For over twenty-five years, Toronto concert-goers and Annex residents have known the building at 529 Bloor St. West as Lee’s Palace. But nearly a century ago, the Allen’s Bloor Theatre was one of the most luxurious suburban movie houses Toronto had to offer.
The immaculately detailed 782 seat theatre held its premiere screening on March 10, 1919 with Cecil B. De Mille’s Don’t Change Your Wife, featuring Gloria Swanson. It was the first theatre to be built on that stretch of Bloor Street since the current-day Bloor Cinema, then known as the Madison, opened in December, 1913. Months later, the two houses would be joined by N.L. Nathanson’s Alhambra Theatre — “a temple of silent art” — slightly west of Bathurst.
As part of the national chain of Allen theatres, the Bloor was built during their aggressive expansion into the Toronto marketplace. In 1917, they built their flagship house at Richmond and Victoria and beefed up their flickering stable by acquiring existing theatres like the Beaver, a palatial Junction movie house built in 1913. Months later, they opened the Danforth and Beach theatres; in 1920, the St-Clair, College and Parkdale. All of them, the Bloor included, were designed by Detroit architect C. Howard Crane.
The Bloor held the smallest seat count of any new Toronto Allen theatre — most of them averaged close to 1500 seats — but that did not deter silent film stars from gracing its stage, among them the forgotten starlet Betty Blythe, in town to promote the now-lost film Fair Lady on May 12, 1922. The theatre also participated in numerous Allen promotions, including a newspaper campaign to promote the feature Partners of the Night, where patrons were asked to apprehend a woman dressed as “Mysterious Mae Regan,” the film’s antagonist, if seen in the vicinity of the theatre.
But the Allen’s days were numbered. By June, 1923, the Toronto Daily Star announced the majority of their assets — some thirty theatres — were purchased by Famous Players at the bargain basement price of $500 000. Founded by N.L. Nathanson and partners in 1920, Famous Players would soon control a trio of theatres at one of Toronto’s busiest intersections: the Alhambra, Bloor and later, the Madison (then re-built as the Midtown) when it acquired Nat Taylor’s 20th Century Theatres chain.
Although renovated in 1952, it closed in 1957. A simple letter from Famous Players addressed to the Motion Picture Theatres Branch said it would no longer be used as a cinema. It did live on as a restaurant, The Blue Orchid, which featured live burlesque. Lee’s Palace would open in 1985.
Toronto Daily Star, March 10, 1919; April 21, 1920; May 12, 1922; October 22, 1953.
“Allen’s Bloor Street Theatre,” Construction Magazine, May 1919.
Letter from C.S. Doidge of FPC to W.D. McPhee, Theatres Branch, February 27, 1957. Silent Toronto Archives.