Stage Door News

Toronto: Ed Mirvish Theatre celebrates 100 years

Monday, August 24, 2020

On Friday August 28, 2020, the Ed Mirvish Theatre will celebrate its 100th year. 

This storied venue opened exactly a century ago as the Pantages Theatre. 

Over the years, it has lived an exciting and colourful life, having adjusted to more dramatic twists and turns than most theatres present on their stages, never mind backstage. 

To mark the occasion, Mirvish Productions will be hosting a very limited number of its subscribers for guided tours of the theatre (12 people at one time) throughout the day. 

The health and safety of our staff and patrons is our top priority.  The tours will adhere to all safety protocols including:

  • Mandatory mask or face covering while in the theatre.
  • Guided tours have limited (12 person) capacity in order to ensure a 2-meter distance between patrons.
  • Increased cleaning and disinfecting high touch and high traffic areas multiple times throughout the scheduled tour hours.
  • Washroom access with limited capacity.

The Vaudeville Years

The venue’s story begins in 1919. The population of Toronto was approximately half a million, and the city was experiencing a post-war economic boom. Spirits were high and people had money to spend.

Theatre was the major form of entertainment – the movies were in their infancy, even radio wasn’t yet readily available. Toronto had many splendid legitimate theatres that presented dramas, comedies and musicals, with the Royal Alexandra recognized as the finest.

What the city did not have was a grand vaudeville house.

Vaudeville was the most “common” of the performing arts. A French word describing a musical and comedic genre that did not rely on story, plot, characters or any of the other features we associate with theatre.  Vaudeville brought together a collection of variety acts that demanded very little of the audience’s attention. This genre morphed into music halls in England before crossing the Atlantic.

In North America, where it was dominant from 1880 to 1930, it was easy, inexpensive entertainment for the masses. It included popular songs, magic acts, acrobatics, animal acts, comics, clowns and dancers. When silent films became popular, they too were added to this loose collection of diversions.

Vaudeville was big business with thousands of vaudevillians crisscrossing the continent in troupes, entertaining tens of millions of people in every city and town.

Canadian impresario Nathan L. Nathanson believed Toronto was not well-served in vaudeville. He was determined to build the biggest, most extravagant vaudeville theatre in all of Canada and bring the best vaudeville troupes to the city.

He hired the most successful architect of the Gilded Age theatres in North America to bring his vision to life. Thomas Lamb had designed over 300 major theatres across North America, including New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Lamb did not build ordinary theatres; he created opulent palaces of dreams. For the low price of a ticket, even the lowliest member of society could be transported into a luxurious, extravagant setting to enjoy a few hours away from the drudgery of the workaday world.

Nathanson’s grand theatre would have to be located on Toronto’s main thoroughfare, Yonge Street. But even back then, real estate prices in the city were ridiculously expensive. The solution was to purchase a narrow plot of land on expensive Yonge Street, that led to a larger plot (on which the main body of the theatre would be built) on Victoria Street, where land was half the price. The same “trick” was used at Toronto’s double-decker theatres, the Elgin and Winter Garden, also designed by Lamb a few years earlier.

The Yonge Street entrance, known as “the link,” made a grand statement and set the tone for a special night out.

Lamb used two design styles throughout the building: Adam and Empire. The decorative flourishes of these two styles were combined with neo-classical symmetry. Walls and ceilings were decorated with mouldings of oval fans, garlands and other classical motifs – panels, niches and Greek columns.

To make sure his 3,600-seat theatre had an endless supply of vaudeville acts and movies, Nathanson partnered with Adolph Zucker of Paramount Pictures to form Famous Players Canada. This new company then signed onto the Pantages vaudeville circuit, a well-known commodity that programmed over 70 theatres on the continent. (Interestingly, all Pantages vaudeville shows began in Winnipeg. That was the hub of the empire and each show travelled in a different direction from there.) 

To promote this affiliation, Canada’s biggest (the second biggest in the world), most expensive entertainment palace was named the Pantages.

On August 28, 1920, a notice in The Evening Telegram promised “TO-NIGHT AT THE PANTAGES THEATRE –  A new page will be written in Toronto’s theatrical history.”

Throughout the 1920s, under Pantages’ programming, the theatre followed a policy that stated, “The bills will include six unequalled vaudeville acts, features, photoplays, and an admirable selection of film comedies and news reels.”

Shows ran continuously from 12 noon to 11 pm. Admission was 25 cents for matinees, and 45 cents after 5 pm.

The Cinema Years

In less than a decade, new developments in film technology brought a shift in programming. Motion picture features became the headliners, and vaudeville acts played second fiddle. By 1929, with the introduction of “talkies,” the reign of vaudeville was coming to an end.

But it wasn’t the ascendancy of talking pictures that brought the Pantages vaudeville empire to an abrupt end in 1929; it was a scandal.

Alexander Pantages, the man behind the company, was accused and convicted of attempted rape. The charges were overturned in a retrial, when it was proven that RKO Pictures, which was seeking to buy a ready-to-own circuit of theatres to show their movies in, had “staged” the attempted rape in order to force the sale of the Pantages empire of 70 venues. But the damage to the company’s reputation was done and Mr. Pantages was forced to sell his business to RKO at below-cost prices. (Because the Toronto venue was never owned by Pantages, it was not part of the RKO deal.)

This scandal forced the first name changes to the Toronto venue. On March 15, 1930 it officially was renamed the Imperial Theatre and became the flagship cinema of Famous Players, which would quickly become the major movie chain across Canada.

