By Eric Veillette, originally published April 28, 2010
Imagine an 800-seat theatre in the Junction, with an elegant marbleized lobby and a state-of-the-art theatre organ that could simulate a full orchestra.
Consider, too, management’s efforts to lure children to the cinema with the prize of a Shetland pony for best attendance.
The Beaver Theatre opened Nov. 24, 1913 on Dundas St. W., east of Pacific Ave. That was just four years after the community, a then prosperous manufacturing centre crossed by four rail lines, was annexed by the City of Toronto.
The luxurious venue for vaudeville and cinema was unquestionably the crown jewel along Dundas near Keele St. But it wasn’t the only theatre serving the 12,000 citizens of the Town of West Toronto Junction. Just to the east, the owner, William Joy, had already launched the Wonderland, on Dec. 7, 1907. Another nickelodeon had opened even before that in the community, which had voted to go dry in 1904. (The prohibition lasted 93 years.)
Not far away on Roncesvalles, the 550-seat Revue Cinema had also begun showing films in 1912.
Ryerson University professor Paul S. Moore, in his 2008 book Now Playing: Early Moviegoing and the Regulation of Fun, has examined the phenomenon of this new mass entertainment, tracking its evolution in Toronto from the 1906 opening of the city’s first theatorium. By 1914, he writes, there were 100 such establishments, serving a city of more than 200,000.
Obviously, competition among theatres was fierce. Newspaper advertisements frothed with hyperbole, proclaiming the grandest, most luxurious and most palatial establishments in town.
The owners were certainly not above some serious marketing. The Beaver, within weeks of opening, gave a coupon to admission-paying patrons under the age of 16. At the contest’s end, the child with the most coupons would win a real live Shetland pony.
“Nothing pleases the young folks more than a tiny pony, so it is expected that the children of the city will set about collecting the coupons with particular energy,” said the Toronto Sunday World. (No word on where a child might keep the prize, or how parents would feed the beast.)
The Beaver’s promotion was bold. An article in the Revue Cinema’s bi-weekly R Magazine described the hue and cry raised by local trustees the year before over granting the Revue’s theatre licence because of movies’ corrupting influence on children.
Some theatres, though, may have tried to placate critics with an educational component. As mentioned in one of my previous articles, a 1916 newspaper advertisement for Charles Chaplin’s short film Shanghaied at the Gem Theatre in New Brunswick asked: “Boys and girls! Have you sent your Chaplin essays in yet? If not – get busy!”
The Beaver truly was impressive, attracting patrons from other Toronto neighbourhoods and beyond. Construction Magazine remarked that it was “somewhat more pretentious than the average moving picture building.”
It was also one of the first in town to feature the Mighty Wurlitzer, a theatre organ called a unit orchestra, which could faithfully reproduce all the sounds of a pipe-organ, as well as a full orchestra.
On opening night, which included both vaudeville and short films, Robert Hope-Jones, the inventor of the unit orchestra, was present. Meticulous and eccentric, he often clashed with the Wurlitzer company after his firm merged with it. In 1914, depressed by loss of control over his invention, he committed suicide in Rochester, N.Y.
Torontonians can still appreciate his innovations. The Wurlitzer from Shea’s Hippodrome– now the site of Nathan Phillips Square – resides at Casa Loma. It was saved from the same wrecking ball that demolished the Hippodrome in 1956. Because of those efforts and its subsequent restoration, the Mighty Wurlitzer’s boastful sounds recently filled a hall in Toronto’s grand castle as organist Clark Williams played along to the 1925 version of Ben Hur.
The Beaver was demolished in 1962 and a postal outlet and dry cleaner now reside on its former site. Other Junction theatres, including the Mavety, the Crescent and the Prince James, suffered the same fate. The building for another silent-era theatre, the Crystal, later renamed the Apollo, at 2901 Dundas St. W., still stands, its narrow, diagonal corridor now a hair salon.
Junction residents, however, still have a theatorium not too far away! Despite many ups-and-downs, the Revue’s projector still flickers, the popcorn’s aplenty and the seats are comfy. Now about that pony…
With acknowledgement to Ellen Moorhouse and Paul S. Moore. Top photo: Dundas St. looking west from Mavety, Dec 3, 1923 (TTC Archives #2853). Sources include: Toronto Star Weekly, Nov. 24, 1913; Toronto Sunday World, Dec. 7, 1913. Many thanks to Colin G. for finding the handbill in a flea market.
Eric Veillette is a Toronto-based writer and film programmer. A frequent 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.