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The History of the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre Centre

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The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is one of the most attractive buildings in the city of Toronto. Its interior is not only covered with rich colours and attractive finishes, but its walls are drenched in history.

The incredible story of this complex began in 1913, when over a period of eight months it was constructed on a property stretching from Yonge Street, east to Victoria Street, just north of Queen Street. The building was designed by the American architect Thomas Lamb, and was constructed as the flagship of Marcus Loew's chain of vaudeville theatres. The complex had a unique design, incorporating two theatres in one building, one stacked on top of the other. The main inspiration for building one theatre on top of another one was economical. It offered a greater amount of seating space, on a smaller amount of real estate, than two single theatres would occupy. Fewer than a dozen of this "double decker" theatres were constructed internationally. This theatre of Loew's, on Yonge Street, was the only one double decker ever built in Canada.

The bottom theatre was originally called "Loew's Yonge Street Theatre" and opened to the public on December 15th, 1913. With the capacity to seat 2,149 people, it was the larger of the two. The decor seems lavish to us now, with gilded plaster and imitation marble, but ninety years ago it was conventional for the time. The upper theatre, the Winter Garden, opened on February 16th, 1914, and had seating for 1,410 people. It had a whimsical design, decorated as it was to look like a rooftop garden in perpetual blossom. The columns of the Winter Garden were painted to look like tree trunks, the walls were covered in garden scenes, and the ceiling was hung with lanterns, blossoms and beech leaves.

Identical performances were shown on each of the two stages. A typical performance would include about ten vaudeville acts, punctuated by newsreels and a silent film. Performances would begin in the downstairs theatre, late every morning, with the show continuing all day. Meanwhile, the Winter Garden theatre would show the same performance only once, in the evening, with higher ticket prices and reserved seating. In the time period, vaudeville was the popular form of entertainment. However, within ten years another entertainment form dawned ,which drew the curtain on the vaudeville era - "talking movies" - movies with sound.

By 1930, the lower theatre was wired for movie sound, and live acts were no longer shown. The upper theatre, the Winter Garden was shut up in 1928, and abandoned for nearly six decades.

Twenty years ago, the building complex was purchased by the Ontario Heritage Foundation and completely restored. The downstairs theatre had been renamed the Elgin in 1978, and had run as a movie cinema until 1981. In the 1960s, it had been a reputable institution, showing the Toronto premieres of movies like "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz". However, the theatres reputation declined with the quality of the movies that it showed - from "B movies" and action films, to soft core pornography. The last movie shown in the Elgin was entitled "What the Swedish Butler Saw."

When it was purchased by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, though, the complex was completely restored and refurbished to its original vintage condition of the pre-First World War era. For the volunteers who went in to the Winter Garden to restore it, nearly sixty years after its closure, it was like walking into an eerie time vault. Stage scenery was left abandoned where it lay after the last act in 1928. Ticket stubs dropped by its last patrons still lay fading under the seats. In the dressing rooms, costumes lay discarded and actors notes were found, still pinned to the walls.

The fully restored theatre centre re-opened on December 15th, 1989, and has been a financially self supporting project ever since.

The Ghosts of the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatres

The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres have a share of ghost lore appropriate to such a gem of history within the boundaries of the city of Toronto. A number of the stories come out of the time, twenty years ago now, when the theatres were being restored. The Thomas Lamb lobby stretches eastward from Yonge Street, and it is there that an apparition of a finely dressed woman is seen. She appears wearing the customary dress of the Edwardian period, just prior to the First World War, that dates back to when the theatre complex first opened. People report seeing her manifest there, and they are duly surprised. Often, they turn to capture the attention of a friend, but when they turn back, she has vanished. No one seems to know the identity of this woman, or why she would come back to haunt the lobby in her customary style.

Just after live performances finally reappeared on the stage of the Elgin, after its restoration, one of the stage producers reported seeing a number of rows of the theatre seats fold down, as if some unseen, spectral audience had just sat down to take in a show. A while later, the seats all flipped back up, as if this ghostly audience had left, in mass.

The elevators in the lobby have been reported to operate on their own. They have been restored to their original condition, which requires an operator to manipulate them to and from the various floors. But whatever ghostly inhabitants now ride them, they seem quite able to operate them on their own.

The restoration of the 1980s was carried out in large part by a group of layman volunteers. After a number of them had experienced a collection of strange encounters, of sights, and sounds, and eerie sensations, a number of them thought that it might be an interesting experiment to perform a seance. No doubt some of the participants were avid believers, and probably a few were just the tongue in cheek curious. Those who took part in the seance claimed to come into contact with the spirit of a man named "Sam". Sam told the eager audience that he had played the horn back in the vaudeville days. The seance participants had a drawn out chat with Sam, but eventually asked if there were any other spirits in residence, in the grand old theatres. He replied that, without a doubt, there were many other ghosts around. They asked if they could talk to some of these other ghosts, but Sam refused. It seemed that after so many decades, Sam was finally enjoying the spotlight too much to pass it off.

Not quite ghostly, but definitely grisly, was the Winter Garden's connection with the famous American gangster, John Dillinger. During the restoration period, the theatre seats of the Winter Garden were replaced with those imported from the Biograph theatre in Chicago, Illinois. One of the seats that arrived was upholstered in a different colour than the rest. It was sent out and made uniform to blend in with the rest. After the new fabric work was done, the seat was installed with all the others with no particular annotation. Then, explanation for its variance arrived. Dillinger had been a notorious and violent American bank robber, a former "most wanted man". He had been lured to the theatre in Chicago one day by his ladyfriend, who had been secretly conspiring with the FBI. She had tipped federal agents off, and when Dillinger left the theatre one day in 1934 with his girlfriend, clad in a vibrant red dress, the authorities sprang out of their cars and riddled the 31 year old criminal with bullets. The seat which he had been sitting in was upholstered to represent that this was his last place of repose, before being cut down by the bullets of the law. His final theatre seat now enjoys anonymity somewhere in the Winter Garden theatre, and adds to the general air of mystery that abounds there.

In my brief time as a volunteer at the lavish Elgin Winter Garden Theatre Centre, I have enjoyed wandering its silent halls as performances run on its stages. It is a marvellous place, rich in compelling, historical mystery, and I can say with confidence that it is very near the top of my list as a favourite amongst all of Toronto's heritage buildings. The Centre participates in Toronto's "Open Doors" weekend held each May, and guided tours of about 90 minutes in length are held each Thursday evening, and on Saturday mornings at 11.00 o'clock.

 

Special thanks to our readers for their contributions and to Richard Fiennes-Clinton for this much better write-up on these historic and wonderful theatres.