The Yonge Street Strip

In the late 1970s, you could venture down a five block strip of Toronto’s Yonge St. — from Gerrard to Queen — and find several cinemas offering the kind of trashy celluloid fare you could only dream of seeing in a theatre nowadays.

By Eric Veillette

Today, the city’s flagship street and main tourist destination is oddly devoid of street-front cinemas. On Dundas, across the street from the former Downtown Theatre is this massive crypt of a multiplex known as the AMC, but it barely holds a candle to the cinematic landscape one could find a few decades ago.

Starting at the northeast corner of Yonge at Gerrard was the Coronet, which opened as the Savoy in 1951. It played second-run fare for many years; by the late 70s, when many theatres were either shutting down or splitting into multiple screens, the Coronet kept plowing, sometimes showing five films on the same bill for $3.50. It was known as a working-class theatre, where the staff rarely objected to patrons bringing in outside food, drinks, spirits or illicit pleasantries. It finally closed down in 1983 and became a jewelry store which still exists. When you walk by the building today, the theatre’s brown canopy still hangs above the sidewalk. It’s one of the few remnants of a theatre that once hosted a double bill of Mark of the Devil and Satan’s Sabbath, where yes, barf bags were provided.

Heading south, you could catch a Sonny Chiba triple bill for $3 at the Rio, a 500-seat cinema located at 373 Yonge St. which now houses an adult video and toy store. One of the longest-running flicker-houses in the city, it first opened as The Big Nickel in 1913, was known as The National for some time and by 1938 it had settled permanently as The Rio. In its twilight years, the building was in a permanently shoddy state: one could easily miss some of the kung-fu action because of an 18-inch gash ripped into the screen; and a section of the ceiling dripping god-only-knows down onto the seats seemed about ready to cave in. The latter was brought to the attention of the Director of the Theatres Branch, which by then must have been frustrating job due to the decline of many former palaces and neighbourhood theatres. When the area was sectioned off with velvet rope (fancy!), it did little to detract patrons from crossing over and sitting below a potential avalanche of water and asbestos. Some people take their movie-watching seriously and prefer an element of danger to go along with it.

The renovations imposed by the Theatres Branch were performed at the Rio in early 1980, but the theatres’ various states of disrepair hardly mattered to the patrons. Whether you were going to see a b-movie at the Biltmore, seeking titillation from the heavily-censored adult fare at the Cinema 2000 or if you were merely a lost soul

seeking shelter for the afternoon, these places brought together people from various walks of life. It was one of the final hurrahs of this communal experience; it would soon be

usurped by the living room, mechanically easing itself into clunky BetaMax and VHS players near a welcome mat that read “Be kind, rewind.”

The Rio outlasted plenty of cinemas on Yonge St. but it closed in 1991.

The Elgin — part of a Pantheon of Toronto theatres which includes the Royal Alexandra and Pantages — was in a similar state of disrepair in the 70s, and you couldn’t have it any other way. Prior to its restoration in the 1980s, the opera boxes near the stage were ripped out in order to accomodate the installation of wider screens and the upholstery of the seats was mis-matched throughout the auditorium, but the truth is you weren’t going there to be enamoured with the place. In September of 1978, during a Hammer Dracula triple-bill, you could spend over five hourswatching Christopher Lee give the old two-fang special to a bevy of British babes like Caroline Munro and Barbara Ewing, match wits with his old nemesis Peter Cushing and always, always meet an unrelenting defeat. The Elgin eventually joined the ranks of the Cinema 2000, Biltmore and Coronet and showed soft-core fare as well.

But despite the trash film-goers saw on the screens, Yonge St. really had quite the bawdy reputation in the 1970s. The majority of the city’s 75 massage parlours were above store fronts on the very blocks where these cinemas resided. In many ways ‘the strip’ was often compared to the seediness of New York City’s Times Square.

By 1979 things had changed significantly. Toronto Star reporter Lynda Hurst wrote that after the grisly murder of a 12-year shoe-shine old boy named Emmanuel Jaques, law enforcement and city officials called for a “halt to the blatant sexual hawking” which had occurred after the introduction of more liberal laws regarding topless bars. On July 28, 1977, Jaques was raped and killed atop the Charlie’s Angel Massage Parlour at 245 Yonge St. It is now the site of a currency exchange.

“Few events in Toronto’s history so changed a city,” says a press release for the documentary The Shoeshine Boy. The public outcry was harsh and the cleanup efforts apparently worked, as

Hurst confirmed with Toronto Police Sgt. Richard Dewhirst: “There’s not much happening right now,” he said. “That’s not to say there won’t be tomorrow. It’s cyclical.”

As for the adults-only fare shown in the Yonge St. theatres, the scissor-happy officials of the Ontario Censor Board always prevented you from seeing as little skin as possible. “I remember seeing a couple of German tourists in one of those places,” said Dewhirst.  “They were killing themselves laughing. They couldn’t believe that anyone would find this titillating.”

Titillating or not, those days are long gone. Although some peep-show style viewing booths still exist, there isn’t a marquee in sight to announce a Christina Lindberg or Uschi Digard flick or something from one of the many Bruce Lee clones that popped out of nowhere after 1973.

