By Eric Veillette, originally published July 13, 2010
Local kids had high hopes for stardom at Our Gang look-a-like competition.
In the early days of the movie palace, it didn’t take much to get people into the theatres. The seats were always filled with beaming eyes staring at the latest antics of Mary Pickford or Buster Keaton.
Despite jam-packed attendance, theatre managers liked to spruce things up a bit, and give patrons a little more than just a film and a newsreel. How about offering up a prize for grabs?
Closer to home, the fabled Loews & Winter Garden theatres at Yonge & Queen often advertised the same thing. Some smart kid won a brand-new train set for writing the best essay on Charles Dickens prior to a performance of “Our Mutual Friend”.
In July of 1928, the classrooms must have been buzzing because the Toronto Telegramwas advertising that slapstick director Hal Roach was on the search for the best North American Our Gang look-a-likes. The lucky winners would receive $25 and would appear in a new Our Gang film directed by Hal’s brother, Jack. Roach, along with Loew’s-owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Telegram held auditions at the Loew’s Theatre for the next Jean Darling, Farina, Joe Cobb, Mary-Ann Jackson, Harry Spear and Wheezer. It was one of 25 contests held across North America.
With the contest and movie complete, Hal Roach would award one of the kids from one of the films with a three month Hollywood contract worth $100 a week. In the pre-Coogan Bill days, I’m sure greedy parents were eager to get their mitts on that cash. Over the next week, an average of 800 kids per night, dressed as their favourite Our Gangcharacter, would line up the stages of the Loew’s theatre with hopes of Hollywood stardom. On stage, the kids did all their best “look what I can do” routines, while the judges made their selections.
When eight year old Sybil White was announced as Toronto’s “Jean Darling”, she said: “I’m so glad. I’m a singer and a dancer and a reciter and I don’t know what else – and now I’m Jean Darling for Toronto!” The Telegram reported that all the runners-up took their defeat with integrity, although some of those disappointed faces on the first page of the entertainment section tell a different story. It wasn’t the end of the line for them, since the movie, Pie Eetin’ Champeens, would require plenty of extras.
Over the next week, all six winners would grace the stage in full costume prior to a silentOur Gang short entitled Dog Heaven, where a suicidal Pete The Pup wants to hang himself because Joe doesn’t seem to have much time for him anymore because he’s crazy for some gal. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
Pie Eetin’ Champeens was filmed in Toronto in late August of 1928. I’m sure the kids all had a fun time, but in the end, nobody from the Toronto production was chosen for a shot at Hollywood stardom. Might be for the best, ’cause as we’ve learned from Kenneth Anger, Hollywood can be a dirty place.
The World’s Only Surviving Double-decker Theatre
There is something spectacular about these two theatres. Sitting atop one another, the lower theatre opened on December 13, 1913. In attendance was producer Joseph Schenk, architect Thomas Lamb, and composer Irving Berlin, who introduced a new song. Rising seven stories up, the Winter Garden opened later that winter, on February 16, 1914. Showing “Quality Vaudeville and Select Photo-Plays,” it was indeed the most popular show and movie place in town until the Pantages and the Loews Uptown opened up to the north later in the decade.
The Winter Garden, which was never outfitted for talking pictures, was closed in late 1928 due to the declining popularity of Vaudeville and for being in such close proximity to the Loew’s Uptown. The towering seven-storey climb was also becoming quite unpopular, and one could easily see a show with less exercise at the Pantages Theatre a block north.
Once closed, the Winter Garden’s existence was practically wiped from the streets of Toronto; its main entrance was replaced by small shops, the elevators hidden behind a tapestry, and the grand staircase hidden by a false wall.
Throughout the decades, it would remain untouched. Allan M. House, writing in the magazine Marquee in 1971, visited the interior of the Winter Garden in the late 1960s. What he saw was time having stood still for nearly fifty years. The seats were gone, but the stage had been covered in props and scenery from long-gone productions. One of the silent Simplex projectors was found in the lobby –- the neglected victim of the talkie revolution.
The downstairs theatre remained open after the close of the Winter Garden and moved to an all-movie policy on October 3, 1930, showcasing Joan Crawford — whom Loew’s manager Jules Bernstein found “particularly loathsome”– in Our Blushing Brides, and a “Dogville Barkie,” Who Killed Rover?.
The Loew’s Yonge St. Theatre would reign as one Toronto’s best movie-houses throughout the thirties and forites, showing the premieres of Mutiny On The Bounty and City Lights, the latter proving so popular that the management had to authorize a morning screening on its opening day. However, critics received the film with mixed feelings. One young man would tell the Daily Star that “silent films are for the duds”; his sentiment wasn’t shared by everyone — it would be held over for two weeks.
After serving as a grimy theatre, showing trash-worthy material throughout most of the 60s and 70s, the Yonge St. theatre closed in 1981, when the Ontario Heritage Trustacquired the building. Over the next few years, the twin theatres were restored by Mandel Sprachman, the son of noted theatre architect Abe Sprachman, whose firm Kaplan & Sprachman had once commissioned restoration drawings for the Winter Garden back in the mid-1940s. Sprachman’s designs also added 65 000 square feet of new space so that the live theatre that it now housed could open with modernized production facilities in mind. The restoration, without compromising Thomas Lamb’s Heritage-protected designs, also included two new rehearsal halls that also double as performance spaces.
As for the Winter Garden, it had served as Toronto’s deserted theatre for long enough. The missing seats, which researchers think were sold to a Canadian Military base somewhere in Ontario, where replaced by restored seats from Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, the very theatre visited by John Dillinger before he was shot by the FBI. Who knows — if you ever see a show at the Winter Garden, you may be sharing the same seat Dillinger used when he saw Manhattan Melodrama back in 1934.
The Ontario Heritage Trust, a government agency which has owned the building since 1981, holds tours of both Elgin & Winter Garden Theatres every Thursday at 5 pm and Saturday at 11 am. Original source for the article came from a mention of the Our Gang contest in Marquee: The Journal of the Theatre Historical Society, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1971. Further research provided by The Toronto Telegram and The Toronto Daily Star, Jul 28-Aug 5, 1928. The above photos were taken by Eric Veillette during a tour of the Elgin & Winter Garden during Doors Open Toronto 2008.
It is also worth noting that Pie Eetin’ Champeens does not figure among the Our Gang filmography. The film, while shot, was never officially released, but I speculate that it may have played at the Loew’s Theatre upon completion.
Eric Veillette is a Toronto-based writer and film programmer. A regular contributor to the Toronto Star, he often examines our city’s dearly departed movie houses and how they helped shape much of our urban landscape. In the world of film, he has programmed outdoor silent film restrospectives for TIFF, and runs Silent Sundays, Creepy Classics and other special events at the Revue Cinema and Fox Theatre. His musings can be found at SilentToronto.com or on Twitter @32elvismovies.