Imagine a theatre that is a botanical fantasy, its walls hand-painted to resemble a garden, its ceiling a mass of beech boughs and twinkling lanterns. This is the venue of Bruce Bell's talk on the history of Toronto on Monday, February 17th Heritage Day at 8 p.m. If you haven't guessed what theatre it is then you are not aware of the Winter Garden Theatre built on top of another Theatre called the Elgin right in the heart of Toronto at Yonge and Queen.
This is an ideal location to hear Bruce Bell, a friend of mine, speak on the history of Toronto and the history of theatre in Toronto. The evening is more then his speaking since he will be joined by musical accompanist extraordinaire Randy Vancourt along with special guest singers and hundreds of rare photographs shown on a giant screen. Also as a special treat the night will also include Valerie Boyles spectacular salute to the legendary Sophie Tucker one the greatest entertainers of all time who made the Winter Garden her second home during the roaring 20s.
In the first act Bruce will tell of Torontos rise from being an undistinguished British colonial outpost at the end of the 1700s to becoming by the start of the 20th century the Queen City of Canada.
During the second act, after wandering around the beautifully restored lobbies at intermission, Bruce will recount the history of theatre in Toronto from its early days as a forbidden amusement held in the back room of a tavern to the building of the great Vaudeville palaces like the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.
If you've never been to the wondrous Winter Garden theatre (it will be its 89th birthday that night) nows your chance. It is located at 189 Yonge Street just north of Queen Street.
We will be meeting at 6 p.m. for supper up the street at the Hard Rock Café. Don't be put off by the name. It is a first class restaurant with a fine menu and the staff gets up and entertains during the evening. The address for the Hard Rock Café is 279 Yonge Street, one block south of Dundas. You can order what you like from the menu.
Tickets to Bruce Bells talk can purchased at the Winter Garden box office 189 Yonge Street just north of Queen or through Ticketmaster (416) 872-5555. The cost is $20 a bargain for this fantastic evening.
Here's what I would like you to do. Since I would like to go as a group please give me a call to tell me you are coming and that you are either going to the theatre direct or joining us for dinner at the Hard Rock Café. This is a not for profit evening on my part so you take care of your purchasing a ticket that night or before hand on your own and of course your tab at the Hard Rock Café. I will simply be the wonderful host I usually am at these types of events. My number to tell me you are coming is 416-367-0380.
Heres further background on the Winter Garden Theatre.
Built in 1913, the complex was the Canadian flagship of Marcus Loew's legendary theatre chain. Designed by Thomas Lamb as a "double-decker" theatre complex, it contained the Winter Garden Theatre, constructed seven-stories above the Elgin Theatre (originally known as Loew's Yonge Street Theatre).
The two theatres were of distinctly different personality: the Elgin was all gold leaf and rich fabrics, a formal theatre of plaster cherubs and ornate opera boxes. The Winter Garden as I said was a botanical fantasy, its walls hand-painted to resemble a garden, its ceiling a mass of beech boughs and twinkling lanterns. The theatres played host to such greats as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Sophie Tucker, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and Milton Berle.
With the decline of vaudeville, the Winter Garden closed in 1928. It remained closed for more than half a century, becoming a time capsule of a bygone era. The Elgin, with its grand domed ceiling, continued on as a movie house, gradually falling into disrepair with the passing of each decade. I can remember going there to watch movies in the past.
In 1981, the Ontario Heritage Foundation purchased the building and in 1987 began a two and half year, $30 million restoration. The gilt plaster detail work in the Elgin required more than 300,000 wafer-thin sheets of aluminum leaf. The walls of the Winter Garden had to be cleaned using hundreds of pounds of raw bread dough to avoid damaging the original hand painted watercolour artwork. "Cats", "The Wizard of Oz", Kenneth Branagh's "King Lear", Robin Phillips production of "Aspects of Love", the North American premiere of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" starring Donny Osmond; "Napoleon", George F. Walker's "Nothing Sacred", "The Who's TOMMY", "STOMP", "Forever Tango" and various productions by the Canadian Opera Company. The theatres have also presented musical and comedy concerts, lectures, award presentations, and gala screenings from the Toronto International Film Festival and a wide variety of special events.
If you know me you know I love the history of our city Toronto. The history of two unique theatres the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is a long and fascinating one, spanning more than 80 years. It not only chronicles the magnificent design, architectural and entertainment highlights of an era, it also reflects the evolution and growth of our heritage and culture. It is the perfect venue to hear one of Toronto's finest historians speak.