Toronto’s Top 10 Lost Vaudeville Theatres

In planning for Vaudeville Revue we’ve learned a lot about Toronto’s former Vaudeville theatres that have disappeared over the years. Whether they were converted into something for a new use or demolished altogether, the are very few Vaudeville palaces still standing in our city today.

Here’s a look at some of the greats that have been lost over the past century.

1. Shea’s Hippodrome

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Shea’s Hippodrome – 440 Bay St., Toronto

When Shea’s Hippodrome opened in 1914 it was Vaudeville theatre in Canada was was quickly deemed one of the top 4 in North America. Sadly, this colossal beauty had a short life;  the Hippodrome was demolished in 1957. For an interesting story about its very unique and very expensive Wurlitzer Organ, check this out.


2. The Standard (The Strand, The Victory, Victory Burlesque)

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The Standard – Corner of Spadina & Dundas, Toronto

The Standard opened in 1921 as a Yiddish theatre and remained a centre of Toronto’s Jewish community until it was converted to a cinema in 1934 and renamed The Strand. In 1941 it was rebranded again, this time as The Victory, part of the Twentieth Century Theatre chain. In 1961 it became the Victory Burlesque, one of only 3 burlesque houses in the city. While the building still remains, the theatre closed its doors permanently in 1975.

3. Shea’s Victoria

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Shea’s Victoria – 83 Victoria St., Toronto

 

The Shea Brothers opened their second theatre, Shea’s Victoria, on the corner of Richmond and Victoria in 1910. This 1800 seat theatre included a projector so that films could be screened in addition to live theatre performances.

4. The Uptown

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The Uptown Theatre – Corner of Yonge & Bloor

Loew’s Uptown Theatre opened in 1920, a 3000 seat sister theatre to The Pantages (currently the Ed Mirvish Theatre). This one as well was created for both cinema and Vaudeville. In 2001, new regulations required the theatre to become wheelchair accessible, something that would have cost about $700 000. Despite community outcries, the theatre was demolished in 2003. Sadly, the ill-advised removal of a structural beam lead to its accidental collapse and resulted in the death of a 27 year old man.

5. The Belsize (Regent, Crest)

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The Belsize – 551 Mount Pleasant Road, Toronto

The Belsize Theatre opened in 1927, another venue for theatre and film. Unlike many on this list, The Belsize didn’t turn from live theatre to film, but the other way around. In the 1950s the only theatre of note showing live theatre was The Royal Alexandra (who showed primarily American shows and tours) and many felt that a place was needed to showcase Canadian theatre. In 1953 the venue ceased showing films and was renovated and reopened as The Crest, a live theatre venue. In 1971 films began showing again and in 1988 it was again renovated and reopened, this time as The Regent, a movie theatre that still stands today.

6. The Runneymede

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The Runnymede – 2225 Bloor St. West, Toronto

The Runnymede Theatre opened in 1927 as an “atmospheric Vaudeville”house, the first of its kind in Toronto. The venue was meant to make you feel as though you were transported to somewhere magical and exotic; the ceiling was painted blue and bulbs were lit up like stars, silver and blue lights were projected to give the feeling of clouds. By 1999, the theatre was no longer profitable, even as a 2-screen cinema. The building was purchased by a Chapters Bookstore, and in the conversion they kept and maintained much of the interior. Today, it is the location of a Shoppers Drug Mart, and while it still features much of the original trim and interior facade, there’s something very sad looking about its current appearance.

7. Capitol Theatre

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The Capitol Theatre – 2492 Yonge St., Toronto

The Capitol opened in 1918 and showed Vaudeville acts and silent films. By 1933, the theatre was converted to show only films. The theatre closed its doors in 1998 and remained empty for several years, before finally being purchased, undergoing major renovations and reopening as The Capitol Event Theatre. While the seats were removed and a bar installed, much of the original ornate interior remains, much like it does at the Runnymede.

8. Academy Theatre

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The Academy – 1286 Bloor St. W, Toronto

The Academy opened in 1914, a smaller venue than most on the list with only 410 seats. It’s not known when exactly the theatre stopped showing Vaudeville acts, or when it stopped operating as a cinema, but it is likely to have occurred sometime after the 1960s. The venue still stands, though has not operated as a theatre in years.

