Toronto’s forgotten cinemas

Since the first "theatorium" was established in 1906 — a Yonge Street storefront packed with 150 borrowed kitchen chairs — Toronto's movie theatres have been indicative of developments in social, cultural, and economic life in this city.

"[Movies] made crowded urban space more sensible by organizing bustling masses of city people into a more orderly audience," notes Ryerson professor Paul Moore in his book, Now Playing. "A collective pastime, a mass practice, [movie-going] was ironically built on the radical and unprecedented heterogeneity of urban populations." Our movie theatres have been closely informed by the city's narrative, as trends in social life, economic fluctuations, changes in cultural makeup, and artistic movements have reverberated through Toronto.

1907: The Wonderland opens on Dundas in the Village of West Toronto Junction, just three years after the community goes dry (the prohibition lasts an unprecedented 96 years). Answering the call for new forms of entertainment, the theatre lures patrons in with popular music performed by the vaudevillian-style piano player between pictures, and free popcorn handed out to children after the show as a reward for good behaviour. This sparks the beginning of a trend in the Junction, where new theatres compete for the title of most lavish.

1913: Owner Will Joy closes the Wonderland to open the much more decadent Beaver Theatre, just four years after the Junction is annexed by the City of Toronto. Joy takes marketing schemes to new heights, offering a Shetland pony to the child who collects the most theatre coupons. With the Junction now a prosperous manufacturing centre and rail hub, the grandiose theatre draws visitors from across the city.

1924: Across town, performer, entrepreneur, and politician Billy Summerville opens the wildly popular Prince of Wales theatre on Danforth east of Woodbine. Well-loved in the community, Summerville juggles showbiz and politics, serving as alderman for Ward 1 from 1921. (Adding to Summerville's legacy, his son Donald would be elected mayor of Toronto in 1963.)

1930s: Smaller, independent, and second-run theatres pop up in neighbourhoods across the city. These are dubbed the "nabes." As the Great Depression sinks in, this inexpensive entertainment option becomes a refuge for the masses.

1950s: With the arrival of television, the film industry scrambles to develop competing technology. The "nabes" simply can't keep up. Corporate chains such as Famous Players, and now Odeon, now dominate the scene. The popularity of the car creates another competitor: the drive-in. The year 1950 sees the opening of the Dufferin Drive-In, north of Steeles, featuring a swimming pool behind the screen. The screen tower is rumoured to be haunted by ghosts of the former landowners, an old farming couple.

1957: The demolition of Shea's Hippodrome Theatre, one of the largest theatres built for vaudeville, marks the proverbial nail in the coffin for Toronto's lavish movie houses. It is among a number of historic buildings at Queen and Bay demolished to make way for the modernistic winning design for the new City Hall complex.

1972: Businessman and Indian film buff Gian Naaz purchases the Eastwood Theatre at Gerrard and Greenwood and begins to screen Bollywood films. South Asians from across the Golden Horseshoe flock to the Naaz Theatre, quickly spawning many other South Asian businesses. The community later widely celebrated as "Little India" or the "Gerrard India Bazaar" owes its origin to the theatre.

1979: The Eaton Centre Cinemas open as the largest multiplex theatre in the world. Starting out as a venue for artsy films, this 18-screen complex quickly goes mainstream — a move that foreshadows the future of cinema culture.

1997: Formerly home to the 400 Drive-In, Highway 400 and Highway 7 in Woodbridge becomes the landing site of the

flying saucer