The Princess Theatre on November 18, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Salmon Collection, Series 1278 File 136.
In 1880, a grand theatre opened in Toronto at 167 King Street West. Its original name was the Academy of Music, but it was changed to the more regal title of Princess. Located on the south side of King Street West, it was between Simcoe and York Streets. The row of buildings that included the theatre no longer exists as it was demolished when University Avenue was extended south from Queen Street. Thus, the site today is buried beneath the multi-lane University Avenue.
The theatre’s opening was an historic event, as it was first theatre in Toronto of any size that offered live theatre. No one knew that the opening of the Princess was the beginning of Toronto’s rise to become the third most important English-speaking theatre centre in the world. The theatre was amazing for its day. It was the first public building in Toronto to be electrified, following the lead of the Savoy Theatre in London, England, the first building in that city to be electrified.
The Princess was an early-day version of an entertainment complex, as it contained a ballroom, banquet room, art gallery and drawing room, as well as a luxurious auditorium and stage. Along with comic and dramatic plays, it also featured major sporting events. On May 23, 1896, the title contest between fighters Tommy Dixon and Frank Zimpher, for the featherweight boxing division was held at the Princess,
Mary Pickford, whose real name was Gladys Smith, gave her first stage performance at the Princess in 1900, in the play “The Silver King.” Her mother needed money and allowed her daughter to audition for the part. Mary Pickford loved the experience and eventually became the greatest film star of her day, the first international star of the silver screen. In 1907, the city’s first performance of the opera “Madame Butterfly” was at the Princess, just three years after its Milan debut. The same year, another theatre opened on King Street, offering live theatre in competition with the Princess. This was the Royal Alexandra Theatre, which remains in existence today.
In 1915, fire destroyed much of the Princess Theatre. It required two years to repair the damage and reopened in 1917 as the New Princess Theatre.
In November 1924, the film “Thief of Bagdad” premiered at the Princess, starring Douglas Fairbanks, the husband of Mary Pickford. It was a silent film and for the occasion the theatre hired a 20-piece orchestra to provide the background music. It was a gala performance, since the theatre rarely showed films, as it specialized in live theatre. However, because this one of the most important movies of the decade, the theatre allowed an exception.
After almost four decades as one of Toronto’s most popular theatres, it finally shuttered its doors. The theatre was demolished in 1931.
Programs from the Princess Theatre, Ontario Archives.
I am indebted to www.world theatres.com, silenttoronto.com, and Man in the green goggles journals.hil.unb.ca for some of the information contained in this post.
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To view previous blogs about movie houses of Toronto—historic and modern
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 relates anecdotes and stories of the author and others who experienced these grand old movie houses.
To place an order for this book:
Book also available in Chapter/Indigo, the Bell Lightbox Book Store and by phoning University of Toronto Press, Distribution: 416-667-7791
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), the Photodrome, 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)