In 2007, I moved into an apartment in the Forest Hill area, kitty-corner to what was once the flagship cinema of the Famous Players theatre chain: The Eglinton. It closed down in early 2002, when Famous Players refused to comply with an Ontario Human Rights Commision directive to make the theatre wheelchair accessible. Although dedicated as a Heritage Site by the city, preserving the original facade, it has since become an upscale event hall. Coming home at night is always a joy, as the original, brilliant marquee, still in place, shines brightly to onlookers heading east and west. It is among my favorites, second only to Montreal’s Snowdon Theatre. Unfortunately, the marquee no longer greets you with the possibility of seeing “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 7:30″ or “Myrna Loy & William Powell in The Thin Man Goes Home 2:00″ – you’re stuck with “David’s Bar Mitzvah!” or “When Larry met Rebecca!”
The Eglinton Theatre was designed by architects Kaplan & Sprachman. Located on the north side of the first block west of Avenue Rd. on Eglinton Ave., it is one of the city’s greatest examples of 1930’s Art-Deco style. Prior to designing the Eglinton, Kaplan & Sprachman had designed other neighborhood theatres such as The Circle (1932) at Yonge & Sherwood, and The Cameo (1934) at Pape and Cosburn. At a cost of $200 000, you never would have thought the country was in the grip of the Great Depression when this majestic theatre was built. At the time, Forest Hill was a young suburban neighborhood whose residents were mainly Anglo-Protestants, and this new building provided a new attraction for the growing area. There was no need to start up the Packard and head to the Uptown Theatre when you lived around the corner from such a great theatre!
The 800-seat theatre, owned by Famous Players, which also operated The Parkdale, The St-Clair, The Runnymede, and The Bloor — which is now Lee’s Palace — among many others. Of those operating at the time of the Eglinton’s premiere, The Belsize is the only building still operating as a cinema. It is now The Regent, on Mount Pleasant Ave, and has retained much of its old charm.
On April 2, 1936, (The Eglinton Grand’s official site erroneously reports the opening night as April 15), patrons lined the block westward on Eglinton Ave. to be among the first to step foot in the new theatre. The prices back then varied a little from today’s: 35 cents got you into the orchestra seating, and 45 cents got you into the loge circle, where you could also smoke. In Toronto Sketches 8, Mike Filey describes how every seat in the loge was equipped with its own ashtray. The opening night’s prices were slightly inflated due to the occasion, as two weeks later, when you could see James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, orchestra seating would cost you 25 cents. That’s what people were paying over at The Imperial, one of Toronto’s grandest movie palace of the day.
Lining up the street that night, I wonder what was on people’s minds? Perhaps some patrons discussed that one of the biggest media sensations of the 1930s was about to come to an end the next day, as Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted kidnapper and murderer of the Lindbergh Baby, was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Maybe someone was telling an acquaintance of his about the new Northern Electric radio he just bought at Eddie Black’s store over on Yonge St. The kids must’ve loved it, since The Green Hornet had premiered on various radio networks in the United States in January of 1936. Maybe people discussed the threat of war, as the Nazis had just violated the Treaty of Versailles, or maybe they didn’t discuss these things at all – they were stepping into this place in order to escape all of this and forget about what was going on in the outside world.
The King of Burlesque seemed like an odd choice for a “Gala Premiere” of this kind, as the film had been out for a few months, and was already playing at The Palace and The Beach that week. The reason for this was that even though it was a movie-house of pure elegance, The Eglinton was a second-run theatre, which would play films after some of the larger movie houses like the Loews would run them. That didn’t really matter, because on an occasion like this, the movie was practically secondary. People were lined up to see this new theatre, with state of the art sound while sound films were still in its infancy, a much larger screen than those found in other neighborhood cinemas, and the plush comfort of the seats as you sink in and enjoy the show.
