Farina in Toronto

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on September 4th, 2010 by Eric Veillette

Jamie Bradburn, that bon vivant over at Torontoist, uncovers a swell gem in today’s Historicist column. In 1932, four years after a gaggle of Toronto kids got to dress up like their favourite Our Gang characters on the stage of the Loew’s Yonge St. theatre,  the real Farina (and his sister Mango, says the ad) paid a visit to our fair city. Also, be sure to check out Jamie’s great blog, the Silent Toronto-approved  JB’s Warehouse and Curio Emporium.

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The Rio in 1985

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on May 31st, 2010 by Eric Veillette

The above image is the cover for a 12″ record I dug out of the archives to share with you all. A benefit recording for the Evergreen Mission, behind these tough-looking chaps is the former Rio Cinema on Yonge St., which in 1985, when this photo was taken, was showing Chuck Norris in Missing In Action II, Cat People, and a selection of other films which ran continuously until 5am.

The Rio was a 500-seat cinema located at 375 Yonge St. which now houses an adult video and toy store. One of the oldest flicker-houses in the city, it first opened as The Big Nickel in 1913, was known as The National for some time and by 1938, had settled permanently as The Rio. In its twilight years, the building was in a permanently shoddy state: one could easily miss some of the kung-fu action because of an 18-inch gash ripped into the screen; and a section of the ceiling dripping god-only-knows down onto the seats seemed about ready to cave in. The latter was brought to the attention of the Director of the Theatres Branch, which by then must have been frustrating job due to the decline of many former palaces and neighbourhood theatres. When the area was sectioned off with velvet rope (fancy!), it did little to detract patrons from crossing over and sitting below a potential avalanche of water and asbestos. It eventually closed in 1991.

Up the street is The Big Slice, which is still there today, and a typical late-night haunt of mine after Midnight Madness screenings during TIFF. The lights for the old Coronet, another grind-house theatre, can be seen at the intersection, but by then it had been converted into the jewelry store which is still there today.

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The Great Candy Bar Uprising of 1947

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on May 7th, 2010 by Eric Veillette

The thought of modern-day kids protesting the price of candy bars — let alone anything — seems inconceivable.

No matter how pricey multiplex food courts get, people just keep gobbling and sipping away.

But years before concessions became common-place, independently owned cigar stores and candy stores such as Laura Secord or Jenny Lind often flanked downtown or neighbourhood theatres and they continued to do so long after snack bars came to vogue in Toronto in the mid-1940s.

The Tivoli Cigar store was located on the left-hand side of the grand Tivoli, at Victoria and Richmond Sts.  The Tivoli was the first Toronto theatre built for the mighty Allen chain before Famous Players took over in the early 20s. The cigar store’s proprietor, Max Blackstein, posed in the photo above for the Globe & Mail on May 6, 1947, when the price of candy bars had recently risen from 5 cents to 8 cents, a big increase in those post-war years.

The enterprising Blackstein refused the increase, hence the happy-looking kids in the photo above. He told the Globe & Mail his bars are “for kids only” and reported a ten-fold increase in business.

G.S. Moffatt of Moyers Ltd., speaking to CBC Radio (available at the CBC Archives), said the increase was a result of poor cocoa crops and the increase of other commodities used in their products.

The previous week, over 500 students marched along Bloor St., from Harbord Collegiate to Christie Pits, protesting the increase and leaving rallying cards on parked automobiles lining the street.

“The price of chocolate bars is too high,” said Norman Penner, the executive secretary of the National Federation of Labor Youth, the organization who sponsored the protest. He claimed youngsters simply couldn’t afford the bars at that price.

Penner said that the excuses from manufacturers weren’t helping, either.

The students took it a step further by boycotting the offending vendors. The Star reported that students in Halifax were “flaunting their disapproval in the face of retailers. Groups of youngsters, both boys and girls, toured retailers stores yesterday. In each case they asked the price of bars and when told, registered pained expressions and marched on to the next store.”

Similar protests occurred in Winnipeg regarding the increasing price of soft drinks. Indeed, the teen-agers were coming of age.

But according to the Toronto Telegram, the protest was seen as nothing more than the exploitation of children to further a communist agenda. The Telegram further accused the NFLY of being a front to a Marxist organization.

What kind of a world was post-War North America coming to when an old fashioned nickel couldn’t buy you a nickel candy bar anymore?

