By Jamie Bradburn, originally published April 20, 2011
Once felled by fire, ultimately a victim of University Avenue
Looking for entertainment at the intersection of King Street and University Avenue? By day, there is the parade of suits heading into the financial district, the steady stream of traffic at rush hour, and the occasional panhandler. By night there are the antics of revellers who downed one drink too many in the entertainment district or the occasional theatregoer warbling a tune from a show at the Royal Alexandra or Princess of Wales as they head to the subway. What is now the south side of this intersection was for forty years the home of one of Toronto’s most popular theatres, one whose incarnations were divided by a destructive fire. A spot where drivers curse rush hour traffic was once a place where theatrical legends like Henry Irving and Ellen Terry mounted the stage of the Princess Theatre.
The Princess opened around 1890 as the Academy of Music, which was notable for being the first building in the city to be fully electrified. Various activities were run under its roof, from acting schools (among whose students was Walter Huston, the patriarch of a Hollywood dynasty) to political rallies (such as one during the 1891 federal election campaign where John A. Macdonald uttered “a British subject I was born, a British subject I will die”). Around 1895 the name was changed to the Princess and the venue served as the Toronto base for touring productions operated by the powerful Klaw and Erlanger theatrical syndicate. A rivalry developed between the Princess and the Royal Alexandra further west on King Street, as the latter saw productions brought in by the rival Shubert Organization.
Just after 2:00am on May 7, 1915, a police constable strolling along King Street noticed flames coming out of the offices of the Metropolitan Racing Association, located above the entrance of the theatre. Firefighters were quickly summoned and spent the next three hours battling the blaze. The Toronto News described the spread of the fire through the building:
The fire was a puzzling one, for when the firemen appeared on the scene, it appeared as if only the offices of the Metropolitan Racing Association were on fire, and the firemen confined their efforts to this part of the building. The hall on the first floor where boxing contests are usually held was completely gutted before the blaze in this part of the building was got under control.
It was thought that the fire was practically out when suddenly flames were seen playing about the ceiling of the theatre and on top of the stage. The fire had crept up the ceiling of the Metropolitan Racing Clubrooms to the back of the gallery, which is directly behind the roof of the clubrooms, and had then shot along the ventilator between the ceiling and roof of the theatre and ignited the ropes and scenery on stage.
Around 3:30am, the ceiling started to crumble and firefighters were told to clear the area. “Hardly had the warning gone forth.” noted the News, “when there was a tearing, rending sound and with a roar the whole roof of the theatre caved in, carrying parts of the gallery and balcony with it.” Four men narrowly escaped being crushed.
The blaze was contained within the Princess – it was said that patrons in neighbouring hotels didn’t notice anything amiss until they sat down for breakfast later that morning. The city architect quickly appeared on the scene once the flames died down and noted to reporters that the theatre had been operating under a conditional license on the promise to fix inadequate fire doors. It was determined that the southeast corner of the building had to be demolished quickly before it collapsed. Total damages were estimated to be between $100,000 and $130,000, of which $12,000 worth of scenery and costumes were lost by a touring production of Daddy Long-Legs. Newspaper coverage of the blaze was overshadowed by the major story of the day, the sinking of the Lusitania.
Theatre officials acted quickly to find a new home for the next scheduled production, Victor Herbert’s operetta Sweethearts. Star Christie MacDonald was supposed to have performed in a production the year before but illness caused an understudy to take care of that run. As she wired to her manager, “you must get me a theatre, because I am determined to play Toronto, fire or no fire.” The Gayety Theatre on Richmond Street was procured and the show went on. Staff from the Princess also set up a temporary office on King Street to handle refunds for future presentations.
Upon hearing word of the fire, theatre operator Bertram C. Whitney sent a telegram from his office in Detroit to Princess manager O.B. Sheppard, instructing him to “make [an] announcement immediately that we intend [on] building in Toronto the finest theatre in Canada.” Among those Whitney consulted with on designs for the new Princess was C. Howard Crane, who went on to design many of downtown Detroit’s theatres. After contemplating other sites, the new theatre was built on the same site and held its grand opening on October 1, 1917.
The Princess carried on for just over a decade. A decline in the number of road shows and the popularity of movies cut into its audiences, but its fate was determined by the City’s plan for a southern extension of University Avenue that the theatre was in the path of. The final production was staged in November 1930, when “Yankee Doodle Dandy” George M. Cohan performed in his play The Tavern. The City was prepared to offer the owners of the Princess just under four hundred thousand dollars for the property, which resulted in lengthy debates in City Council over the high cost and various lower sale offers made for the theatre in recent years. The matter wound up in arbitration.
The wreckers were finally able to dismantle the Princess in the spring of 1931. The Globe was in a theatrical mood when they wrote an editorial about the venue’s demise:
And now “the scene is changed.” Appear men in overalls, armed with picks and crowbars, men careless of their exits and their entrances, indifferent to the spotlight, their parts unrehearsed, bent only on destruction. The theatre must yield to a city’s progress; new actors are on the stage-tearing it apart, disconnecting the footlights, ripping up the boards. Perhaps there is no tugging at the heartstrings of these crude but effective actors as the old stage is carried out piece by piece; but those who love the drama and the opera, and who admire the work of great artists, will recall pleasant evenings spent in the old Princess Theatre and regret that it must disappear.
Additional material from the June 2, 1931 edition of The Globe, the May 8, 1915 edition of The Mail and Empire, the May 7, 1915 edition of The Toronto News, the November 15, 1930 edition of The Toronto Star, and the May 9, 1915 edition of The Toronto World. Portions of this article originally appeared on Torontoist (http://torontoist.com/2009/04/historicist_a_theatrical_princess.php).