Extreme Usher: The Imperial Six

by Gerry Flahive

I was a teenage usher.

I don’t think anyone is going to make a feature film, a la FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, based on my early 1970’s adventures at the somewhat-forgotten, and largely-underrated palace of guilty pleasures, Yonge Street’s Imperial Six. But if they did, it probably would be called USHERETTES GALORE, or EXTREME USHER, or even MATINEE IDLE. And it would be the kind of movie that probably would have played at the Imperial Six. The kind of movie that wouldn’t even get made for the straight-to-video market today.

On Friday, June 29, 1973, at a time when Trudeau still ruled, Nixon still scowled and Gary Glitter, Donny Osmond and David Cassidy still had fans, the Imperial Six opened, something of a revolution in cinema-going in Toronto. For me, it was an introduction to downtown Toronto, girls, and the imperious power that accrues to a 16-year old when you give him a red jacket and a bow tie. I learned how to boss around thirty other ushers, learned about movies, and met my future wife. All for $1.85 per hour.

For moviegoers, it was a tastefully garish retreat, a cornucopia of movies and films. It was a place where fedora-wearing salesman cared not so much what was playing as what time it got out. It was a place where fading movie stars’ films went to die (Do you remember David Niven in OLD DRACULA? John Wayne in MCQ? Richard Burton in THE KLANSMAN?). It hosted the stars of the day…well, ok stars like Stompin’ Tom Connors (who had his wedding reception there), Walter Pidgeon, Dan Hill, Xaviera ‘The Happy Hooker’ Hollander, and almost, on a night regretted at the time by about a dozen ushers, Linda Lovelace (she didn’t show up for the opening night of her soft core epic LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT).

It was a lot of fun.

Neither one of the grand movie palaces of the pre-tv era (although it had been in its previous incarnation as the 3,000 seat Imperial), nor a megagigaplex of the post-modern era, the Imperial Six sat, uncomfortably but functionally somewhere between the two, as close in time at its birth to WWII as it is to our own. It still evoked the excitement and spectacle of going to the movies, but was, perhaps, one of the first signs that moviegoing was being transformed: fewer theatres, with lots of screens. Tens of thousands of people streamed through its doors during a preview week, just to look around before any movies were screening.

Architect Mandel Sprachman kept some of the old elegance of the past, commissioning original art (hanging sculptures made from metal and found objects, and giant fibreglass figures kissing in the dark), exposed unseen elements of the building (two of the theatres were constructed in the backstage spaces) and saluted the heritage of the building with historical signage and a sensually surrealistic mural.

Compared to multiplexes of today, the Imperial Six was a combination rococo opera house, Edward Hopper painting and high-tech arcade. Think ‘BLADE RUNNER meets Radio City Music Hall‘.

It lasted only 13 years, before being transformed yet again, as a result of a bizarre real estate dispute.

In its glory years, it was under the command of Phil Traynor, a formidable manager whose presence evoked fear in any ushers who dared to goof off, but who stood for the old picture palace values of customer service and showmanship.

Come Saturday night at six, Phil would appear on the balustrade overlooking the lower lobby, clad in a tuxedo and wielding a cigar of cinematic proportions. Think about it: when was the last time you saw an adult employee of cinema, much less one wearing a tuxedo?

For Phil, the cinema was his ship and he was the captain, his 110 (!) staff his crew and the regular customers people he knew by name and whose problems he sometimes helped solved.

Among them were the traveling salesman, for whom the early matinees were welcome retreats from their Willy Loman treks. Phil recalls the lineup at the pay phones after the first show got out — salesmen calling the home office letting them know they’d just finished a ‘meeting’ — when they’d really been watching WALKING TALL in theatre number 4.

The Imperial was one of the most profitable theatres in the Famous Players chain, and one that probably earned that status because its programming was deliberately broad, from the Gallic silliness of THE TALL BLOND MAN WITH ONE BLACK SHOE to the political thrills of THREE DAYS

OF THE CONDOR to the kung fu mayhem of SACRED KNIVES OF VENGEANCE. The 1970s offered an eclectic and exciting range of films, with Scorcese, Coppola, Spielberg, Altman and many others redefining what was commercial, and the Imperial Six reflected that eclecticism.

It also was something of a haven for Canadian films, which struggled then as they do now for audiences. Films like RECOMMENDATION FOR MERCY (about the infamous conviction of Stephen Truscott for murder) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (starring Margot Kidder, some cite it as the uber-slasher flick) And THE HARD PART BEGINS, a story of a fading country music singer journeying through the small-town Ontario bar circuit and described in ads as “the first Canadian film that could become the North American ‘sleeper of the year’. It didn’t.

On opening week, the Imperial Six presented a slew of white trash, disaster and blaxploitation films, with a solid drama thrown in. THE NEPTUNE FACTOR was a Canadian-funded POSEIDON ADVENTURE knock-off with Ernest Borgnine; Robert Aldrich’s EMPEROR OF THE NORTH pitted Borgnine against Lee Marvin (Borgnine on two screens! That’s the kind of entertainment you don’t get these days!); THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT, about college sex, was vigilantly checked by the ushers every several minutes; DILLINGER starred Warren Oates in a story told once too often; THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE was an edgy and underrated crime piece with Robert Mitchum; and SHAFT IN AFRICA was the second (!) sequel to SHAFT.

