The Uptown Theatre

To cinephiles, the theatres we patronize are often just as important as the films they show.

It might only be a building, but once an audience is at attention and the image is flickering, the place takes on an organic quality. Whether it’s a run-down rep house, a bicycle repair shop moonlighting as a cinema or the second floor of a restored hotel, these darkened spaces allow us to forget the outside world, and as Neil Gaiman once put it, let “others think of things of import and consequence.”

A few days ago, I asked  our Twitter followers to share memories of their favourite Toronto cinemas. It was no big surprise to see the Uptown mentioned more often than others.

When it closed in 2003, the Uptown was the last of Toronto’s genuine movie palaces to operate as a cinema. The Canon and Elgin & Winter Garden theatres, also on Yonge St., may have been built at the height of the same era, but barring a few exceptions, such as TIFF, they haven’t offered regular films since the 1980s.

The Uptown’s walls, which lined Balmuto St. to the left of Yonge, reverberated the highs, lows, and overall evolution of the film industry.

Built by architect Thomas Lamb, the Uptown, at nearly 3300 seats, opened on September 20, 1920, with D.W. Griffith’s The Love Flower. In attendance was theatre impresario Marcus Loew, Mayor Tommy Church, Griffith star Carol Dempster and French actress Delores Cassinelli.

Although a film was always on the bill, the Uptown enjoyed the later days of Vaudeville; it premiered the earliest films of Buster Keaton and was one of the first Toronto cinema to be wired for sound in October,1928 (it played Paramount’s first talkie, Interference, the following January.)

The Uptown closed briefly in 1960, re-opening in August, 1962, with new decor, added fixtures, and a Rock Hudson film, The Spiral Road. The Daily Star‘s Wendy Michener, dismissing the film, noted that that the renovations were “enough to give the audience a feeling of sharing in something special” and that movie-going was now more of a “social occasion, not just a casual pastime.”

In 1969, when 20th Century Theatres owner Nat Taylor hired architect Mandel Sprachman to redesign the theatre into five different screens, ushering in a new era of movie-going.

To modern eyes, the redesign might have been an eyesore, but he sought to save the cinemas from a different fate. The City of Toronto Archives quotes Sprachman: “I prefer to think of myself as a recycler of run-down theatres. If I didn’t step in, those grand old opulent cinema temples would be torn down and replaced with parking lots and high-rises. What I do is to give old cinemas a new lease on life. Architecturally speaking I do my damnedest to help the old and the new live together.”

In 1995, the Uptown became the new home for the Midnight Madness series at the Toronto International Film Festival. Colin Geddes, who was then a few years away from taking over programming duties for the genre fest, says the first midnight screening at the Uptown was Screamers. “As soon as that opening title sequence started, everybody was blown away by the sound. It was a really special place.”

Although tragedy struck on more than one occasion, such as the fire which forced its temporary closure in 1960, and an earlier fire at the neighbouring Honey Dew Diner in 1947, the greatest tragedy occured in December, 2003, when during demolition (to build a condo, no less) a large section of the 83 year-old  structure collapsed, killing a student at a neighouring school.

Earlier that fall, the Uptown’s bulbs flickered one last time. On the closing night of Midnight Madness, champagne was served, and after a moment of silence, the screen was toasted, then given a standing ovation.

VIDEO: Check out TIFF Programmer Colin Geddes’ YouTube page for a clip of the final night at the Uptown.

Sources: The Globe & Mail, September 18 &20, 1920; Toronto Daily Star, August 16, 1962; Globe & Mail, April 15, 1947

Images: Header image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives Flickr pool, Fonds 124, f0124_fl002_id0111; the Uptown’s Balmuto Street entrance, Silent Toronto Archives; Honeydew Diner fire, City of Toronto Archives, credit G&M 11424)


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  • Ian

    Hello, Wondering if anyone has pictures of the inside of old Uptown theatre in toronto. I worked there 1 year before it was closed and would love to see it again.

  • A L

    In his journal, my father wrote, on the very day, of going to a movie at the Uptown on Dec. 5, 1928. Anyone know what movie he saw?

  • Thanks for writing – always happy to do some digging to shed some light on an old journal entry.

    The film your father saw was Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, a silent picture with a synchronized score and sound effects. A sequence was shot in two-strip Technicolor but I’m not sure if that was featured in the prints that came up here.

    Was he a regular movie-goer? That must have been an interesting time to hit the theatres because the talkies were coming. The Uptown and Tivoli were converted to sound that fall, and the other big houses like the Pantages and Loew’s joined them the following year.

    There were a few other interesting films playing that day: Colleen Moore in Lilac Time at the Tivoli (with synchro sound), John Gilbert in The Masks of the Devil, which is considered lost.

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