The Carlton

Whether old, new, palatial, grimy, spacious or downright claustrophobic, the closure of any Toronto cinema means one less place to see a film, and today’s closing of the Carlton Cinema is no exception. It’s not the first time a theatre has closed in that location, either. In 1974, the Odeon Carlton, a lavish post-war movie house, ended a 26-year run after screening Burt Reynolds in White Lighting.

While discussing the Carlton’s demise with Colin Geddes a few weeks back, he noted that it also widens the gap of available cinemas on or around Yonge St. Excluding the Cumberland and Varsity cinemas at Bloor, there are no cinemas between the AMC 24 at Dundas and the Canada Square & Silver City at Eglinton.

That gap is a stark contrast to July 1, 1981, on the Carlton’s opening day, where Garth Drabinsky and Nat Taylor‘s Cineplex empire was still in its infancy and art-house, adults-only, repertory and single-screen cinemas existed everywhere. I’ve written about “the strip,” the stretch from Queen to Gerrard a handful of times (and also here), but looking north to Bloor,  you had the Festival (now the Panasonic Theatre), Towne, University, Hudson’s Bay Plaza; at St-Clair was the Hollywood and Hyland; at Eglinton, the International, York, Fine Arts (now The Capitol, an events venue); and from Sheppard to Finch was the Fairlawn, Park, Towne Countrye and the Willow.

They catered to every genre. The University played the latest action blockbuster in wide, huge 70mm (Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you must know) and the International and Fine Arts were well-reputed art-houses, showing the kind of stuff you’d have recently seen at the Carlton. Mere steps away from Maple Leaf Gardens, the Carlton opened on Canada Day with the bizarre Sextette starring Mae West, Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career, Hussy, Take This Job And Shove It, and wouldn’t you believe it — The Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3-D.

While some adored the theatre, others loathed it. Comments on  local blogs claim it had the best-tasting popcorn in the city, others hated the cupboard-sized screening rooms. A friend of mine recently quipped: “Their tiny screens and bleeding sound just made me angry. I saw Grindhouse there because it was the last place in the city still showing it and I needed to see it again. It was so impotent in that venue.”

Compared to the epilepsy-inducing feel of the Silver Cities that followed it, I have a soft spot for the 1980s multiplex.  I can’t remember what I last saw at the Carlton.  I wanted to say Trembling Before G-d, but just now remembered seeing Napoleon Dynamite back in, oh, whenever that was playing.

But for those who lament its passing, there are other options: The Cumberland still exists (at least for now), the AMC screens more independent films than one would expect, and don’t forget the reps, like the Mount Pleasant, Regent, and the recently renovated Royal Cinema.

Were you a regular at the Carlton? Did you work there? Drop a comment and share your experiences.


  • Again, Cineplex closes ANOTHER landmark.

    Downtown, it was one of the few places I DID like to see a movie and it’s trashy closet size theatre’s were also one of the last bigger chains that had the ability to run 16mm.

    It was also the first multiplex to have a cafe with gourmet coffee, something taken for granted now when you visit a local starbucks (for what that’s worth).

    Sometimes, you could only see a film in first run there and as you said, things that would run “till Thursday” on it’s last legs. I remember seeing Karismaki’s “Drifting Clouds” there (and hearing people speak Finnish for the first time), John Waters “Pecker” (when I rolled in laughter seein a lil kid snort peas through a rollled up dollar bill, while the gay couple behind me were disgusted), and was one of the few places you could see something like “Jesus of Montreal”.

    Between the Eaton Centre and the Carlton, there was always something to see!

  • Don Marks

    I did my time in the Carlton’s mini-theatres, as I’m sure all avid Toronto film-goers have. As a young man and a newcomer to the big city, I would head there to satiate my jones for foreign and indie cinema. I remember seeing Kieslowski’s Bleu there, as well as The Grifters. But as I got older, I got pickier, and I came to prefer the Festival Cinemas chain with its larger screens and breathing room, not to mention the ambience of faded romance that accrues in such old-time movie houses. The Carlton has none of that feeling for me, it’s antiseptic, like an 80’s mall. I regret its closing, but truthfully, I mourned its passing long ago.

  • jenn

    it’s sad to see it go. i haven’t lived in toronto in 2yrs but i was there for over a decade & a half and it was always one of my favorite places to go, get out of the house – i lived very close by – and spend some quality alone time being entertained. it showed all kinds of films that you wouldn’t find in other theaters, indie, foreign & off-the-wall stuff like “it’s all gone, pete tong”, “kissed”, “aristocrats” or “snowflake”. i’d always walk down, pick a movie by title without knowing anything about it & i was never disappointed. i will miss that place, especially if i move back to t.o.! it will always have a fond place in my heart & my memories. a place that was just mine, where i could sit 2nd row from the front & be engulfed in my own time, the movie & all the wonderful emotions that came with it.

    ahhhh, ’twas a good place. happy to have it a part of me & me it! RIP carlton cinema, you served us all well….

  • Don Evans

    I recall the Odeon Toronto having attended the opening night with my wife; Pearl Bailey & Jack Carter were on the stage show. I believe this was in 1948/9 & we sat in the second row centre.
    The stage show was held up for some time awaiting the arrival of Pearl Bailey. Jack Carter held the fort & probably using up most of his act’s material awaiting Pearl.
    Claude Rains was in the movie, I don’t recall the title. It was a b/w feature.
    We attended several night when it was later called the Odeon Carleton.
    They were special occasions for us as we hardly ever got a night out while trying to raise five sons in Scarborough!
    Great memories.

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