The Standard: Yiddish theatre & dissenting voices

It’s no secret that Toronto houses many old theatres, from the majestically restored Elgin & Winter Garden, the iconic, soon-to-reopen Bloor Cinema to countless others still flickering away. But many of them, long since closed, are dilapidated shells of their former selves.

The former Standard Theatre, a three-storey structure housing a Royal Bank and a few Chinatown merchants on the north-east corner of Dundas and Spadina is one of the latter, but perhaps the most important surviving theatre in Toronto’s history. After opening in 1922 until the early 1990s, it catered to both Jewish and Chinese communities, and as the Victory Burlesque in the 1960s and 70s, played a significant role in loosening the tight-collared morals of Toronto the Good.

Built by Isidore Axler and architect Benjamin Brown, the Standard initially catered to Toronto’s Jewish community, featuring the likes of Jacob Ben-Ami, Paul Muni and Stella Adler. But unlike other cities, “Yiddish theatre in Toronto was not confined to Jewish neighbourhoods, which is why you had Yiddish performances at Massey Hall, Hart House and other venues,” says Ryerson University sociologist Paul Moore.

In 1935 the theatre was re-named the Strand. Credit: Archives of Ontario

As performances slowed down in 1924, the site became a fixture for Jack Corcoran’s boxing promotions. Although nearly two decades since African-American boxer Jack Johnson first held the world heavyweight title, the site regularly featured mixed-race matches, much to the dismay of some local white boxing fans.

By the late ’20s, it was often the site of mass pro-labour protests and other forms of social unrest and the police often kept their eye on the building with the intent to circumvent an insurrection. In January, 1929, as a wave of anti-communism fervour swept the nation, Toronto Police Chief Draper banned the use of Yiddish at the Standard after complaints that “seditious utterances were made” during a memorial for Lenin.

John MacDonald, then secretary of the Communist party of Canada, told the Daily Star that he planned to appeal to various labour organizations for support. “The actions of Chief Draper show that he has no knowledge of the Labor movement and in fact, is absolutely ignorant and its ideals,” said MacDonald.

In 1935, sound was installed and the theatre was re-named The Strand, still presenting Yiddish stage productions but slowly becoming more and more dependent upon Hollywood films.

Moore, who maintains that a classic movie theatre shouldn’t be preserved simply because it is a classic movie theatre, advocates for the Standard’s preservation, “not only because of its Jewish theatre roots, but also because it was Nat Taylor’s first theatre.”

Taylor, as head of 20th Century Theatres, later invented the dual screen cinema, the multiplex concept, as well as countless other innovations in exhibition. He re-opened the theatre in October, 1941, renaming it the Victory, building a massive chain of cinemas along the way.

To be continued in The Standard: Pasties & g-strings at the Victory Burlesque. This article contains information I originally published at Openfile.

Sources

Image sources: (from top) City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, 1232a; Archives of Ontario

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