Toronto is changing. Nowhere is it clearer than in the downtown core. Large parts of the city’s centre are being torn down and rebuilt, notably Regent Park. Industrial lands are being transformed into condos, such as CitySpace, Liberty Village and the Distillery, and thanks to the recent PanAm Games, our waterfront is finally getting attention. Perhaps the biggest change is the Yonge Street strip, particularly between Dundas and Bloor. Nestled between what was once hippie Yorkville to the north and Toronto’s seedy underbelly to the south, this part of Yonge contained old, decrepit buildings, seedy massage parlours, and dive bars. These areas have transformed, replaced by posh shopping districts and civic squares. With the opening of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival just days away, it seems appropriate to explore the festival’s relationship with the Yonge/Bloor intersection, paying particular attention to its use of movie theatres. Sadly, these buildings are no longer standing, but by exploring the history of TIFF venues, we can understand Toronto’s evolution from a quaint bedroom community to a growing international cosmopolitan centre.
In the past decade, the south side of Bloor at Yonge has undergone enormous transformation. On the southwest corner, Strollerys, a men’s fashion store that’s been in business for over a century, sold its equally old building to condo developers who plan to build an 80-storey condo development; on the southeast corner construction is well underway on One Bloor East, a 75-storey glass condo that is already transforming the intersection. It is hard to believe that as late as 2007 this corner contained only a two-storey commercial building that housed an optometry shop, a Harvey’s and a row of pay telephones. For years the intersection represented Toronto at a crossroad. Flanked by two subway lines and monstrous office towers on the north side, the south side was underdeveloped and neglected. It’s symbolic of Toronto’s late evolution: as late as December 1986, the New York Times mockingly commented on our ban of Sunday shopping. But long before the intersection was in a state of uncertainty, two neighbourhood movie theatres were erected. One was small and quaint, the other a palace.
Given its history of second-run and art films, the Towne Cinema became an ideal venue for TIFF, then known as the Festival of Festivals. The theatre operated until September 13, 1986, when the Festival of Festivals wrapped up.
The Towne Cinema was located at 57 Bloor Street East, just east of the intersection. It opened in 1949, and its first movie was Concert Magic (1948). Originally owned by a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, it became part of the Famous Players chain in 1969. It was a small theatre, containing a combined 700 seats on both the main floor and balcony. The balcony was immediately above the Bloor Street lobby, making it a considerable distance from the screen. A square, modernist style, it was designed by the famed architecture team of Kaplan and Sprachman. During the ’50s and ’60s, the hippie Yorkville was bohemian, so the theatre gained a niche for playing new releases, international art films and second-run movies. Titles included Bicycle Thieves (1948), City Lights (1931), and La Strada (1954). The venue was apparently too narrow, so the screen wasn’t wide enough for the amount of seats in the venue.
Given its history of second-run and art films, the Towne became an ideal venue for TIFF, then known as the Festival of Festivals. According to the Globe and Mail’s A Reel History 1976–2012, a collection of TIFF-related newspaper articles, the Towne was used by TIFF as early as 1978, when Midnight Express (1978) screened. The theatre operated until September 13, 1986, when the Festival of Festivals wrapped up. Famous Players closed it and the University, just a few blocks west on Bloor, on the same day. A few years later, it was torn down. It’s replaced by an office tower.
On the west side of Yonge Street, just south of Bloor stood the Uptown Theatre. A genuine palace of Toronto movie theatres, it was one of the downtown core’s largest theatres. Originally operated by Loew’s, it opened in 1920 as a single auditorium containing 3000 seats; its first screening was D.W. Griffith’s The Love Flower; it was apparently accompanied by a live orchestra. A fire in 1960 damaged the opulent dome, and organ grills; the two-year renovations replaced it with plaster. It closed for two years for renovations. Infamously, when 20th Century took over the theatre in 1969, it converted the theatre into five screens. The largest screen, located on what was the balcony, contained 1000 seats and showed first-run movies, and so did two smaller screens that also shared the Yonge Street entrance. Two other theatres had their entrance on Balmuto Street and became a separate theatre, the Backstage; they specialized in art films, including long runs of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980). With the loss of the Imperial Six and the University Theatres in the 1980s, the Uptown became the downtown core’s largest theatre venue.
On the west side of Yonge Street, just south of Bloor stood the Uptown Theatre. A genuine palace of Toronto movie theatres, it was one of the downtown core’s largest and most opulent theatres.
The Yonge Street frontage did little to hint at the theatre’s rich interior history. The store front was small, and by the 1980s was flanked on either side by thrift shops. Yet despite its dreary exterior, the Uptown became an important TIFF venue, the lobby with its beautifully preserved ornate decorations a warm welcome to audiences. The Backstage was even the initial home for Cinematheque Ontario, TIFF’s year-round programming for dedicated cinephiles. In a 2010 interview with CityNews, Senior Programmer James Quandt spoke about the limitations of the theatre: “Because of the summer season being the big blockbuster season we always lost the cinema for three months. So we never had a summer programme…”
The demise of the Uptown is not a pretty one. After a court decision in 2001, Famous Players was ordered to make a number of its older theatres, including the Uptown, accessible for people with mobility issues. Not wanting to invest the amount required to maintain the theatres, the Backstage was closed immediately. The Uptown closed two years later immediately following TIFF. Located on prime real estate, the structure was torn down. During the December 2003 demolition, a portion of the theatre collapsed onto an adjacent structure, then a language school, killing one person and injuring 14 others. The contractor was eventually fined. Several years later, a large condominium tower, Uptown Residences, opened on the same lot.
In the years since we lost the Uptown, the movie-going experience has changed drastically. We are decades removed from the proliferation of neighbourhood theatres that were typical of Toronto’s early movie history. (Some, thankfully, still operate.) The multiplex, with its small, living room-sized theatres, was replaced with stacked-stadium venues. Yet among the changes, TIFF has grown and evolved. Its Bell Lightbox, a five-storey venue, continues the Cinematheque’s mission to screen hidden gems year round. It has grown into an important international film festival. And it continues to play a role in Toronto’s film culture.