The Imperial continued to offer vaudeville and movies until 1935 when it exclusively became a cinema. At this point, the first of many destructive changes were made to the building. The orchestra pit was filled in with cement and the box seats were left empty.

As a single-screen movie house, the Imperial enjoyed many successful decades, but as television became the dominant form of mass entertainment, a cinema of its size could no longer earn a profit showing only one movie.

On September 4, 1972, the doors of the single-screen Imperial closed after the record-breaking run of The Godfather.

A $2 million reconstruction, designed by Mandel Sprachman, sliced and diced Thomas Lamb’s vaudeville palace into six small cinemas.

To accomplish this, a great deal of its architectural integrity was destroyed: the original finishes were concealed, the proscenium arch was demolished, portions of the balcony were removed, and the grand ceiling dome was largely dismantled.

What remained was painted over, murals were replaced, and the stained-glass window on the grand staircase, one of the building’s most defining features was removed. The exterior of the building was not spared. A new façade replaced the iconic Yonge Street entrance and marquee.

On June 21, 1973, the doors opened on the Imperial Six, one of the world’s first “multiplexes.” The building once again became profitable, but its success came to a sudden and unexpected crashing halt in 1986.

The theatre had always occupied three plots of land. Famous Players owned two plots: the Yonge St entrance (“the link”); and the south half of the main building, from the centre of the dome to the back wall of the stage house.

The north half of the main building – including the Victoria St entrance, and the majority of space that housed four of the six cinemas – was owned by a private family, with whom Famous Players had a 66-year lease since the original construction. The lease for this important plot came up on May 24, 1986.

A dispute over the renewal terms of the lease with the remaining elderly member of the family opened the door for Famous Players’ main competitor, Cineplex Odeon. Unbeknown to Famous Players, Cineplex bought the north part of the building from the elderly relative.

Early on the morning the sale was concluded, a team of lawyers with a sheriff, locksmith and construction crew, entered the north part of the building on Victoria Street, changed the locks on the doors and built plywood walls between Cineplex’s plot and those belonging to Famous Players. In essence, Famous Players no longer had street access to the building so the six auditoriums could no longer be used.

This bitter fight over dominance of the downtown entertainment core of Toronto made front-page news.

The Imperial Six would remain dark for more than a year, while Famous Players and Cineplex fought it out in the courts and in the media.

Cleverly, Cineplex found a way to convert their portion of the building into a single-screen 900-seat cinema, which they named the Pantages in honour of the building’s early history. A much-publicized Grand Opening was planned for December 12, 1987, with the Canadian premiere of Wall Street

Famous Players did not sit idly by and watch their competitor succeed. They complained to the Ontario Fire Marshall. But their tactic only delayed the opening by a few hours.

Finally, in April 1988, the bitter battle between Cineplex and Famous Players came to an end. Famous Players agreed to sell their portions of the building if Cineplex would never use the venue for the exhibition of motion pictures.

Cineplex, which had already established a new live entertainment division to produce and present stage productions, agreed.

The Theatre Years

With the entire building now under their control, Cineplex set a new plan for a total reconstruction and restoration of the theatre, back to the splendour of its original 1920 design.

At the same time, the company secured the Canadian rights to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The opening was set for September 1989.

The design team used Lamb’s original drawings and photos to piece together a restoration plan. Great efforts were made to maintain as much of the original design as possible, with allowances to meet the demands of modern-day productions, audiences and safety protocols. The entire project would be completed in 15 months and cost $18 million.

Some of the techniques used to save money in the original construction, such as the faux-marble technique called “scagliola,” had fallen out of use. Finding artisans to recreate the faux marble was more expensive than using real marble, but the team was determined to be as authentic as possible to the original construction.

Most of the original 1920 plaster ornamentation had been destroyed or badly damaged over the years. More than 3,500 new plaster casts were created in the process of restoring the decorative ornamentation in the auditorium and lobby.

The original stained-glass window had been lost for decades but was serendipitously discovered one night by the project’s design coordinator who noticed it in a window of a Rosedale private residence. The owners enthusiastically, and graciously, agreed to return it to its original home.

The newly restored Pantages Theatre, with a capacity of 2,300 seats, officially opened with The Phantom of the Opera on September 20, 1989. Both the restoration and the musical were smash hits. The show would run 10 years, setting a Canadian record.

A few months after the opening, Cineplex’s two principal executives, Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb, left the company. They purchased Cineplex’s live entertainment division and called it Livent. This would be their new company for almost the entire next decade.

In 1998, the two were ousted from Livent, and the company filed for bankruptcy protection soon afterwards. Its assets were bought by the American company Clear Channel Entertainment, which later became Live Nation.

In 2001, Live Nation leased the building to David and Ed Mirvish, with a first option to purchase it.

The same year, a pledge of support for the theatre came from Canon Canada, Inc. In recognition, the theatre was renamed the Canon.

In 2008, after seven years of successfully managing it, David Mirvish bought the theatre from Key Brand, who in turned had bought the assets of Live Nation a year earlier.

In December 2011, at the end of the Canon partnership, the theatre again received a new name. Looking for a suitable way to honour his father, who had passed away in July 2007, David Mirvish renamed the iconic building the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

And the drama never stops!

The global pandemic stopped the Canadian premiere of Hamilton in its tracks and has delayed the 2020 Canadian premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

But as this beautiful building has shown, she can withstand any adversity. It will be here, ready and waiting to welcome productions and thousands of theatregoers as soon as it is safe to do so.