centre Island, which did not include maintaining a residential community. Although demolition of the homes did not commence until the 1960s, the writing was on the wall. In June 1956, a letter was sent from the theatre’s offices on the mainland at 72 Carlton Street. It was delivered to the Motion Picture Censorship and Inspectors Theatre Branch on Millwood Road, requesting cancellation of the theatre’s license. Although the letter stated that they might seek to renew the license at a later date, there were no further plans.
The Island Theatre disappeared into history.
The auditorium of the Island Theatre, from the rear, gazing toward the screen.
The auditorium, gazing from the front near the screen, to the rear, where the balcony was located.
The lobby, with the candy bar and the stairs that led to the balcony.
Note: all photos were taken by John Milne and were obtained from the City of Toronto Archives
A copy of the letter that was sent to terminate the licence of the Island Theatre. City of Toronto Archives.
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To view previous posts about other movie houses of Toronto—old and new
To view links to Toronto’s Heritage Buildings
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.
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