9. Variety (Arcadian) Theatre

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The Arcadian (formerly Variety) Theatre – 8-10 Queen St. East

I have significantly less information on this theatre, but it housed in a building built in the late 1880s, and was likely built before the 1920s. In the late 1920s its name was changed to The Arcadian, and it seems that by the 30s it was a cinema and no longer live venue. The theatre closed in 1954 and for some time had a retail show that used the old sign. However, it has since been demolished.

10. Madison Theatre (The Midtown, The Capri, The Eden, Bloor Cinema, Hot Docs Cinema)

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The Madison Theatre – 506 Bloor St. W, Toronto

The Madison has had more renos and new names than most on this list. It originally opened in 1913, an early Picture Palace that also featured Vaudeville acts. In 1940 it was demolished and rebuilt as The Midtown, a cinema; all that remained of the original building were the two side walls. Movie attendance declined in the second half of the 20th century, and in the 1960s it was under the new management of the Famous Players chain and renamed the Capri. In 1973 it was again re-branded, this time as The Eden, and the theatre switched from playing mostly double-bills to a heavily censored “adult”films. Come 1979, Famous Players closed The Eden and re-opened it as The Bloor Cinema, now offering first-run, family-friendly entertainment. Soon the theatre introduced memberships and classic theatre runs, and eventually became a part of the Festival Theatre circuit. In the late 2000s the theatre had a bit of an uncertain future (read more here), but eventually it was bought, renovated, and re-opened as what it stands as today; The Hot Docs Cinema.

Think we missed some important former Vaudeville theatres? Tweet us your suggestions; @BygoneTheatre #VaudevilleRevue

Want to learn more about Toronto’s theatre history? Check out this amazing blog, where I sourced a lot of our material; Historic Toronto.

We may not have a Vaudeville house to perform in, but we’ll have historic acts on our stage and artifacts and more history like this in our lobby; join us for Vaudeville Revue, June 22-24th, Alumnae Theatre. Tickets on sale now.

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Vaudeville Revue – June 22-24, 2016

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Retro Christmas Countdown – Xmas in the 20th Century

While Christmas dates back hundreds of years before, it was the start of the 20th century that saw the turn towards the lavish and very commercial holiday that we all know today. Here’s a very brief history of Christmas traditions from the last century.

1900s

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The first Christmas card was created in 1843 by John Horsley, and by the turn of the century the Victorian’s love of sentimental greetings had made this a popular tradition.

The Victorian styles of decorating carried into the start of the 20th century, with gilded nuts, candles and paper ornaments adorning trees.

This decade also saw the creation of what was to become one of the most popular children’s toys of the century; the Teddy Bear. Named after President Roosevelt, the charming story of the origin of this toy and its name can be read here.

1910s

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As Christmas rapidly became a highly commercialized holiday, more and more companies used it as a means of selling their products, and the image of Santa Claus began to morph into the one we are familiar with today. It was in the 1910s that Santa’s now unmistakable look, with red suit and pants trimmed in white fur, matching cap and long white beard, began to become the norm.

While a legend has grown that claims Coca Cola invented the modern-day image of Santa, that is not quite the case. Prior to the famous Coca Cola Santa (who was created in 1931), the jolly elf had been portrayed as anything from tall and lanky to a munchkin-sized man. Norman Rockwell had painted a Santa who is strikingly similar to the 30s Coke version all the way back in 1911, however it wasn’t until Coke began regularly producing consistent looking Christmas ads that the current version of St. Nick really began to stick.

For an interesting pictorial history of Santa, check out this link.

1920s

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By the 1920s the upper class had traded-in their candles for electric Christmas lights, and trees were as lavish and daring as the fashions of the decades.

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With the rising popularity of the wireless (radio), the 1920s also saw the first Christmas radio broadcast when, in 1922, Arthur Burrow presented “The Truth About Father Christmas”.

