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.