The Imperial Drabinsky

This week, the final curtain fell on a decade-old debacle in Toronto when former theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky was found guilty of fraud and forgery in an Ontario court. A modern day mogul, Drabinsky produced several staples of Canadian cult cinema like The Changeling and The Silent Partner; with Cineplex Odeon and Nat Taylor he built the first megaplex cinema; and after being ousted from Cineplex, he created Livent, a live theatre production company which not only produced the shows, it held licenses to the productions and also owned the theatres in which the shows were performed. Not since the days of Marcus Loew had someone held such reign over the theatre world.

Not to mention the massive greed and the mis-appropriation of funds which led to his downfall, Drabinsky was well-known for his brash ego: he was a micro-manager who had his hands involved in all levels of production; an ill-tempered tyrant who would, as the Toronto Star reported today, “pick up bits of popcorn littering the lobby, and then [shout] at the counter staff.”

Despite his reputation and the guilty verdict, in the early ’90s Drabinsky grabbed Broadway by the balls and helped make Toronto the third largest theatre centre in the world. One of his lasting Toronto legacies will likely be the late ’80s restoration of the Pantages Theatre, which would become home to The Phantom of the Opera for over a decade.

The Pantages, which first opened in 1920, was — and still is — one of Canada’s grandest theatres. When Vaudeville died down in the early 1920s it became the cinema showplace, hosting the premieres for classic films like the Marx Bros. Horsefeathers (1932). The theatre was re-named the Imperial in 1930 after theatre magnate Alexander Pantages was found guilty of raping a chorus girl. His conviction was later overturned, but his reputation with the public was ruined and his name was soon removed from the marquees of the theatres in his hold.

By 1972, filling the Imperial’s 3000+ seats was more than problematic: television, the economy as well as new methods in distribution saw a change in film-going. Architect Mandel Sprachman, son of famed theatre architect Abe Sprachman, redesigned the Imperial into six different screens and gave the building a new facade. Gone was the glitz of the marquee’s bright bulbs which had lit up Yonge St. throughout the years; replacing it was a toned-down affair reflecting the era in which it was built. Above the entryway was a greyish, granite wall with a circle in the middle, and a true-type 70s font reading “Imperial Six”. The “new” theatre opened on Jun 21, 1973.

In many ways, the newly-designed facade looked more like a memorial. As Mandel Sprachman said himself: “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 give old cinemas a new lease on life. Architecturally speaking I do my damnedest to help the old and the new live together.”  The City of Toronto Archives has a wealth of information on Sprachman’s career.

So who knows. Sprachman saved the Imperial from a certain fate in 1973, but it was Drabinsky’s vision of a restored theatre which averted another swing of the wrecking ball in the late ’80s. It may have missed the theatre, but on the way back it hit Garth where it hurts most.

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