By Christopher Wright, originally published September 27, 2011, with edits by Heritage Toronto staff, November 11, 2016
From serving up double-features to double-doubles
In 1935, a service station stood on the south-east corner of Greenwood and Danforth and next door was a vacant lot. In February of 1936, Charles Wagman and Hyman Starkman received building permits from the City of Toronto to build a movie theatre, at an estimated cost of $10,500. On May 22 of that same year an ad appeared in the Toronto Daily Star under the heading Help Wanted – “Young, experienced girl as cashier; must be of good appearance. Apply Allenby Theatre Danforth-Greenwood. Saturday, 10:30 a.m.” – and with that, the Allenby Theatre was open for business.
The interwar period was the heyday for film. Poor and working-class people flocked to theatres. 95 million people per week were going to the movies in North America, looking for escape. The architectural firm of Kaplan & Sprachman designed between 70 and 80 percent of all movie theatres built in Canada between 1921 and 1950, including the Allenby Theatre. Neighbourhood theatres entertained with film, but they often also served as community meeting spaces.
Area residents would gather at the Allenby Theatre to watch newsreels during World War II, and even attend bible lectures on Sundays. Unfortunately, during the 1950s and 1960s neighborhood theatres met their match with television. People wanted to spend time at home with their families and TV was a cheap alternative to going out to the movies. The sharp decline in movie-goers and the preference to stay at home with family marked the end for many neighbourhood theatres; however, the Allenby started to carve out a new niche.
In 1970 the Allenby was briefly renamed the “Apollo”, screening Greek films, but by 1971 ads had started to appear in the Toronto Daily Star under yet another name. The “Films of Japan Festival”, featuring the Canadian premiere of Chushingura, was being proudly presented by the “Roxy.”
From 1972 to 1976, under the management of Gary Topp, the theatre was called “The Original 99 Cent Roxy” and featured foreign and art films such as Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys or Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels.
In the mid 1970s John Lidolt was hired to run the theater, which reverted to the name the “Roxy.” The Roxy is likely the name most area residents will best remember. The theatre began attracting people in numbers it had not seen since before World War II. The resurgence of the theatre’s popularity was in large part due to Lidolt’s promotion of two specific movies: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Song Remains the Same
The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered in Los Angeles in late 1975, to little commercial success. According to the movie’s official fan site, a small but faithful group of fans at the Waverly Theatre in New York City introduced “counterpoint dialogue” on Labour Day weekend in 1976. They would yell back at the movie characters, creating an interactive audience experience. That Halloween people came dressed as the movie’s characters, and soon people were dressing up for every screening. The trend spread quickly and here in Toronto Lidolt noticed patrons at the Roxy showing up dressed in costumes. He was quick to encourage both patrons and staff to embrace this new movie going experience and the Roxy rode the wave of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s cult status explosion.
The concert film featuring Led Zeppelin, The Song That Remains the Same, was a whole different kind of movie-going experience at the Roxy. Audiences would lean back and draw in both the movie’s live concert footage and the strange “out-of-concert” fantasy sequences through dense clouds of marijuana smoke. It was the only official live visual document Led Zeppelin fans were able to access, practically guaranteeing the movie’s popularity.
Eventually, the audiences dwindled and the Roxy was forced to close its doors. The theatre was boarded up and seemingly faced demolition, the same fate as so many other Canadian neighbourhood theatres. But Toronto Preservation Services had listed the theatre on its Inventory of Heritage Properties in 1985, a clear statement from the City that they wanted the heritage of the building to be preserved.
On February 6, 2007 City Council enacted a by-law under the Ontario Heritage Act, further protecting the building’s architectural and historical heritage. In November of that same year the new owner of the theatre, Imperial Oil, made an application to restore the historic façade as part of a redevelopment project. The project was approved and ERA Architects, a firm specializing in heritage architecture, was hired to oversee the restoration. ERA is a firm that has worked on a number of other heritage buildings in Toronto, such as the Flatiron Building, St. Lawrence Hall and Union Station.
The construction of the Allenby Theatre straddled two design periods. Its Art Modern design also incorporates elements of Art Deco, which was just gaining recognition in Canada during the mid-1930s. Kirsty Bruce, of ERA, notes that the vertical lines of the Allenby’s upper façade are characteristic of Art Moderne, while the horizontal and curved lines at street-level hint at an Art Deco influence. The scale and architectural details of the Allenby Theatre distinguishes it from other properties on the Danforth, making it a local landmark.
With the completion of the redevelopment project, the corner of Greenwood and Danforth is moving forward while maintaining ties to its past. There is once again a service station on the corner and the Allenby Theatre is now home to a modern community meeting space – a coffee shop, and you can’t get much more “Canadian” than Tim Hortons!
On October 2, 2011 Imperial Oil, Tim Hortons and City Councilor Paula Fletcher will host an unveiling ceremony of a bronze Heritage Toronto Inventory of Heritage Properties plaque. The plaque will recognize the Allenby Theatre’s architectural and cultural significance within the context of both the neighbourhood and the City of Toronto.