By Tracy Chen, originally published November 10, 2010
One of Toronto’s oldest repertory theatre still thrives
The Bloor Cinema, one of Toronto’s oldest cinemas, has been nestled in the Annex for almost a century. This repertory theatre is known for its mélange of cult favourites, second-run and limited-release films. Popular screenings include the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo: The Genetic Opera, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Casablanca. “It’s rapidly becoming one of the last cinemas of its kind,” says Sam Abel, a Rocky Horror cast member. “Old-school cinemas are shutting down because they can’t support themselves.”
The original theatre that stood at 506 Bloor St. W. was called the Madison Picture Palace. It officially opened its doors on Dec. 23, 1913. The property owner, John Brady was also a hotel owner at Yonge and Wilton Street (now Dundas Square). Before opening the Madison, he leased a smaller scale theatre called the Minier’s Comique (located at 279 Yonge St.) next to his hotel. The architect of the Madison was J. A. Mackenzie and the building was 164 feet (50 meters) wide and 505 feet deep (154 meters), which was considered exceptionally wide for a theatre at that time. The Madison had 999 seats and the opening film was Alexia Strategy, a two-part production starring Mary Fuller. In its ads, the Madison promoted its “high-class orchestral music”. “Opening at the end of 1913, it would have been one of the first Picture Palaces in Toronto,” says Paul Moore, director of the Canadian Theatre Historical Project and Ryerson University professor.
Later the Madison would face competition from other theatres. On March 19, 1919, the Bloor Theatre (now Lee’s Palace), opened as part of the Allen’s national chain of cinemas at 529 Bloor W. On Nov. 17, 1919, the Alhambra, part of Famous Players opened at 568 Bloor St. W. By the end of the 1919, there were three picture palaces at Bathurst and Bloor.
By the late 1940s, the Madison closed down and was entirely rebuilt. Only the sides and the rear exterior were left standing. On May 8, 1941, the Midtown opened as part of Nat Taylor’s “Twentieth Century” chain. By the end of the year, the theatre would later become a branch of Famous Players. Kaplan and Sprachman, one of the most prolific theatre architects firms in Canada designed the Midtown. The Midtown ran successfully for decades before hard times hit many cinemas in Toronto.
By the early 1960s, many movie theatres in Toronto were closing down. According to box office statistics in the Canadian Film and TV Weekly Yearbook 1970-71 edition, admissions to movie theatres in 1955 were over 200 million. By 1965, the movie theatre admissions had dropped to under 100 million. In 1966, the Midtown closed down and reopened on Dec. 22 as the Capri. With the sexual revolution emerging, the Capri was renamed and changed into another kind of theatre. The Eden opened on June 14, 1973 and was paired up with the Eve, the former Alhambra a block away showcasing softcore pornography. The Eden reopened as the Bloor on March 16, 1979.
By the end of 1980, Carm Bordonaro and Festival Cinema’s Tom Litvinkas and Jerry Szczur took over the theatre, renaming it the Bloor Cinema. Then came the brainstorm: Bordonaro started selling memberships for five dollars, which allowed patrons to pay only 99 cents per film. His strategy, like Ed Mirvish’s, was to sell volume.
One winter day in December 1980, Bordonaro left the front door open with a sign that saying opening day was December 26 and that memberships were on sale. That day he sold 160 cards, worth $800. “Every night we used to get 1,500 people,” he says. “If we got 400 or 500 people, we thought that it wasn’t a good night.” Back then the lobby was twice the size, with two box offices – one inside and one out. Sometimes shows would start 30 minutes late because of long lineups. “We used to laugh,” says Bordonaro. “Throwing pennies back at them.” Bordonaro split from his partners after just two years due to differences. The Festival Cinema’s lease was terminated on April 2, 1999. Bordonaro returned to the Bloor and now runs theatre with his brother, Paul.
Bordonaro’s run with the Bloor has been eventful. On Jan. 16, 2004, the ceiling of the Bloor Cinema collapsed during the Canadian premiere of The Corporation, forcing the audience to leave without finishing the movie. Although Moore wasn’t at the Bloor that day, he remembers the aftermath. “I remember people walking around on Bloor Street with bits of plaster as souvenirs after show had to be dispersed because the ceiling fell in,” he says. The Bloor reopened on March 19, 2004.
Today, tickets cost $6 and this includes a membership valid for six months. Cinema rentals and special events contribute a large part of the Bloor’s revenue. The theatre showcases a kaleidoscope of film festivals, including Hot Docs, the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. “They bring crowds,” says Bordonaro.
Despite the loss of other first-run cinemas in Toronto, including the Capitol (1998) and the Eglinton (2002), the Bloor’s location, in the Annex just east of Bathurst Street, seems to insure its survival. The Annex community is comprised of university students and new immigrants, yet is also one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Toronto. Bordonaro says the local residents who regularly support his cinema are “fantastic,” although he has trouble describing them: “You get the skinny punk with 100 piercings,” he says, “to the sweet old lady with the blue hair.” The Bloor’s 863 seats aren’t as comfy as the ones in most Cineplex Odeon’s, yet regulars feel at home.