As a young film enthusiast, soon to enter film studies at York University and twenty years later to produce documentaries at the NFB, the Imperial Six was a place to immerse myself in some of the best —- CHINATOWN, THE GODFATHER PART II, LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Marlon Brando in the nude!) — and some of the weirdest — FISTS OF FURY, MAGNUM FORCE, ZARDOZ (Sean Connery in a thong!). I tried to learn from them all.

Despite the hype these days when THE INCREDIBLE HULK or THE MATRIX RELOADED open, there really isn’t the same sense of event as there was back then. When was the last time you saw a lineup snaking down the block outside a cinema? Lineups don’t make economic sense — film exhibitors don’t want to make their customers wait to get in, or worse not get in at all if all the seats are sold, when they can offer multiple screenings, almost on-demand scheduling, on many screens.

But lining up carried with it a sense of anticipation, of privilege (I got here first!) and of a moviegoing community (just ask the people in the lines at the Toronto International Film Festival). The block from the newly-rejuvenated Dundas Square to Shuter St., as well as much of stretch of Victoria St. at the cinema’s back entrance, was jammed most Saturday nights as people jostled to get into see THE LONGEST YARD, WESTWORLD (Yul Brynner as a robot cowboy) or SERPICO.

Only the elite ushers — hand-picked by me and my colleague Bill Wong — were assigned to the harrowing and hilarious task of managing the lineups with teenaged aggression and bravado, each introduced by megaphone to the assembled impatient and confused mob as “your ushers for this evening“.

Remember movie marquees? There are a few left, at places like the Regent and the Mt. Pleasant, but back then some theatres, including the Imperial, boasted of several marquees (we had two on Yonge St., one on Victoria), the curse of weak-armed ushers on a rainy Thursday night as they struggled with 15-foot suction cup poles to assemble the new lineup in six cinemas, letter by letter. Occasionally, adolescent humour ruled — for several hours one night, the Billy Dee Williams classic HIT! was adorned with the prefix S.

I also got my first glimpse of the economic realities of the movie business there, gleaning that, for accounting purposes, the cups the popcorn came in was what had value, not the contents, and overhearing the managers calling in the night’s grosses on THE TOWERING INFERNO to the coast. And I don’t mean Halifax.

Fights occasionally broke out — the Imperial Six fronted onto the Yonge St. Mall, the city’s mid-70’s attempt to give the street back to pedestrians (and popular with prostitutes, drug dealers, lowlifes and bikers, who often came in to see, say, THE BEST OF THE NEW YORK EROTIC FILM FESTIVAL or DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY). I remember being pulled off a disgruntled patron on the sidewalk by a cop as we pummeled each other over a ticket dispute. That probably wouldn‘t count as ‘customer service‘ these days.

It’s hardly the only Toronto cinema of that era we have lost, and even if we don’t mourn them all, hours spent in the 99 Cent Roxy, the Donlands, the Coronet, the Rio, the Fairlawn, the TD Cinema, the Towne, Cinecity, the Glendale and (sigh) the University are hours fondly blown.

The Imperial and its ilk were the last cinemas opened before the two major 1970s movie revolutions: home video, and JAWS-like megaflicks. Some of the D-movies moved out of the cinemas and into the vhs and betamax machines.

And why bother dedicating a screen or two to NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON or THE ANTICHRIST when you can squeeze some more profit out of SPIDERMAN?

But the Imperial Six might have lasted some years more, if it hadn’t been for a disagreement between Famous Players and the owner of part of the property. In a plot twist worthy of an Imperial action flick, guards hired by Cineplex Odeon, and fronted by Doberman Pinschers, raided the place late one night in May, 1986 and seized control of much of the property, changing the locks, erecting fences with chicken wire, effectively landlocking Famous Players’ square footage and bringing an end to the era of bell-bottomed film exhibition.

Now the elegant Canon Theatre, home to live productions such as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the building reveals none of its shaggy and sexy 1970’s life. Perhaps its final chapter would have been called THE DOBERMAN GANG? Or maybe THE DE-EXHIBITIONISTS?

As for me, I can still find my way around in the dark without a flashlight. And while I think Herzog, Leigh and Egoyan are great, I’ll be lined up opening night for TERMINATOR 3.

Blame it on the Imperial Six.

– Gerry Flahive has produced more than 40 films and new-media projects at the NFB over the past 25 years. Among his recent credits are Paris 1919, The Dark Years and Manufactured Landscapes. His current projects include Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action, A Short History of Progress, Waterlife and I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.

Flahive is a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail, and his writing has been published in Time, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Toronto Star, Playback, Realscreen, Montage, P.O.V. and The Los Angeles Times.

The above article was originally published in the Toronto Star in 2004.


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