The Downtown Theatre

 

by Hal Kelly

“Going to the movies is my hobby. I go to other theatres, but the Downtown is my favorite. I like westerns, especially ones with Audie Murphy, but ANY good action or adventure picture usually gives me my money’s worth.”

– Irvine Exley, 55, war pensioner

The Downtown Theatre was located one short block south of Dundas at the north east corner of the largely vacant Yonge and Dundas Square right across from the Hard Rock Café. The closest thing to movie theatre in those parts now is that craptacular celluloid-free, all digital AMC 24 mausoleum.

According to a 1968 article in the old Toronto Telegram, the Downtown Theatre was built in 1948 for a then astronomical price tag of $750,000 and featured a marquee that blazed 4,000 electric lights. In it’s heyday, The Downtown had one of the busiest theatrical concession stands in the country. On an average week, the Downtown moved 7500 soft drinks, 1000 hot dogs, 5000 chocolate bars, 600 cups of coffee and 2000 bags of popcorn with none of that flavor power bull@#$% to stain fingers. Incredibly, one Christmas week the total number of sugary soda sold amounted to a staggering 10,650 units. Of course all that was long before I started going to the Downtown ‘cause even though I have grey hair and I know who Mamie Van Doren is I’m NOT THAT OLD. I swear.

I went there as a young teenager in the early seventies when the Downtown was burning its waning projector bulbs on primo double bills comprised of one new feature and a vintage second run crowd pleaser. What made me a repeat customer at the Downtown was its direct pipeline to the latest, greatest entertainment from A.I.P. and New World studios. I saw The Losers ( a psychotic biker gang – was there any other kind? – are sent to Vietnam), The Born Losers (introducing Tom Laughlin and his violent peacenik character Billy Jack), The Incredible Two Headed Transplant (ultra bigot Ray Milland’s head is spliced on to Rosie Grier’s shoulder by a doctor with one hell of a wicked sense of humour), Count Yorga (Dracula tricked out as a Charlie Manson like cult leader), Blacula (proving there was no place blaxploitation wouldn’t go although it wasn’t quite the far out fun of the classic 1975 flick Black Gestapo), Death Race 2000 and others too depraved or too lame to recall but are buried deep in my subconscious and still direct my taste in culture today.

One vivid memory I have, and certainly an early indicator of preoccupations to come was going to the Downtown with my public school best friend Bobby Widder to see The Christine Jorgensen Story, a pretty tame “ripped from the headlines” film from 1970 about the first well known sex change operation directed by Irving Rapper, the once great man behind Now, Voyager and The Glass Menagerie. I’m pretty sure neither Bob nor I had any idea who Christine Jorgensen was before we saw it but my Mom sure did when I innocently told her what movie we had seen. She was not happy and gave me her best patented “if-I-knew-you-were-going-to-see-that-garbage…” speech and probably knew the days when I could be guaranteed to spend a harmless Saturday afternoon at The Humber watching Planet of the Apes or the latest James Bond installment over and over again were probably over period.

As puberty reared my ugly little head, my cinematic interests shifted uptown. No I don’t mean Goddard and Rommer although I did see some of their films too, by accident I think. What I mean by that is that my nether regions slowly began to point me ( in a nice way ) towards what was playing a block north at Cinema 2000. Cinema 2000 specialized in adults only fare. I hesitate to say pornographic because while the films may have been pretty raunchy at some previous point, by the time they made it through the scissor happy do-gooders at the seventies era Ontario Censor Board they featured very little skin and were about a half an hour long. Still, I was young and they were enough to serve as gentle introductions to the advanced work of sexy thespians Uschi Digard (A Touch Of Sweden indeed!), Sharon Kelly, Rene Bond, Sandy Dempsey and Candy Samples.

Soon after the Downtown and I parted company, it closed and become just another headstone in the graveyard of dead Yonge Street movie houses. Off the top of my head there was The Elgin, the Imperial Six, the Biltmore, the Rio, the Coronet, the New Yorker, the Uptown, the Hyland, the Fairlawn and at least a couple of more I can’t recall the names of right now but I can picture in my head.

P.S — The last time I saw Bobby was about 10 years ago in the alley behind my Mother-in-Laws house. The autumn sun was fading and my kids and I were getting one last game of twilight ball hockey in before it was time to go in for dinner. As we were picking things up Bobby appeared moving up the alley. He was behaving, let’s say “peculiar” and leave it at that. Back in the day we had parted ways near the end of grade 8 in a bitter dispute over either a girl or a comic book or quite possibly ownership of an issue of Creem magazine with Spider-Man on the cover. At the time they all still equaled approximately the same thing. I guess whenever you reconnect with someone who was your best friend in grade 6 in a down town alley it’s not a particularly good sign.

– Hal Kelly was the editor of the excellent ‘zine Trash Compactor.

