By Eric Veillette, originally published April 13, 2011
From Canada’s “theatre beautiful” to Bloor West bookstore
By the mid 1920s, after the construction of great vaudeville and movie houses like the Toronto Pantages and Loew’s Yonge St. Theatre, North American theatre designers sought more cost-effective ways to attract theatre-goers. What resulted was the Atmospheric style. Iconoclastic and progressive, it took theatre-goers out of the tired palatial setting and brought them into another world altogether, one where the ceiling wasn’t a ceiling, but a night sky with flickering stars.In Toronto, one could consider the Winter Garden Theatre, covered in leafy greens and vines, to be a proto-Atmospheric, but the first true Atmospheric in Canada was Toronto’s Runnymede Theatre, located at 2225 Bloor St. West. It was designed by prominent Toronto architect Alfred Chapman, renown for his work on the Royal Ontario Museum and Palais Royale.
Dubbed “Canada’s Theatre Beautiful”, the 1400-seat Famous Players house opened on June 2, 1927 to a feature double-bill preceded by a live stage act. The place was packed, as a lineup of eager patrons curled around the corner of Bloor St. onto Beresford Ave, as mounted policemen patrolled the streets to keep order. The lineup itself was cut short along the intersection to let motorists drive through to the British American Gasoline station that once figured at the corner where the Pizza Pizza now stands.
The first feature that evening was MGM’s The Fire Brigade. The tale of an Irish firefighter, Terry O’Neill, who fights corruption brought on by a crooked building contractor. May McAvoy played O’Neill’s love interest, who also happens to be the contractor’s daughter. The second feature was Rookies, featuring comedy-duo Karl Dane and George K. Arthur. Barely a footnote in most classic comedy duo books, they often played adversaries to one another, and appeared in nearly twenty films together in late 1920s. Rookies was also helmed by future Marx Bros. director Sam Wood.
In the early star system days, the marquee change was fast; if you missed the opening run, by the following Monday,you’d be standing in line to see Lon Chaney Sr. play dual roles in the melodrama Mr. Wu. By the following month, as the rising summer heat was on everybody’s mind, the Runnymede was now being billed as “Canada’s Cooling Station.”
Along with most of North America, Toronto was enjoying a time of great economic prosperity, and even the working-class residents of Bloor West had a little more to spare at the time. A good bricklayer was paid about $1 per hour, and a waitress might bring in about $30 a month. In 1925, room and board was averaging about $6 a week, and for the wealthy, a nine-room house in Rosedale was on the market for $10 000. The fact that every neighbourhood had at least one movie theatre did not deter anyone from other forms of entertainment; the night before the Runnymede’s grand opening, the “Harold Rich-Morris Versatile Canadians Orchestra” played the Palais Royale. If you couldn’t make it, don’t fret! CFCA was there to broadcast the whole show, which included such hits as “If You Want To Do Something Big, Go Wash An Elephant,” and “50 000 Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.”
For those in the area wanting some music to entertain their guests, you could buy a copy of “Ain’t She Sweet”recorded by Gene Austin for Victor Records at the Roncesvalles Orthophonic Victrola Parlors at 221 Roncesvalles Blvd., the current site of Lit Espresso Bar.
Public drunkenness was an issue that year. The re-elected government of Premier Howard Ferguson had repealed prohibition, enacted since 1916 and replaced it with the LCBO, meant as a compromise between complete temperance and the deregulated sale of liquor. No longer needing to hide in a speakeasy had some thinking they could drink their gut-rot in broad daylight.
The Runnymede was renovated in the late 1930s, now boasting a total of 1500 seats. Other theatres in the area, like the Mavety (near Dundas St. W), had existed since 1919, and others, like the Lyndhurst, at 2290 Bloor St. West, was already around when the Runnymede opened.
After operating as a bingo hall throughout most of the seventies, the Runnymede re-opened as a movie theatre in 1980, now offering twin screens, but it closed down for good on February 28, 1999, when lessee Alliance Atlantis gave up on the building when the exorbitant $35 000 monthly rent proved to be too much. Despite neighbourhood appeal to save the theatre, a Chapters bookstore moved in the building.
The closing of the Runnymede wasn’t an isolated incident that year. Toronto had recently lost The Hollywood at Yonge & St-Clair, the Westwood at Bloor and Kipling and the Capitol at Yonge and Eglinton. But not all was lost for the Runnymede, however, as Chapters restored the interior to its 1920s splendour. It now resembles a technicolor dream, and rows upon rows of books are dwarfed by the walls of the atmospheric garden that once delighted movie patrons.
One of the major changes brought forth by the renovation is that the original staircases leading to the balcony have been replaced by escalators, something the enforcers of the Ontario Heritage Act fought against but ultimately lost. A few of the seats still line the west wall of the main floor as decoration. One of the original projectorsis up on the balcony, aimed at the stage, but the pride and joy of Toronto’s west-end neighbourhood theatres is no more. Bittersweet, but at least it can still be appreciated.
Toronto Daily Star, May 28, May 20, June 2, 1927.
Toronto Star, February 26, 1999.
Eric Veillette is a Toronto-based journalist and film programmer. A regular Arts and Insight contributor at 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 runs the silent film retrospective Silent Sundays at the Revue Cinema. His musings can be found at Silent Toronto.