Sources: Globe & Mail, May 6, 1947 (photo); Toronto Telegram, May 1, 1947; Toronto Star, May 1, 1947; CBC Radio, May 6, 1947

More: a great writeup on the history of the concession stand by Jill Hunter Pellettierri over at Slate.

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Letters to the Manager

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on May 1st, 2010 by Eric Veillette

A great little ditty uncovered by Colin Geddes while leafing through my copy of Famous Players Canada’s What’s New? employee newsletter from July, 1973. Sure, you can still expect to be treated this way by your fellow movie-goer, but gosh, those ushers knew a thing or two about customer service! And as evidenced by the photo to the right, they either used a really tough starch, or those jackets were full on bulletproof:

Dear Sir,

My boyfriend and I visited your theatre at the Skyline Hotel on Tuesday July 3rd. We were sitting in Cinema 2 watching Class of ’44, when two very rude people behind us started throwing popcorn, swearing and in general causing a disturbance. It was a young couple and finally the female members dumped a large 7-Up over my head and clothing.

Naturally this was too much to tolerate so I went out to get the usher. He asked the couple to step outside, which they refused to do. The usher then asked my boyfriend and I to wait there and he went to get the manager.

Finally, the couple agreed to step into the lobby. The gentleman (and I use the term loosely) wanted to fight my boyfriend, but the usher stepped between.

The manager then listened to both sides of the story and was about to make some kind of decision when the ‘gentleman’ started calling me names. The manager then said that did it and they were to go upstairs for a refund.

The usher was most kind and escorted us to the washroom to wash the stickiness off. He apologized for what happened, then returned to work. The manager spoke to my boyfriend and apologized and offered to pay my cleaning bill. As my clothes were wash’n’wear he (my boyfriend) refused the generous offer.

Then on our way out after the show – which I must say I enjoyed, the manager caught up with us and asked us to please come again and handed us a “Manager’s Courtesy Pass.”

I just wish to let you know that I am now a fan of 20th Century theatres. I also wish to congratulate you on your excellent staff. Your usher not only knew what to do, but he knew how to do it in a very mannerly fashion. I must say, so did your manager. He made us feel at home and very much welcomed.

My thanks and appreciation to you,

Name Withheld, Mississauga

Top image: Ushers standing guard outside the Casino Theatre, 87 Queen St. W. Note the “scientifically air-conditioned” sign on the sandwich board. The Casino, neighbouring the Roxy/Broadway, Arcadian, Ace/Photodrome and Colonial/Bay, closed its doors in 1965. Source: Queen’s University Archives.

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The Evolution of Cool

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on April 27th, 2010 by Eric Veillette

Early cinemas were used to convince the populace that air conditioning was cool.

by Alfred Holden

I watched poetic justice unfold in a cool way last month, when the brief May heat wave hit. The clamour for air conditioning erupted that very day in my own home, and spread like a storm through the St. George Street building where I live. But by the time the engineers turned on the central air, the weather, too, had turned. We froze. The system leaked.

“A wonderful thing,” the U.S. watchdog magazine Consumer Reports found fit to say about air conditioning in 1957, when the now-familiar, then-innovative “room” air conditioner, which you hang on a window sill, was coming of age.

Wonderful then and now, maybe, but a mixed blessing too. “They make buildings look like they have a bad case of warts,” Arthur Nichol of Montreal architectural firm Affleck, Desbarats and Dimakopoulos said about window coolers in Canadian Builder in 1961.

Not to mention other unattractive ends of air conditioning’s temperature, financial and environmental equations.

Just look at all the heat vented outside as conditioners cool the indoors, which has, ironically, helped air conditioned cities like Atlanta become sweltering “heat islands” outdoors. The same effect heats Toronto’s subway tunnels way above comfort levels.

There’s also the corrosive cost — the more than $400, for instance, that I paid my mechanic Angelo on Davenport Rt. last year for a needed rebuild of the air-conditioning on my aging General Motors sedan.

And then there’s the guilt factor.

That’s the niggling feeling deep within some of us that the price of air conditioning is not pay-as-you-go, but make-your-descendants-pay, in ways yet to reveal themselves.

Charles Kettering, a General Motors researcher, was a hero much of the 20th century for instigating the development of Freon 12, a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant.

Freon was a great thing, in its day. Earlier refrigerants, such as ammonia and sulphur dioxide, were toxic; indeed, leaks had killed people.