COMMENTS

  • Bill

    As a 15 year old kid my first job at the Downtown was to paint the letters that went up on the sigh… black in the center and silver around the edge. I finially landed a job as an usher and had to stand on a little round mat at the top of the ramp. It was important that I be standing there when not escorting movie goers to their seats. Worked there the whole Summer of 1948.

  • Bill, thanks for sharing. Do you remember what was on the bill when you worked your first shift as an usher?

  • Bill

    Well, after sitting up on the canopy for a week painting the lettering for the sign, ( I did put my name up in lights for an hour or two). As an usher the only requirements was to wear dark trousers and shoes. We were issued witha stiffly starched wing collard shirt, black bow tie and a short dinner jacket, if I remember correct the colour was red. Being 15 years old and having to stand on that small white round mat (about 18″) it really bugged me. We were not to talk with the girl that ran the popcorn concession, being much older at about 17 or 18 she was never interested in us young kids. Today every time I see a Bissle type carpet cleaner ( hand powered with a couple of brushes in them that you have to roll back and forth) they always remind me that we were continuelly to inspect the carpet in the lobby and use the cleaner to pick up any stray lint or popcorn.
    What movies stick in my mind was a double bill “The Lost Patrol and Gunga Din” another movie was “The Lodger”, they ran about three days steady, so the fare changed about twice a week. I always remembered seeing the cans of film ready for pick up in the lobby at the end of the run.
    I hung around a bit with the other guys that were my age who ushered at Lowes and the Uptown, this enabled us to get into see a different movie free. There was always the ability to work at one of the other shows on your time off or to finish off a friends shift. The managers of the shows on Yonge street were in contact with each other all the time. I did find that so long as you did your job and not fooled around you were treated very well, it was a lot better than delivering for Tamblyn Drug Stores.

    Looking back to my youth and childhood I do think we lived it the best of times. As an early teen my theater was the “LaPlaza” on Queen Street east and as a very young kid the “Community” on Woodbine Avenue. At the Community the ticket booth was outside the lobby and the girl working there was a friend of my older sister. She waved to me and motioned me to come over and asked me where I had been, I replied in Taylor Bush at the top of Woodbine and would she like to see what I found? Now remember I was just a very young kid about 7 years old. I pulled my find out of my pocket and pushed it through the ticket opening. Well she jumped,screamed and tried to get out of the booth. I got scared and ran, to this day I don’t understand why girls don’t like garter snakes. I sure got hell when I got home and had to go and apologize to the girl and the manager or I would have been barred from the theater. At the time my Dad was really mad, but it was just a snake and not a very big one at that, why did they make such a fuss over it? I never did get my snake back.

    Looking back I do think that we had our youth at the best of times

  • Bobby Widder

    Dear Harold Kelly : I just read this blog and got a big kick out of it ! As for looking a bit “peculiar” ten plus years
    ago in the laneway off Queen st. I probably just finished smokin a joint with a Jamaican woman friend of mine who is
    still a loyal friend of mine and has been since 1993. I am glad you reminded me of this nostalgia about the movie
    we saw and your take on the movie theatre business.LONG LIVE PLANET OF THE APES ! More later…

  • Jerry Ross

    I think you guys (and gals) are all my Toronto contemporaries and share my fascination/obssessin with/love of Toronto movie houses of late 40’s and all of 50’s,
    I would love to chat with you, and share my memories and thoughts. I’ve been living in Los Angeles for may many yaes but the Imperial/Sheas’s/Loew’s/University et al are an indelibe part of who I am. Weird and nuts but nice to discover that I’m not alone in this.
    Jerry
    3877@earthlink.net

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by F.W. Houlihan, Silent Toronto. Silent Toronto said: From the archives, Yonge street's Downtown Theatre., by @trashcompactorx: http://wp.me/pYW3L-20 #toronto #tohistory […]

  • George Stein

    Thanks for the trip back to the good days of theaters. In the late 40’s and through half of the 50’s, I attended all the theaters on Yonge Street. The only one I could not think of was the Rio, and low and behold, thankfully as well, you mentioned it. I do know that the Victory did not get into burlesque until after 56 which was well after the war. The other theaters I attended and were not mentioned, were the Brunswick and the La Salle. Brunswick was on College at Brunswick Ave and the La Salle was on Dundas a half block west of Spadina. Another was the Center on Dundas just west of Bathurst where we kids would all line up for a matinee on Saturdays. I’m not sure how long these theaters existed prior to me attending, but thought they may ring a bell with some. I’m also not sure whether they were early enough for silent films.
    Good Grief, what a long time ago and yet it was like yesterday. It would be interesting if others remembered the few movie houses i mentioned.
    George

  • […] 1948 through 1972, one of the square’s major landmarks was the Downtown theatre. Located on the northeast side of the intersection of Yonge Street and the Dundas Square roadway, […]

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