The University Theatre

by Eric Veillette

With the construction of the city of Toronto’s latest and tallest skyscraper set to begin at the south-east side of Yonge and Bloor, it’s safe to say that intersection will never be the same.

Not that it’s anything to write home about at the moment, either; when walking west on Bloor, you’re hit with Yorkville shops selling designer wear and other overpriced junk.

But in the late 1940s, the only thing people were lining up to see on that street was the city’s latest and possibly most luxurious movie house, The University. Dubbed “Famous Players Finest Post-War Theatre,” it was designed by Eric W. Hounsom, who in 1932 had designed the Circle Theatre at Yonge & Sherwood while working with architects Kaplan & Sprachman. The University took two years to build and finally opened its doors on March 25, 1949, with the premiere of the long-awaited Technicolor spectacle, Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman. Amused by the film, Toronto Daily Star columnist Jack Karr referred to the University as “one of the warmest and most luxurious we’ve examined yet.”

On opening night, those who still thought “the flickers” appealed to low-brow culture spent the evening listening to Arthur Rubinstein at Massey Hall. But those low-class heathens — who knew a good time when they saw one — lined Bloor St. to get a glimpse of this new movie house. Not a movie palace in the strictest sense -– that distinction applied to theatres like the Pantages and the Loews — it offered something different to the people of Toronto, who were riding a wave of post-war optimism and economic prosperity.

The wavy facade, slithering along the street-front the way a film spools through a projector, featured a three-story window where patrons on the inside could look down onto the passing show of Packards and De Sotos. Wanting to attract patrons away from that boxed menace soon to be creeping its way into most households, Famous Players spent extra attention on the lounge of the theatre. Touting home comfort, the lounge featured a television screen built right into the wall to view before the movie began. A print ad for the next film to play at the University exclaimed: “On our Television: Boxing, Wrestling, and Perry Como!”

The auditorium of the University had contoured, back-lit side walls, designed in waves of plaster, and taking a cue from the Atmospheric theatres of decades before, it allowed the house to periodically change colours to suit different moods. At 1350 seats, it wasn’t the largest house in the city, but one of the most spacious, which allowed for the inclusion of one of the city’s largest screens.

 

As the years passed, with television making a successful intrusion into most homes, The University was the first theatre outfitted with a 70mm projector and a large Cinemascope screen. It was also the flagship location for the three-strip Cinerama process, which had been attempted earlier down the street at the Loews Yonge St. and ultimately abandoned in favour of the larger space at the University.

Like the Eglinton, the University was also well-known for “reserved-seating”-style roadshows – The Ten Commandments ran in this format for several months.

As the 1980s arrived, multiplex theatres dominated the industry; the days of the single screen theatres were numbered.

By 1985, the future of the University was in doubt. The scummy floors of the Elgin had recently closed down with the promise of seeing a re-birth. No such thing was promised for the University, as Toronto alderman Ron Kanter appealed to city council to step in and prevent its closure, but by September 30, it was lights out -– the land had become too valuable to run as a single movie theatre. Famous Players had planned a 9-screen theatre to be built on the current site of an upscale condominium building at Bloor and Bellair, but it never happened.

This is where the tale becomes sordid. Within a year of its closure, the building was demolished. This was despite many attempts by citizens and Mayor Art Eggleton to fight for the preservation of the building, which the Ontario Historical Preservation Board denied, claiming the building was “not of significant historical interest.”

Despite the demolition, the facade remained intact, serving as a mirage of sorts for the next decade or so. Walking along Bloor St., you’d expect a grand theatre beyond its facade, but behind the wall was nothing more than a parking lot, the wall fastened to a steel scaffold on the opposite side. As the years went on, the neglected wall became an eyesore, with its once magnificent concrete wall corroding and the marquee barely hanging on, ready to snap at any minute. As Richard Rhodes wrote somewhat harshly in the Globe and Mail in 1995: “The result of this taxidermy is a moth-gnawed moose head on a once very notable wall of buildings. Regrettably, I find it hard to see the point in keeping a stuffed trophy of that dead culture looming over the sidewalk.” Ouch.

Some years later, the wall was finally restored, along with that entire block of Bloor St. The former theatre, where Raiders of the Lost Ark played endlessly less than twenty years before, had a new tenant: The Pottery Barn.

The sad thing is that the flair and luxury of the University — which was once a great venue in the early days of TIFF — would have blended nicely within Yorkville,  but no – today, a facade, marquee intact, is all it is, while people shopping inside spend their money on expensive kitchenware.

And you know what? I bet you ten bucks they don’t even sell popcorn.

COMMENTS

  • IanG

    Damn, damn sad….the loss of the University and the Uptown collectively constitute the greatest loss to cinema goers in downtown Toronto in the past couple of decades. Industries change and evolve, and not always for the better. Siotting in those cinemas gave a certain dignity and to the cinema going experience that is absent now.

    I was alway form Toronto for a decage and a half, and can’t say I find it has changed much for the better in that time (apart from the easing of the alcohol laws here in the ’90s). No one gives a toss about how wretched the cinemas are where they plonk down their hard earned to sit in the dark for two hours anymore, simply put, it is part and parcel of the homogenization of the shared public experience of entertainment.

  • Neil Coligan

    Thanks for posting this about The University Theatre. I saw the first run of Apocolypse Now at this grand old palace and it was truly one of my most magical memories of movie going. The scenes where the helicopters rev up before liftoff to attack the sea side village and the subsequent onslaught still stands out in my estimation of great film moments, most likely enhanced by the huge screen at The University. CGI just doesn’t cut it in this league.

  • Jerry Ross

    Eric, please email me. I believe I’m a contemporary of yours, and we both have the same deep interest in Toronto movie houses of the late 40’s and the 50’s.
    Jerry Ross

  • Jeff Low

    Great website Eric!

    Best regards,

    Jeff

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