In 2009,  when you walk south from Gerrard, the large screens at Dundas Square advertise CTV’s latest shows; the AMC has multi-story length billboards for a summer blockbuster; Clairol is hawking some sort of cosmetic product. If Lynda Hurst thought Yonge St. had shed its trash and sleaze in 1979, it’s but a speckle of a memory in 2009.

Sources:
Kendall, David. “The Peeling Rio’s Reeling”, Toronto Sun. Feb. 28, 1980.
Hurst, Lynda. “Yonge St. shedding its sleaze”, Toronto Star. Oct. 5, 1979.
Druckman, Howard. “Coronet Theatre Victim of a Gem of a Location”, Toronto Star. Aug 6, 1983.

Many thanks to Jovanka V. for the barf-bag pic at the Rue Morgue House of Horror. Top graphic was created using various ads from the Toronto Star, 1972-1980. And if you’re going to ‘save-as’ the images on this site and put them up on your own, please link back here. Plenty of time goes into cleaning them up so the least you can do is give me some traffic.

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12 Responses to “The Yonge Street Strip”

  1. Dion Conflict Says:

    Great article! I miss the day where you could see so many films for such little money. One of the projectionists for SHOCK AND AWE had worked at the Rio, and said our grindhouse event reminded him EXACTLY of working at the Rio. But the best story I heard of that theatre was from a projectionist that was showing a 3-D feature I had brought to Canada with Adam West and Rev Al Sharpeton who knew a female projectionist hired to work at the Rio who sniffed from the projection booth and said “I smell semen!” – ROFL!

  2. Shelagh Says:

    It’s been interesting to watch the transformation of this strip of Yonge. While the turnover of dives to fancy shops is slow, it’s slowly creeping north. We all need a bit of grunge in our city; I’m sorry to see it change. Ah, for the halcyon days of cheap movies! At least we have Cinecycle.

  3. 32elvismovies Says:

    With the construction of the high-rise tower at Yonge and Bloor, I’m sure the Bloor-to-Wellesley area is going to look very different in the next 3-5 years.

    This mid 70s photo of Yonge St., south of Dundas shows an experiment in pedestrian-only traffic. It only lasted a few years. I guess the Eaton Centre’s parking lots put an end to that idea. It’d be great to see a stretch of this street become a pedestrian mall again.

  4. 32elvismovies Says:

    Another shot of the 70s pedestrian mall can be found over here.

  5. will Says:

    ah The Rio. Many a night I spent in the Rio smoking hash and sipping cheap wine, Kung Fu , Porn and Comedy all on the same Bill. 3 movies for 4$. but you could stay all day, no one messed with the audience of smoking and drinking youth and old Perverts trying cop a feel in the back row. The bathroom in the basement was like a dungeon. Walls of grey dirty paint oozing slime, small smelly trough for a urial. I don;t think many people would ever sit on that toilet…yikes…
    The little snack bar sold chocolate bars, chips and cups of soda.
    I have many foggy memories of the Rio. I lost a treasure in their one night. (long story).
    But I sure wish places like the Rio were still around.

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  8. Kirk Says:

    That place kept me off the streets at night when I was a kid. I LOVED Bruce Lee movies and they always seemed to have them ;P Dinner at Ford Drugs in the Diner in back (remember that place?) or Bigslice, and movies until the Rio closed (I can’t even remember what time that was? 3, 4 5?). I’m sure if that place saved my life, or at least kept me from becoming a youth crime statistic. I miss the place, even with the smelly bathroom, the perverts, and the dilapidated interior. This generation could use something like it!

  9. Rio Posters Says:

    My grandparents owned and operated the Rio from the 30s til it closed in 1991. We have the amazing and iconic poster collection from the theatre. We post pictures here: http://www.facebook.com/RioMoviePosters . And Kirk – my grandparents also owned Ford Drugs!

  10. Johnny Says:

    Ahhhh I def remember those good all days, i was still younge but i remember goin to the coronet and watch all those moveis for $3.50 so much has change, I live in the dt core actually Gerrard and Sherbourne and I always remember the Coronet, I use to work at the cineplex in the eaton center that was a blast, was a cleaner then an usher, met so many wonderful freaks and still assiciate with them, yup yup so many things have changed

  11. Joe Says:

    The Rio a God sent if you were a down and out youngster for $5.00 bucks you could shelter yourself from the winter cold from 9am till 6am. Many of times The Rio was my only home. The only downside with living at The Rio was fighting off the perverts. Ford Drugs Counter for $2.50 you would get bacon, eggs, toast and coffee, and it was opened 24/7, which for a kid like me was great for many of time did not know when I would gather enough coin for both the Rio and food. Although with all my troubles and tribulations of my youth, Yonge St. was alive and it was vibrant; nowadays every time I am on Yonge St. (south of Bloor St.) I feel like I am in a foreign city.

  12. Gord Says:

    What great memories…as a kid in my early teens I lived at Gould and Church Sts and at one time or another I visited all those theatres.

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