Allen’s Danforth Theatre

Nearly a year after celebrating its 90th anniversary, the Danforth Music Hall closed its doors last week. When the Festival chain of rep cinemas let it go in 2004, the venue re-opened as a live entertainment space, hosting memorable concerts like the Arcade Fire in 2005.

Last year, with the intention of creating a new theatre district on the Danforth, its owners entered into an agreement with DanCap Productions. I’m not sure of the specifics, but its first big production, The Toxic Avenger, closed within a few months.

At the anniversary, over 800 people gathered to see a silent film — a rare occurence ’round these parts — and although the venue was to be used for live productions, I thought it was a real shame the Danforth no longer has a rep house.

Below is a history of the building which I wrote for the Toronto Star in August, 2009:

A night at the ‘theatorium’

Danforth’s Music Hall marks nine decades by recreating its 1919 opening night

A crowd of onlookers lined up on Danforth Ave., waiting to enter a grand new movie theatre, the likes of which had never been seen in Toronto’s east end.

The feature film, Through the Wrong Door, starred the beautiful Madge Kennedy, but make no mistake: people were there to marvel at what the Allen chain of theatres was calling “Canada’s First Super-Suburban Photo-Play Palace.”

This scene took place 90 years ago this Tuesday at the Music Hall, originally called the Allen Danforth. Heritage Toronto, along with the Riverdale Historical Society, will be on hand to unveil a plaque commemorating the milestone. Helping to recreate the evening’s experience will be a silent film screening featuring live musical accompaniment.

Silent-era films are fragile, and Through the Wrong Door exists today only in fragments. But anniversary organizers were able to track down another Madge Kennedy feature, 1920’s Dollars and Sense.

“People have forgotten what a big star she was,” says historical society president Gerald Whyte, who’s been planning this event for nearly a year.

Tuesday is a rare opportunity to see a silent film in a genuine silent cinema. Noted movie pianist John Kruspe will accompany the film with the help of a string section that will also perform before the film, echoing the days when full orchestras played contemporary hits before taking on the big feature.

And admission is just $1 – surely the cheapest movie ticket in town.

In 1919, as the Allen’s projector ran melodramas and slapstick for as many as 1,600 patrons at a time, Danforth Ave. was still decades away from being the hot spot it is today. But the Prince Edward Viaduct, completed the previous October, prompted an influx of development. Now connected to Bloor St. and the rest of the city, it was no longer the country-road of the 1880s – lined with market gardens and a horse and buggy shop – but was becoming a vibrant, accessible part of a burgeoning metropolis.

A true Canadian success story, Jule and Jay Allen established their first “theatorium” in Brantford in 1907. By the opening of the Danforth theatre, the Allen empire stretched from coast to coast, counting nearly 100 cinemas.

Their early success was partly due to holding exclusive screening rights to Paramount’s films.

But this would also be their undoing. Paul S. Moore, Ryerson professor and author of Now Playing: Early Moviegoing and the Regulation of Fun, says that by 1921, Paramount sought to buy them out.

“They said `no’ to the offer, and were quickly flattened by the competition,” he says. “By 1923, they were gone, leaving a near monopoly in Canada in the hands of Paramount and Famous Players Canada Corporation.”

The Allen Danforth held on as an independent and was eventually bought by B&F Theatres, becoming the Century in 1934.

In the 1970s, it was renamed the Titania, and its programming catered to the Greek community that now populated the neighbourhood. After taking on its current moniker, it languished as a cinema and live music venue for some time. The large building fell into a dangerous state of disrepair: like the grindhouses that once littered Yonge St., you chose your seating carefully, as the Music Hall’s ceiling dripped water from various spots.

Restored by its current owners, including new carpeting in the auditorium laid down especially for Tuesday’s event, the Music Hall’s latest incarnation presents live acts and musicals. It remains one of the best surviving examples of this former theatre empire.

Top image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 0712

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