Boy, when I was a kid it was impossible to walk along any busy street in Toronto and not pass a movie theatre. The vast majority of these neighbourhood movie houses were privately owned and operated. The flicks they showed were very rarely first run films, that was left to the studio chains such as 20th Century. The Parliament was possibly the only one that showed first run movies in the Cabbagetown area.
I have heard many times that television nearly killed Hollywood and, after viewing some of these shows closing dates, I'd have to agree. Many of them seemed to have given up the ghost in the early to mid fifties during television's golden years.
Cabbagetown had it's fair share of movie houses, and a lot more that were well within a half-hour walking distance. My favourite was the Gay at Parliament and Dundas. Up until 1954 it had been known as the Bluebell; at this time it was renovated and renamed. It was owned by Mr. Zelig Unger who ruled it with an iron fist on Saturday afternoons. This was because of the rowdy kids that attended. There was even a guy there whose job it was to toss out any misbehaving kids. It was not uncommon to receive a boot to the ass upon ejection.
Ted Plantos once commented that Mr. Unger looked quite a bit like Edward G. Robinson of movie gangster fame. When I thought about it I had to agree. I remember him standing out front before the matinees, always in a suit and tie, blocking troublemaking kids from entering the theatre. The bouncer who was also the ticket taker stopped the ones that he missed. It seemed to me that Mr. Unger's eyes gleamed as kid after kid slapped their quarters down at the box office. The Saturday matinee always guaranteed a full house. This was before theatres were allowed to open on Sundays in Toronto. So it was the Saturday matinee or nothing.
Another area show that was down at Queen and Tracy was the Empire. I could only describe this place as being the worst dump I'd ever been in. The place was about as rundown as possible with torn seats and gaping holes in the screen. Unlike the Gay, it was easy to sneak in but was rumoured to be infested with rats, and I had a morbid fear of rats even though I'd never seen a real one. I had this fear because a neighbour's baby had had it's hand gnawed on by a rat while resting in it's crib. So I usually steered clear of the Empire.
The Parliament, which was probably the classiest joint around, had photo nights on Thursdays. A couple of kids accompanied by two adults would be admitted free and get an autographed picture of whoever was starring in the film that was showing at the time. If our parents didn't feel like going we'd just wait until some adults that we knew came along and get them to bring us in. Due to a severe lack of money we had to get our freebies any way we could.
Although I’d been in most of the theatres within a reasonable distance to my home there is one that I never got around to visiting that I wish I had. That was the Island Theatre on Centre Island. My family used spend a great deal of time on Centre Island before the city tore down all the houses there, but that‘s another story. There was just so many things to do over there that I never got around to attending that movie house.
Below is a list of theatres that are no longer around with one or two exceptions. I only concentrated on the ones located east of Yonge Street because that’s where I lived. At the bottom of this page are links to a couple of very good sites that I researched this material from. I suggest that you visit them if you would like more info on Toronto theatres both past and present.
