The Imperial Theatre, which later became the Empire, in January 1919. Photo from Salmon Collection in the Toronto Archives, Series 1278, File 88.
The Theatre that many people remember as the Empire, was originally named the Imperial. It opened in 1915 in a newly completed building named the Shepherd Refuge Building. When it opened it featured vaudeville and silent “moving pictures.” Located at 408 Queen Street East, it was on the north side of the street, between Parliament and Sackville. It contained 762 wooden seats and no balcony or air conditioning.
In 1922 its name was changed from the Imperial to the Palton, and in 1925, was renamed the Rialto. In February 1936, a report stated that there was no urinal in the men’s washroom, but only a toilet. The washroom was located at the bottom of the stairs, with only a flimsy wooden frame partition around it. The floor in it was wet and there was a bad smell. To make matters worse, the basement was often dark as teenage boys were constantly turning off the light switch as a prank. This made descending the wooden old stairs difficult. The inspector insisted that the light switch be protected so it would be accessible only to employees.
In 1942, the theatre was renovated and in that year its name remained the Rialto. A report in the Toronto Archives states that someone remembered that during the war years, “God Save the King” was played on a scratchy recording. In 1953, a candy bar was added to the theatre by removing seven seats in the back row of the auditorium, and in that year, the theatre’s name was the Empire. I was unable to discover the exact year that it became the Empire.
I discovered a reference to the Empire Theatre on the web site “Long Gone Movie Theatres from Toronto’s East End,” www.oocities.org/hollywood/club/7/400/2003theatres.htm/ The writer stated that the Empire Theatre was “ . . . the worst dump I had ever seen . . . it was easy to sneak in but it was rumoured to be infected with rats and I had a morbid fear of rats, though I had never seen one.” These remarks likely applied to the theatre in the 1950s, towards the end of the theatre’s life.
The theatre closed in the early 1960s.
The Empire Theatre on October 11, 1956, Photo from the Toronto Telegram, City of Toronto Archives, Series 1278 File 10
Plans for the renovations to the theatre in 1942. City of Toronto Archives.
The building containing the Empire Theatre in January 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1278, File 10
The site of the Empire Theatre. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1278, File 88
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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.
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