1930s

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Rockefeller Centre, 1931

In the midst of the Great Depression few had money to spend on food and clothing, let alone Christmas gifts and decorations. Still, the tradition of putting up a tree hung on, with many families owning decorations they had purchased in the more prosperous 1920s. Homemade ornaments also adorned the tree, made out of things like the foil paper saved from cigarette packs. As previously mentioned, Coca Cola started to advertise with their own version of Santa, and upbeat Christmas songs were enjoyed on the radio. Advertisements still bombarded shoppers with ideas for the perfect Christmas gift, only their tactics had changed; a focus on the practical and sometimes financing options were promoted.

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The popular character Rudolph, everyone’s favourite red-nosed reindeer, was created in 1939 by Montgomery Ward. Although it wasn’t until a decade later when Gene Autry released the song that we’ve all learned as kids.

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1940s

The 1940s saw the Second World War, and with that came rations and a reminder that the war effort should be supported above all else. Sales in non-necessities like Christmas lights dropped dramatically as many companies changed their focus to assist in the war effort. War bonds were promoted as a perfect gift for any family member or friend, and Santa himself switched his classic red & white outfit to don army duds and support the cause.

With many families missing fathers, brothers and sons overseas, Christmas could have been a bittersweet time. However, back home the masses were reminded to keep their spirits up while fighting the good fight, so many Christmas celebrations resumed some of the splendour they had seen before the Depression.

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1950s

The post-war boom made the Christmas of the 1950s one of the biggest and gaudiest yet. The Baby Boom meant there were lots of families with youngsters, and so the toy market was buzzing. Wide-spread prosperity meant most were lucky enough to be able to afford Christmas celebrations, and women’s magazines, eager to encourage them to return to the home, now that the war was over, pushed for the ideal Christmas season, full of elaborate recipes and decor.

Television was also becoming popular and with it came a host of Christmas specials. Stars like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby recorded Christmas songs and popular shows like I Love Lucy recorded special Christmas episodes.

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1960s

By the 1960s, the fads of the 50s were firmly cemented; every toy imaginable was available on the market and they were advertised directly to children in between the cartoons they watched on tv. The Christmas shows we still see today – Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Frosty the Snowman – first appeared on the airwaves and decorations were more colourful and outlandish than ever before.

There was significant variety now as well. Christmas trees could be anything from your traditional green pine, to the popular aluminum trees that came in silver, aqua and even pink! And don’t forget the fake snow! The concept of “Kitschmas” was truly born in the 1960s.

What’s your favourite Christmas decade? Tweet your replies to @BygoneTheatre #RetroXmas 

-E.

Knock ‘Em Dead! – The Vaudeville Origins of Theatre Slang

Chances are, if you’re not a vintage theatre lover like we are, you don’t know too much about Vaudeville. You’ve likely heard the term thrown around and maybe have a vague image of some old-timey song and dance, cheesy jokes and bad acts being pulled offstage with a hook. You likely know more about Vaudeville from Looney Toons than from the real thing. While Vaudeville may be (sadly) dead, its influence is still alive and well with thanks to the many theatre slang terms the style coined. How many of them do you recognize?

Bugs Bunny gets "the hook".

Bugs Bunny gets “the hook”

Corny Material
Unsophisticated, simple, sentimental, cheesy; all of these describe what many people thought of the humour that came from the small-town country performers in the circuit. Originally the phrase was “stuck in the corn” but as with most slang, it was shortened, becoming the “corny” phrase we know today.

Fozzie Bear's pun-riddled comedy is the epitome of "corny".

Fozzie Bear’s pun-riddled comedy is the epitome of “corny”.

Tough Act to Follow
You want the number before you to warm the audience up, but if they get too hot, chances are you’ll get the cold shoulder. Waiting in the wings would’ve been nerve-wracking for any performer, and if you see a great act just before yours, you know you’ll have a tough time getting the applause you crave.