Ace - See Iola
Allen - Tivoli Theatre 17 Richmond E. closed 1973
Allenby Theatre 1215 Danforth closed 1970
Avalon Theatre 2923 Danforth closed 1955
Bayview Theatre 605 Bayview closed 1961
Beach Theatre 1971 Queen E. closed 1970
Belsize Theatre 551 Mt. Plesant closed 1950
Birchcliff Theatre Kingston Road at Warden closed 1974
Bluebell - Gay Theatre 309 Parliament closed 1964
Bonita Theatre 1035 Gerrard E. closed 1964
Broadview Theatre 348 Broadview closed 1945
Cameo Theatre 989 Pape closed 1957
Carlton Theatre 511 Parliament closed 1954
Century - See Danforth
Classic Theatre 1300 Gerrard E. closed 1956
Community Theatre 1202 Woodbine closed 1955
Crown Theatre 589 Gerrard closed 1956
Danforth Theatre - Century 151 Danforth now the Music Hall
Donlands Theatre 397 Donlands Ave. closed 1969
Eastwood Theatre 1430 Gerrard E. closed 1966
Eclipse Theatre 387 Parliament closed 1951
Elane Theatre Eglinton and Danforth Rd. closed 1985
Empire - See Rialto
Esquire - See Rialto
Family Theatre Queen and Lee closed 1948
Fox Theatre 2236 Queen E. Still Operating
Gay - See Bluebell
Gerrard Theatre 1908 Gerrard E. closed 1953
Granada Theatre 413-7 Danforth closed 1960
Grover Theatre 2714 Danforth closed 1956
Guild Theatre 1275 Gerrard closed 1951
Ideal Theatre 210 Main Street closed 1952
Iola - Ace Theatre 605 Danforth closed 1954
Island Theatre, Centre Island closed 1955
Joy - See Rex
Kingswood Theatre 992 Kinston Rd. closed 1938
La Plaza Theatre 735 Queen E. closed 1958
La Reta Theatre - Pape Theatre 336 Pape closed 1955
Lake Theatre 2173 Queen East closed 1953
Manor 202 Kingston Rd. closed 1940
Model Theatre 416 Danforth closed 1933
Oxford Theatre 1510 Danforth closed 1955
Palace Theatre 664 Danforth closed 1987
Parliament Theatre 427 Parliament closed 1963
Prince of Wales Theatre 2094 Danforth closed 1966
Queen Theatre 1574 Queen E. closed 1944
Regent Theatre 225 Queen E. closed 1950
Rex - Joy Theatre 1130 Queen E. closed 1953
Rialto - Esquire - Empire Theatre 408 Queen E. closed 1955
Scarboro Theatre 958-60 Kingston Rd. closed 1966
Tivoli - See Allen
Towne Cinema 57 Bloor E. closed 1985
Victoria Theatre 83 Victoria Street closed 1952
This would be a typical Saturday afternoon spent at our rough and tumble neighbourhood movie house for our group of kids in the fifties. The name of the place was the Bluebelle, later to be renamed The Gay. This was one of at least five theatres in Cabbagetown that were within a few minutes walk of my home. It was a run-down dump as were most of the others in the area. What made this one standout was the fact that it almost always showed Sci-fi B movies from the era at the matinee. These were never first run showings and quite often these movies had been playing elsewhere for months before we got to see them.
Round about noon every Saturday, off we would go with with our 25 cent admission fee tucked snugly in our pockets. Bobbing in and out of laneways and climbing a few fences, all the while picking up a more and more friends along the way before finally reaching the local movie house. There we would slap down the quarter and dash over to the candy bar to fill up on popcorn and drinks before melting into our seats.
What would happen this week? Last week our fearless heros beat the spaceguys and saved the world. Could they do it again this week? We all knew our heros would win in the end, but maybe, just maybe, the spaceguys would do us in this time. Could the giant monster stomp out the entire world or would the Mad Scientist unleash his secret weapon and destroy us all before our heros could bust down the door of his lab and punch him out. Naw, not a chance, bad guys just could't beat our good guys.
There was never an empty seat in the house so we had to get there early to make sure we got in. The anticipation would build as we sat there talking and waiting for that magic moment when the screen would light up. Horseplay, catcalls and harmless insults would usually echo off the walls during this time. Some kid would scream across the theatre. "Hey Jimmy, you're a goof." "Shut up or I'll come over there and smack ya." Jimmy would shout back. "Yeah sure, any time you wanna try." Came the final reply before moving on to the next round of insults.
If any of the kids got a bit too spunky they were immediately tossed out the door. This was one of Toronto's roughest areas and to my knowledge this was the only Saturday matinee in the city to actually have a bouncer to control the rowdies. He'd just grab them by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants and run them out with their feet touching the floor maybe once or twice on the way up the isle. If there was any protest or he was called a nasty name by the ejectee, they'd get his boot across the ass. Whenever the film broke, and it did quite often , the kids would go absolutely nuts by tossing stuff at the screen, this caused the bouncer to run around shouting at the top of his lungs, "Smarten up or you're outta here, you too, smarten up." I always considered him to be in his glory when this was happening.