Frigidaire was a division of GM that built refrigerators. “Our biggest research problem in Frigidaire, and the corporation’s great ultimate contribution, concerned the refrigerant itself,” the GM chief executive, Alfred Sloan, wrote in the 1960s.

He asked a chemist named Thomas Midgely –the man who put lead in gasoline to give it more oomph — to develop a new “safe” refrigerant. Midgely succeeded in 1928, and “proved it was non-toxic by inhaling some of it himself,” Sloan recalled in My Years with General Motors.

Perhaps Freon was safe in the atmosphere of Midgely’s lungs, but “the great ultimate contribution,” unfortunately, was erosion of the earth’s life-giving ozone layer by escaped Freon gases. Freon is now being withdrawn form use.

Kettering, interviewed from his Detroit laboratory by the Toronto Star in 1937, predicted other things more accurately, including that air conditioning would “completely revolutionize” industry and living.

The Star reported him saying, “No one ever ballyhooed the great bathtub industry. Yet a bathtub found its way into every home.”

In 1911, the Scientific American published an engraving of Alexander Graham Bell’s “ice room” — an office with ducts bringing in air chilled by a chunk of ice.

Sometime in the 1980s, Canadians’ demand for cooling helped push summertime energy consumption above winter’s peaks. Close to our homes, a red-letter date for air conditioning was the opening of the Midtown (now the Bloor Cinema) on Thursday, May 8, 1941. “The house is air conditioned,” reported the Toronto Telegram the night before.

In being so cool, the Midtown, which had existed as the Madison since 1913, was, by 1941, more typical than exceptional (even Packard cars had it by then), but that too was significant. “Completely air conditioned” was one of the attractions offered by the Eglinton Theatre when it opened five years earlier. Some flirted with hyperbole, like the top photo of the Tivoli, which was “scientifically air conditioned.”

Air conditioned theatres — in Toronto often decorated with paper icicles — were where most citizens first experienced air conditioning.

Its had its faults, they knew. One Toronto reporter mentioned the “competitive freezing of the customers,” but to neighbourhoods cool was hipper than hot.

Herbert L. Laube, an executive with the Carrier Corporation, called movie theatres air conditioning’s “midwife,” for not until the public began experiencing it in large numbers at the movies was the general demand for air conditioning born.

Laube’s memoir, How to Have Air Conditioning and Still Be Comfortable, is a rare example of a candid, public corporate self-critique.

Laube describes — in a great bit of prose — heat-soaked, suffering railway passengers stepping from the Santa Fe Navajo train at Needles, California, in the Mojave desert. It was “the hottest point on the hot desert portion of the Santa Fe.”

The year was 1925, and those passengers stepped from the hellish train into heaven — a Fred Harvey restaurant. “They were amazed, astonished, flabbergasted” at the coolness. Later, “as the Navajo disappeared into the darkness, its passengers realized they had all witnessed a miracle.”

Yet most of Laube’s book is about disappointment: “The great but inadequate accomplishments of the comfort industry.”

A colleague of Willis Carrier, who perfected air conditioning in the early 1900s, Laube felt a/c was often poorly designed, installed, and maintained, and frequently a cause of discomfort and waste. “Laube’s lament,” he called his own angst.

Seventy years after the re-christened Midtown cinema opened, you can still take in a movie and cool off there on a summer night, experiencing, as Laube wrote, “air conditioning’s fore-ordained career to fill movie houses during hot weather.”

We no longer feel amazement, as those passengers on the Navajo in 1925 did, but it’s a soothing atmosphere.

The moment is marred among some of us by the knowledge that our comfort may be at great, unknown future cost.

-Alfred Holden is the Sunday Insight editor at the Toronto Star, a contributing editor for Taddle Creek, and a former columnist for the Annex Gleaner, where this article originally appeared in June, 2000.

First image (from top): Tivoli Theatre, Toronto, August 1947. Archives of Ontario.
Second image: General Electric thin-line air-conditioning unit, New Liberty Magazine, 1956.
Third image: Rialto Theatre, Toronto. Corner of Yonge & Shuter, 1916. Shows early adopter of commercial air conditioning. 32elvismovies archives.
Fourth image: Midtown Theatre, Bloor St., Toronto, 1940. Note entrances on either side of box office; only one remains. 32elvismovies archives.

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