Talkies the talk of Toronto!

Eighty years ago, on Dec. 28, 1928, the talkies came to Toronto.

Despite the freezing weather that winter evening, over a thousand movie-goers ventured out to the Tivoli, located at the intersection of Richmond  and Victoria Sts. to see a midnight preview of The Terror, a haunted-house whodunit.

This was more than a year after a New York City audience watched and listened as Al Jolson got down on one knee and sang “My Mammy” during The Jazz Singer premiere on Oct. 6, 1927 at the Warner Bros. Theatre.  Contrary to popular belief, that wildly successful “photo-dramatic production” didn’t make it to Toronto until mid-January 1929.

The Terror, Warner Bros.’ second talkie, exploited a popular 1920s genre and featured May McAvoy, who co-starred with Jolson in The Jazz Singer. The Evening Telegram and The Daily Star were quick to praise the film, with the Star claiming: “The Terror will hold you spellbound from beginning to end. It’s spooky, creepy, mystifying, terrifying beyond belief.” Another reviewer claimed it would not have had the same effect as a silent film.

While The Terror is no longer commercially available, contemporary critics have been less than ecstatic about the film. A film collector from Wales, who tracked down the Vitaphone disc some years ago, calls the film a static mess, where the flow of the camera is limited by the boundaries of the recording equipment – a typical comment about early sound films. The Terror would be remade in 1938.

No doubt, though, the audience sitting in the plush stadium-style seats of the Tivoli was completely enthralled. For the first time in the entirety of a feature film, they could hear the creaking of the stairs, the ghostly wind and the voices of all the characters. “Even the credits were spoken,” said the Star. Other sound films had already played at the Tivoli, mostly Vitaphone shorts and silents with synchronized score, so this evening was mostly a welcome sensory overload!

The Terror was the highlight of the evening, but patrons were also treated to much more than a feature film: Luigi Romanelli’s Orchestra, a Tivoli staple for many years, performed several hits of the day. Some of those hits included “It Goes Like This” and “There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” two popular fox trots featured by Victor Records that week. On the screen, viewers were informed of world events by a Movietone newsreel, which included a speech by the King of Spain. That was followed by a number of short films, and a  performance by The Ingenues from the Ziegfeld Follies.

The Terror was a big draw, and it played for several weeks at an admission of 75 cents – a huge premium over the 25 cents you would pay at the Loews Yonge St. just a few blocks north. It was finally replaced by The Jazz Singer on Jan. 18, by which time the Tivoli had adopted the tagline “Talkies the Talk of Toronto.”

The Road to Sound

Blending sound and film was a long and tortuous process, which saw numerous failures.  It was recently examined in the documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk, which was included in the three-disc DVD release marking the 80th anniversary of The Jazz Singer in 2007.

Thomas Edison and his contemporaries had attempted to synchronize the two technologies ever since they had co-existed, but the public was generally indifferent to their efforts.

Some of those efforts were attempted on Toronto audiences. In 1915, at Shea’s Victoria St. Theatre, British music hall star Sir Harry Lauder appeared on screen along with a synchronized sound track.

Introducing sound systems was an expensive investment for theatres, and only the big ones were able to afford it.  In September, 1928, the Tivoli was the first to be wired for sound, via the Fox Movietone process. The Loew’s Uptown joined the ranks in October, and prior to the Tivoli’s screening of The Terror, had shown some sound films, but not all-talking, until Jan. 5, 1929, with Paramount’s first talkie, Interference, starring William Powell and Evelyn Brent.

Some theatres remained loyal to the silents; ticket sales were still abundant despite the new technology. Those silent films screening in late 1928 included Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin at The Pantages, Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs at the Loews Yonge St., and Buster Keaton in The Cameraman over at the Royce, a neighbourhood theatre off Edwin St.

Dark Days Ahead

Toronto was enjoying a period of unparalleled prosperity in 1928, as a result of increased agricultural production, rapid natural resource development and easy access to credit. Housing prices had increased significantly, and the early development of prime real estate like the Royal York Hotel and the Canadian Imperial Bank building on King St. added to the city’s attractiveness and sense of well-being.

As 1928 came to a close, the local newspapers remained optimistic for the year ahead. Others were blessed with a little more foresight; Charles MacDonald, president of Confederation Life Assurance, warned: “We must not be too optimistic, and keep our feet on the ground. Prosperity moves in cycles.”

One of the premiere showplaces in Toronto, The Tivoli was host to the Toronto premieres of such films as Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), offering escapism from the dismal days of the Great Depression. It opened in 1917 as part of the nation-wide Allen chain, but their interests were bought by Famous Players in 1923.  On November 4, 1964, the projectors flickered for the last time and the building was demolished the following May.

Today, when you stand at the intersection of Richmond and Victoria, there’s no way to tell that 80 years ago, a great long line of people stood in front of the 1,553-seat theatre to be among the first to witness the latest technological achievement in cinema.

[Sources and images: The Toronto Daily Star, December 27, 28, 29, 30, 1928; The Toronto Telegram, January 18, 1929. Top image of the Tivoli (dated January 1932) from the Archives of Ontario: RG 56-11-0-101-3 ]


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  • Sherrill Grace

    Dear Eric,

    Can you confirm whether or not someone COULD have seen anything called a “talking movie” in Toronto, at “Shea’s,” on 27 March 1913?

    I have this information from a diary kept in 1913, but it seems impossible to me. Shea’s opened in 1914 and talkies arrive in Toronto in the 1920s.

    Any insight you can provide will b much appreciated.


  • Hi Sherill,

    Thanks for your note. It’s not impossible, as attempts to make synchronized sound films commercially viable had existed long before The Jazz Singer came about.

    Here are a few examples of pre-1928 sound screenings in Toronto. I’ve uncovered several other examples, but haven’t had a chance to compile them here.

    And while Shea’s Hippodrome opened in 1914, the Buffalo boys owned other theatres in the city. Shea’s Yonge St. (91 Yonge St.) opened in 1899, but by 1913 was the Strand and operated by (I think) Nathanson. The journal entry is likely referring to Shea’s Vaudeville, at 84 Victoria St., which opened in 1910.

    What is the source of this diary? Any other information about that particular day? What shops they visited before and after the film?

    Thanks for reaching out! E

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