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This grand theatre(s) was opened 1913 and originally named Loew's Yonge Street Theatre, after Marcus Loew, head of a chain of theatres known as "Loew's Vaudeville Theatre", this grand lady(s) on Yonge St. has had enough history and reported ghostly phenomena for a few theatres!

The 992 seat Winter Garden (upper theatre) was closed in 1928 and for all intents and purposes, sealed off. The 1,561 seat Elgin (lower theatre), with its high, domed ceiling served as cinema for a time where anyone over the age of thirty may remember it's shows on occasional weekends for kids but other than this, the movies shown most of the time were... well... geared to a more 'adult' audience.

The theatre(s) were purchased by the Ontario Heritage Association in 1981 and designated a national historical site in 1982.

In 1987, when renovations were started, a plethora of things were discovered in the sealed portion of the theatre, including ephemera (playbills, ticket stubs) and costumes from 60 years before which the employees described a sensation of walking into a time machine.

The theatres, lovingly restored and with the 'black paint' and general scarring of the Elgin cleared away and restored to it's brilliant original design and the Winter Garden back it's unbelievable former glory (easily one of the most unique and beautiful theatres in the world) were officially reopened to the public in 1989.

The theatre stands as the last "double-decker" or stacked Edwardian theatre facility in the world.

There are two types of reports from this building... One set that is accepted and even volunteered by the theatres' staff when asked or doing their 'ghost tours' and our submissions so I've divided them up into "Official" (from Heritage Ontario) and "Reported" (sent to us by theatre goers and staff).

"Official" Reported Phenomenon

A workman in the theatres watched once as a group of theatre seats in the Winter Garden folded down as if an unseen audience had just sat down to watch a performance, and then, moments after, returned to their normal position. (Note: Look below for another "seating story" of historic if not ghostly interest about the Winter Garden.)

The hand operated elevators, which supposedly require an operator to move, will suddenly start up by themselves and go to various floors for no apparent reason. When we visited, this report was the one that seemed to be the most prevalent. All the staff we've spoken to have either experienced this themselves or know someone closely who has.

One thing that one staff member admitted to and was reported to us by a patron is an apparition of a woman in Edwardian clothing will appear in the lobby, and remain long enough to be witnessed by a few before disappearing. We don't know who this woman is or why she's still lingering but it's safe to say that enough reports have come in to grant the apparition some credence.

Some of the volunteers doing the renovation conducted a session with a Ouija Board. Almost as soon as they started, a ghost named "Samuel" identified himself. He had been a trombone player in 1918 who had passed away by falling into the orchestra pit of the Elgin. The volunteers asked if there were any other spirits there. He said yes, but when they asked to talk to them, he refused.

Not Ghostly but... The Seat of John Dillinger

When the theatre was being restored in the 1980s, the staff went to very meticulous extents to adhere to historical faithfulness. They contacted the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, which would have had theatre seats very similar to those originally used in the Elgin Wintergarden. The restorations staff purchased several and they were shipped to Toronto.

When they arrived, one chair seemed inexplicably to be upholstered in a different colour. So, the staff had it upholstered to blend in with the others. Shortly thereafter, they were in touch with the staff of the Biograph Theatre, and discovered the reason for the difference. They chair had been its unique colour to indicate that it was the last theatre chair occupied by the notorious American gangster John Dillinger. The infamous bank robber and murderer was gunned down outside the Biograph theatre on July 22nd, 1934, at about 10.30 pm.

So, lost somewhere in the expanses of seats is John Dillenger's last chair... A seat any theatre goer could very well be using at any show.

As a side note, Dillinger has yet to make an ethereal appearance on stage - or anywhere else within the theatre.

Reported

Please remember, the reports below are NOT AT ALL accepted as 'historical ghosts' by the folks at Ontario Heritage but are included here for your own enjoyment and interest.

The following was sent to us by a reader of our site...

I used to work at the Elgin/Wintergarden Theatre as an usher. Although the Winter Garden was as yet unopened when I was there, the Elgin was still running.

When I worked there, I heard stories from many of the staff about 4 particular ghosts.

One young lady, believed to have been an actress, has been seen leaving the 2nd floor coat check room (where the room, it has been said, had been used as a quick-change for the actors).

There's also a man that stays in and around the 2nd floor ladies washroom. Needless to say, I've never used that washroom. He's thought to have been a theatre technician.

There's also a little boy who was believed to have fallen from one of the boxes in the Elgin theatre. He's been seen in and around that box and running up and down the grand staircase from the balcony to the mezzanine level.

Then there's a female patron who was believed to have been stabbed in the Wintergarden washroom (that is now closed). She dragged herself to the elevator, where she waited for it, but no one came (it's run by ushers), there she died. A lot of ushers (including myself) have been taken up to the 5th (top) floor, where no one is around (sometimes there isn't even any show up there at the time).

Once, when no one was in the elevator, or on the 5th floor, when I was called up there, I went down to the 1st floor... to let her out. You know.... just in case.....
The next one was also sent in by another one of our readers...

Seeing that I was a summer student employee (for a company that puts on productions at the theatre(s), I was given responsibilities that would normally not be bothered with. One of them included having to ensure that signage for our shows would be properly installed at the Elgin & Winter Garden.

While at the Theatre Centre, I had the opportunity to question the box office personnel about the paranormal activities there, and several of the more famous stories were confirmed by them.

The most famous ghost is of the Lavender Lady. Her ghost haunts the "Upstairs" theatre, the Winter Garden. The story goes that there was a young woman who was stabbed in the old Winter Garden Theatre washroom. Stumbling out of the washroom to look for help, she was able to make her way into the lobby and press the elevator button, but collapsed after doing so. When the elevator arrived at the Winter Garden Theatre level, the elevator attendant opened the door to discover the young woman, dead.

Today, her presence is made known more commonly through the aroma of lavender. A light breeze would cause the scent to waft into the room.

Or she is said to make herself known by an apparition. One of the box office staff apparently saw her - a woman in her mid-20s, blonde hair in a bun, but a bit dishevelled, appears to have been in a struggle.

Box office staff have strange instances with the elevator. Sometimes when there are no shows taking place at the upstairs Winter Garden, where it would be dark, the elevator button upstairs at the Winter Garden, would be pressed. The attendant would have to travel to the top, only to discover no one is there! The younger staff don't usually open the elevator door, but the older staff, as a courtesy to the Lavender Lady, open the door just to acknowledge her presence.

Another ghost is of a man in a brown suit who is sometimes seen sitting in the Elgin Theatre, usually during a rehearsal. When someone approached him or called out to him, he would disappear.

Another ghost in the Elgin is dubbed as Stan. He was a worker who helped to restore the Elgin Theatre during the 80s, but died when he fell off the Mezzanine of the theatre. He is not supposed to be a benevolent ghost. The box office staff member I was talking to said she had her own experience with "Stan." She was walking down the stairs to the lobby beneath the Elgin Theatre when she heard footsteps behind her. Looking back she didn't see anybody. She increased her speed and when the footsteps also began to increase in speed as well, until, finally she had to run down the stairs, outrunning the footsteps.

Back to the Winter Garden, there have been known instances of rows of seats slowly unfolding as if people were sitting in them. A musician's ghost haunts the theatre, as well as a young girl or boy who supposedly fell from one of the side opera boxes.

That's all I can remember of at this moment.

 

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.