“Knock ‘Em Dead”, “Lay Them in the Aisles”, “Slay Them”

A little gruesome, sure, but hey kid, that’s showbiz. The theatre world is full of hyperbole which is likely why performers talk about “blowing audiences away” or “knocking them dead” with their stupendous performances. While the exact reasoning behind these rather violent terms isn’t clear, it’s likely due to the fact that in a high-stakes world like theatre, you need an extreme reaction to guarantee you live to play another day. A number that has them laughing so hard they fall into the aisles, or one that gives them a near spiritual experience, knocking them flat, is exactly what any performer would dream of.

Hoofer
Hoofer is the term for a professional dancer, often a tap dancer, whose dance style is close to the floor, emphasizing foot movement over arm or upper body. The term originates from the Vaudeville performers who would pound their feet on the ground prior to coming onstage in order to give the band the proper tempo. This sound, much like a horse pounding it’s hoof, gave rise to the term “hoofers”.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was one of the greatest hoofers of his time.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was one of the greatest hoofers of his time.

Blue Comedy
While Vaudeville’s roots were based in low-brow art forms and could get pretty risque, at the turn of the century there was a big push for “polite Vaudeville”, creating a cleaner version that was suitable for women and families. Many theatres took this very seriously and issued warnings to performers who crossed a line. Vaudevillian Sophie Tucker recalls the dreaded blue envelopes that would deliver the news;

“Between the (Monday) matinee and the night show the blue envelopes began to appear in the performers mailboxes backstage . . . Inside would be a curt order to cut out a blue line of a song, or piece of business. Sometimes there was a suggestion of something you could substitute for the material the manager ordered out . . . There was no arguing about the orders in the blue envelopes. They were final. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn’t work on the Keith Circuit anymore. During my early years on the Keith Circuit, I took my orders from my blue envelope and – no matter what I said or did backstage (and it was plenty) – when I went on for the Monday night show, I was careful to keep within bounds.”

Hence the term, blue comedy.

Give ‘Em The Hook
I found this one hard to believe. Despite having grown up very familiar with the hook trope, the concept of someone actually using a crook to pull a person offstage seems far-fetched. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the phrase and its tradition originates from 1903, at Harry Miner’s Bowery Theatre. Check out some people arguing over the origins here.

Break a Leg

I know everyone and their mother has a theory about where the origins of this line really come from, but the one I tend to go with is one of the simplest, and I think that generally means it’s most likely closest to the truth. Theatre managers would book more acts than they could fit into a show, since audience response would dictate whether or not a bit got to run to completion (we all remember the old Loonie Toons where someone gets pulled off stage with a hook). There was no pay for those who were overbooked and waiting in the wings; you crossed your fingers, hoped the number before you would bomb and that you would break a leg, ie. go past the “legs” (part of the curtains) and get to perform onstage, thereby getting paid. In a business where everyone just wants their shot in the limelights and to make a buck, I’ve gotta believe that’s the right origin.

Red Carpet
This one has a few different origin stories, ranging from Agamemnon walking on a carpet fit for the God’s, to the 20th Century Limited train company rolling it out for its distinguished passengers. But I’ve found a couple sources that link it to Vaudeville, so we’re going to include it in this list. Apparently, headliners and bigger acts often had expensive costumes, and working 8+ shows a week meant they were difficult to keep clean, so a red carpet would be laid down backstage along the path the stars would walk; it was easy to spot if this was clean or not, and so they knew that their costumes were being protected. A little far-fetched? Maybe.

Alley-Oop
A term for a gymnastics routine, often one that involves launching performers into the air. Many of these circus acts were by European performers, and it is likely that the phrase came from the French word “allez” meaning everybody and a vocalization like “hup” to cue when to jump.

The Ziegfeld Follies show off a spectacular acrobatic routine.

The Ziegfeld Follies show off a spectacular acrobatic routine.

In The Limelight
While the phrase today simply means “the centre of attention” this phrase has a very simple origin. A Limelight is better known as a Drummond or Calcium Light and was a popular stage light in the days of Vaudeville. A cylinder of quicklime is heated by an oxyhydrogen flame, creating an intense illumination. Electric lights have long since replaced these, but the term lingers on.

Think we’ve missed any? Tweet them to us at @BygoneTheatre #Vaudeville, and keep posted for more information on Bygone Theatre’s Vaudeville Revue, coming June 2016!

-E.