So what was The King of Burlesque all about? Warner Baxter plays Kerry Bolton, a burlesque producer who moves into legitimate theatre, scoring hit after hit and is dubbed the “Czar of Broadway”. After meeting the girl of his dreams, he casts her in the lead of a new show, which turns out to be a flop, and after a series of money-losers, Bolton is penniless and down and out, no thanks to his arrogance and lack of respect for others. Jack Oakie, who later lampooned Mussolini in The Great Dictator, plays Bolton’s General Manager, and Alice Faye is the leading lady. Like many films of the era, the film showcased a character’s rise through greed, and although this particular film ends on a happier note, unlike The Roaring Twenties a few years later, it serves as a moral lesson. The Depression-era audience needed a little bit of that. It was still a perfect spectacle film for the audience that night, as it featured some great musical numbers, and even had Fats Waller in the cast! The audience that night was treated to much more than a movie, as the ad suggested ‘Other Eglinton Features’. There was probably some live entertainment, perhaps a line of chorus girls and someone singing a Maurice Chevalier tune. Once the programme was under way, the audience probably got a sneak peak at some coming attractions to play at The Eglinton in the coming weeks, as well as a cartoon, a musical short, and perhaps a Robert Benchley film. The talkies may have been responsible for the downfall of Vaudeville, but they took from it and kept alive the spirit of an entire evening’s worth of entertainment. How times have changed!
As the years go by
Within a year, plenty of new shops had opened up along Eglinton Ave. A couple out on a date might have popped by the Esquire Shop at 402 Eglinton for a quick bite to eat before seeing the latest James Cagney film, and I’m sure the kids dropped by the Jenny Lind Candy Shop next door to the Esquire for some gum drops to eat during the Saturday matinee. Some shops in the area are still there today: Sid’s Cleaners at 526 Eglinton, and Young’s Market Fruits, although the latter has moved a few doors down.
With one cinema not sufficing for such a prosperous area, The Eglinton encountered some competition in the late 1930s when Waterloo Theatres opened up the 680 seat Avenue, at the corner of Eglinton and Braemar. According to John Sebert in his book The Nabes: Toronto’s Wonderful Neighborhood Movie Houses, The Avenue never reached its full potential in the area, and during the war years, it was purchased by Famous Players, eliminating the competition.
In the early 1960s, The Eglinton moved to a reserved-seating format which had proven quite popular at other theatres like the Imperial. In 1960, Famous Players introduced three-strip Cinerama at the Eglinton, with Windjammer, followed by the world premiere of Holiday in Spain in 1961. It has been said that the Cinerama at the Eglinton was in name only, as while the screen was quite large, it curved only slightly, negating many of the effects of the technology. By December of 1961, a new flat screen was installed. The reserved-seating format stuck around for a few more years, with films such as Doctor Dolittle, Hello Dolly, and The Sound of Music. The latter ran in this format for an astounding 146 weeks!
By the 1980s, The Eglinton had gone the way of many of the older neighborhood theatres and had definitely seen better days. “The Eglinton, particularly in her latter days, attracted a tawdry crew,” said former candy-girl Elizabeth Renzetti. In a April 2002 issue of Toronto Life, she recounts the time a metal-head threw a shoe through the screen during a screening of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock. Despite the grime from years of fingers and hands touching along the walls and the wear on the art deco pylon, the lights still shined brightly every night as the marquee announced the evening’s programme.
Its opulence did return for a brief moment, when in April of 1996, Famous Players celebrated the Eglinton’s 60th anniversary. On the bill throughout the month were some of the greatest classics ever shown at the theatre: The Wizard of Oz, An American in Paris, Sunset Boulevard, Witness for the Prosecution, and countless others. Newer classics weren’t neglected, either: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins and Blade Runner were also featured. Making it an even sweeter deal, admission to each film was only $2.50 – still closer to its original $0.35 admission than we pay today, and if you happened to turn 60 in 1996, you got in for free!
The Avenue Theatre is now long gone, as is the building that once housed it. In its place is now a building of retail outlets, one of them, a typical Eglinton West boutique selling overpriced shoes; the other, a restaurant, currently vacant, with everlasting “Opening Soon” signage. Near Bathurst, at 875 Eglinton West, once stood The Nortown Cinema, but like the plight of many neighborhood cinemas during the rise of the multiplexes, it is gone as well. The Eglinton has outlived them all.
Sources: Toronto Star, March 30, April 2, 1936; Palaces of the Night: Canada’s Grand Theatres, John Lindsay; Toronto Life, April 2002. Box Office, April 1961.
Interested in a little more information about the Eglinton? Check out the Eglinton’s entry at Parks Canada’s National Historic Sites of Toronto Urban Walks page.