Finally, the house lights dimmed and Bill Haley stopped singing See You Later Alligator. A deathly silence came over the place as a distorted projection appeared on the curtains as they began to open. First on the agenda would be the trailers announcing what horrors would be gracing the screen next week. This would cause various gasps and screams throughout the audience. These power-packed vignettes had every special effect and scary scene that could be shoved into the two or so minutes they took to run. Quite often they were better than the whole flick. But that mattered very little since we knew we'd be back to see these ones too.
Then came the first of the two Feature Presentations. When everybody realized that the festivities were beginning, the place would erupt with hoots, howls, cheers and the odd ear piercing wolf whistle from a row or two back. This noise would soon die down as the last of the credits rolled past our eyeballs and the film began. We didn't care who was in the movie, we just wanted to see it. C'mon, cut the crap, bring on the monsters, bring on the flying saucers, bring on anything. There we would sit in awe as weird and frightening sights flashed across the screen in a never ending parade of wonderment. Flying saucers from distant planets with names that all sounded sinister but somehow familar. Evil spacemen with ray guns that blasted people into a tiny pile of dust. Giant lizzards and other mutations stomping cars and buildings into the ground and snacking on a few dozen people. Tons and tons of army guys in tanks and trucks shooting thousands of bullets and shells at the invaders without success. Every sci-fi movie had to have the army in it no matter how useless they were. We usually had to wait till damn near the end when the Scientist dude or gal came up with some ingenious method to defeat enemy. Yes, there we sat, cringing in horror when we knew a good guy was going to get blasted into oblivion the minute he went around that corner, or jumping up and cheering when one of our heros dusted an invader. We'd sit there knowing that sooner or later the Beautiful Scientist Lady was going to fall flat on her face while getting chased by the monster. This, of course caused ripples of laughter throughout the whole joint. Then in the end, when the Handsome Fearless Leader finally kisses the Lovely Scientist Lady, he would do so to a resounding round of boos.
Then the closing credits would roll and it was time for a few cartoons and maybe a movie serial. Then the second feature would play and we'd go through it all again. When we finally got out hours later it was time to critically discuss the films we'd just seen over a ten cent order of Frenchie's french fries. "Hey, did you guys see that guy get blasted by the ray gun?" I'd throw out there for anyone that wanted to reply. "Yeah, but you didn't, you had your eyes closed." Sez Terry. "I did not" Sez me. "You did so, I was watching you, you goof." Sez he. "Well, if I'm a goof, what's that make you?" I spit out fearing defeat. I did close my eyes but would go to my grave denying it. "Ah C'mon, let's go over to the school yard." Terry suggested and away we went. Everything we saw that day, each and every one of those picture frames would burn its way into our memory banks to savor for bedtime. That's when the monsters and spacemen would jump back to life again. As soon as the lights were out and the night was quiet, we just knew that we were not alone in that room. Could that man from the ''PLANET X'' be lurking in the closet, or was ''THE BLOB'' oozing it's way down the street looking for a victim. We knew that pulling the covers over our eyes wouldn't really protect us, but it was somehow more comforting than staring into that foreboding darkness. Eventually we'd drift off to sleep and survive that Saturday night, but that just meant we had to suffer through another week of school before being able to repeat the whole wonderful experience again the next week. I still love to watch those old sci-fi flicks from back then. As a matter of fact I have quite a collection of them. I may not sit there in total awe as I did then but I find them just as entertaining. To me even the bad ones are good. I've got a corn popper and the fridge is always full of drinks. The only thing missing is the good old Bluebelle/Gay theatre, and I miss that a lot.