MOVIE HOUSE MEMORIES
Known today as The Canon, this Toronto movie house
once was The Imperial and before that The Pantages.
Originally containing 3.346 seats, it was touted as
the largest movie theater in the British Empire.
Missing those palaces
where films once ruled
By JIM BAWDEN
So here I am on a sweltering July evening, power-walking along Torontos Danforth Avenue. Its doctors orders get more active but it also enables me to revisit my boulevard of kids broken dreams.
That because Danforth was my street as far as movie-going was concerned in the Fifties when I was in public school. In the first 15 blocks I could count nine cinemas, all catering to the family trade. Nothing first-run here but second-run movies double-billed in those days when everybody went to the movies at least once a week.
And on this specific evening I could only count two cinemas still recognizable. At Danforth and Broadview theres the 1919 vaudeville theater The Music Hall, formerly The Century. After more than 80 years as a picture palace it now is the venue for rock concerts and one man turns by comedians.
I went there often because it was nearest to my parents house. But only on Saturdays in those days. We called them Kids Matinees and for all of 35 cents I and my mates got two features, a serial, a Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy short plus previews of upcoming attractions. TV was still in its infancy but we couldnt stay indoors all the time. The matinee was a chance to congregate, race up and down the aisles and even sit down and watch if the movie was any good.
I really liked "The Little Kidnappers" (1954) and saw it twice, once at the Century and weeks later at the Odeon Danforth down the street. I also remember trying to watch "Patterns" (1956) at a Palace matinee. Couldnt understand it at all and now that I think about it what a weird choice for kids to savor.
At some point the cinema manager would stride forth and hold a raffle using the ticket serial numbers. Gifts might include a kids bicycle, new comic books, dolls, even kids-sized china mugs, stuff like that. In the decaying Crown movie emporium the manager would also entreat the youngsters to refrain from stomping on the creaking wooden floor. It usually had the opposite effect and the floor would fairly groan with the stomping of hundreds of small feet.
I thought of all this when walking past the Alhambra movie house with its kitschy Moorish architecture. Its pretty much extant, but instead of showing movies the hall now gets rented out for weddings and parties. With the area now inhabited by Muslim immigrants the Alhambra suddenly seems to fit in with the falafel meat stores, the mosque currently being reconstructed and the veiled women who stride up and down the avenue.
Other cinemas of my youth still stand but have been converted to other uses. The Palace is now an office building. The Odeon Danforth is a high ceilinged gymnasium.
The only cinemas left showing movies are a few revival houses out in Torontos neighbourhoods. The huge downtown cinemas have either been demolished or converted into legitimate houses.
Loews with its mighty 2,088 seats is now The Elgin with the touring company of "Dirty Dancing" currently in residence. I frequented Loews a lot in the early Sixties--it usually showed MGM and UA first run pictures. It was big news when Universals "Pillow Talk" opened here in 1959.
Down the street theres the Canon theatre, which started out as the Pantages and later became the Imperial--at 3,346 seats it was long advertised as the largest cinema in the British Empire. That was so long ago England still boasted an Empire. At the Imperial, the playing of "God Save The Queen" always started the fare, which was not so unusual in those days. If you attended NHL hockey games at Maple Leaf Gardens (soon to be converted into a Home Depot store) the lights would dim as a spotlight shone on the gigantic mural of Elizabeth II.
I was only in Shea's, the cavernous downtown cinema, once. That was in 1955 on the last day it was open. At 2,663 seats it was a great place to lose oneself in watching a movie. I had my mom take me and my brother because it was such an auspicious occasion. The picture was "How To Be Very, Very Popular" with Betty Grable.
I saw "But Not For Me" with Clark Gable at the Imperial in 1959, just about the first time I was allowed to venture downtown on my own. The matinee only attracted a handful of patrons, an indication the Imperials grandeur was beginning to fade.
When I was recently in Hamilton, the next city over from Toronto, I noticed all four of the gigantic downtown movie palaces were gone. The Century which started out as the Lyric (Cary Grant and Mae West were vaudeville stars there) is being turned into trendy lofts. The twin cinemas Palace and Capital were demolished in the 1980s and the Tivoli, which was supposed to remain, had its roof cave in after a brutal snowstorm a few years back.
Talking to Sam Hebscher who ran both the Cap and the Palace in their heydays, is always a delight. Now a gloriously preserved 93-year-old, Hebscher remembers the Forties as the busiest time for movie-going. Hamilton had the nations two biggest steel mills and with wartime need for steel the mills ran on three shifts a day. Hebscher noticed night workers got off at 9 a.m. so he invented a 9:45 a.m. showing just for them.
Many mornings we filled both theaters, he says. The SRO signs were out. People couldnt go home after nine hours in the mills. They needed to relax so they came to our shows and then went home. Remember it was wartime, emotions were high and one morning I even caught one couple making out at 10 a.m. The movie was 'Mrs. Miniver,' if you can believe that!
When TV came in Hebscher jumped to Hamiltons sole TV outlet CHCH. He was in charge of buying the movies and it was the years running the Cap and Palace that made him so expert. CHCH boasted more World Premieres than all the U.S. networks combined. ABC wanted to advertise "The Ten Commandments" as a premiere, but had to withdraw its ads after Hebscher protested CHCH had already shown the epic weeks earlier.
About his movie theatre tenure Hebscher remains nostalgic: It had been a habit, weekly attendance. Then the numbers started to decline. It hurt to see such grand palaces wither away.
I remembered the last week the Palace was open (some time in 1979)the cinema was reduced to showing old Jeanette MacDonald musicals. So I watched "Bittersweet" and when I looked around I could see only three other patrons had turned up. The remaining 2,233 seats were empty.
Thats why wherever Ive traveled I try to take in the local bijou. You never knew when another cinema would shutter. On Hollywood Boulevard I was part of a crowd of just five people for a matinee of "The Omen." It was in cavernous Pantages theatre, which later became a legit house. (I saw Rex Harrison in a "My Fair Lady" revival there).
Watching a movie in a theatre is part of a collective experience. The crowd around you roars with laughter and you start laughing, too. Watching in todays movie complex with 20 identical theatres just isnt the same, I tell you.
And I dont get that same experience from my TV set. I dont care if DVD gives me a perfect picture and the ability to stop and go back to study scenes. Its the smell of popcorn I miss. Coming out of a matinee and blinking in the late afternoon light is another experience thats gone.
A neighbor invited me in to see his huge wall-sized TV screen, but all I got from that was a stiff neck. Well, if thats the future I want to go back to the past to those air conditioned afternoons when watching a movie in an old movie palace was one of lifes purest pleasures.
©2008 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted July 21, 2008.
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