Abandoned Matinees V: R.I.P. The York Theatre

January 13, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Torontoist has a regular feature in which vintage Toronto ads are pulled out of obscurity and given a generally affectionate portrait, placing the ad in context with whatever key event was occurring in the city, be it during the conservative forties (we was very boring then), the fun seventies (Ontario Place), or the amiable eighties before the recession hit, gold shot up to record highs, and women’s clothing and hair were strangely adopting triangular shapes –the next evolutionary step in design, after the blobby seventies, lean and clean sixties, and jet-inspired fifties.

Still… Why triangles?

In any event, this week the ad under the spotlight is The Mug Restaurant and Eatery, which according to author Jamie Bradburn likely evolved into the J.J. Muggs chain. That name rings a bell, but what stood out in the piece was the contextual intro in which Bradburn sets things in 1982, and prior to visiting the new restaurant, one may have gone to catch Richard (‘Dickie’) Attenborough’s latest directorial venture, Gandhi – arguably his best film to date because it captured the idiocy of colonial rule, which was less about guiding funny looking people towards the virtues of a democratic system and shiny happy railway lines, but establishing a racist class system to extract as many natural resources before the locals wised up and starting marching with pitchforks towards Government House, screaming ‘English bastards!.’

Specifically mentioned is the York Theatre which was, in 1982, one of the best cinemas in the city. The York, a two-screen cinema, wasn’t pretty from the outside; it was bland, functional, and it was really tough to deduce when it was built because its interior – judging by the curvy lines and stucco walls – was redesigned some time in the seventies.

On street level, there were a set of double-doors before one hit the oddly placed box office, after which there lay an open floor, at the end of which was the concession stand, flanked by doorless washroom entrances for les homes and les dames. Each short entrance curved inward and behind the concession stand, and managed to dampen any ‘noises’ that may have deterred hungry patrons from buying munchies and pop.

On the ground floor was Cinema 1, and to the left of that area was a vey wide and winding staircase leading up to Cinema 2. A glass paneled window from the ground floor to the staircase’s ceiling let in a fair amount of light, and once on the second floor where Cinema 2 lay, was was a small concession stand to the right (usually closed, unless it was a busy weekend night), and to the left entrances for the small washrooms.

(Most people used the downstairs loos, but the upstairs were often freer because few remembered they were up there. You had to step down to enter the Men’s Room, and perhaps the only hint of the York’s age was the wooden door which never closed properly, and looked another 10-20 years older because of the layers of matte greenish-gray paint that had been applied and re-applied.)

The upper Cinema is the one I remember the most, and where the Big Films tended to play. That’s where I saw Gandhi with a church group (from which I later fled) one afternoon, and I’m pretty sure we caught the film in 70mm 6-track Dolby, a form of exhibition that’s kind of dead, unless you recently headed down to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia.

Cinema 2 had two levels. The entrance had you emerging in a middle aisle: upwards was the ersatz balcony, and downwards the main orchestra level. Surprisingly, we often sat in the front end of the balcony because the view was better, but the reason most people went to the York was its superb sound.

In 1982, the premiere Dolby venues were the York, the Hyland, and the University, followed perhaps by the Eglington.

They’re all dead, and with the York finally sold for its land to a condo developer, the last of my most fondly remembered cinemas will vanish.

The York’s demise seemed to begin when the projectionists went on strike during the exhibition of Vertigo, if I recall. Universal trumpeted the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film in grand style: 70mm 6-track Dolby.

This is where memory gets a bit fuzzy, but I think it was the York’s print of Vertigo that got scratched during a print check, and may have screened for audiences for a  scant few days before Cineplex wanted to radically knock down the wages of its unionized projectionists.

When the strike began, the York was affected, and the chance to see the film in widescreen / big sound was lost. Eventually the strike was resolved, but Vertigo was long gone from its theatrical run.

The union projectionists were fired, and some were later re-hired for a terrible wage that resulted in many films being screened out of focus in other theatres (like the Varsity), be it for general patrons or actual press screenings, embarrassing studio reps who were siked to show critics the latest big film in what should’ve been a competent, straightforward screening.

This is a bit of a digression, but several things killed the York as a cinema: the strike, the erection of the Silver City at Yonge & Eglington Centre, and people who perhaps felt it was too much of a walk to reach the York. When it was shuttered, I’m sure the surrounding restaurants lost a lot of business, and went through their own struggles to keep afloat.

For years one could walk past the York, and see it shuttered and ignored, but its most ignominious fate occurred when the ground level was transformed into a health club. This was one of the more viable options new lease holders and owners had with old movie theatres.

The old Don Mills Cinema – where Universal screened the five newly minted prints of Hitchcock films previously unavailable for two decades: Rope, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, and (surprise) Vertigo – was soon shuttered after these films ran, and was to have become a Bally’s until those plans died, and the 2-screen cinema was bulldozed into oblivion. (Films I recall seeing there were Close Encounter of the Third Kind with cartoons, F/X, and the aforementioned Hitchcock quintet.)

The York then became an event locale – I think it was called something like the Drambuie Theatre – with bright purple lighting out front, and then it was closed again.

In 2002, the owners of the Capitol Event Theatre – another cinema converted into a multi-purpose hall – snapped up the York and spent a fair chunk on its renovation, rebranding the cinema’s shell into the York Event Theatre.

Like the Don Mills, there are no pictures of its interior from its days as a cinema, but one poster offered a snapshot of the York’s current uglification (scoot down to the page bottom), and Celebrate.ca contains a brief listing with 3 pictures of what sees to have been the ground floor where the concession stand rested, the smaller concession stand at the top of the upper staircase, and banquet hall in what was Cinema 1.

The converted Cinema 2 can be glimpsed in one still at Stipcophoto, and a wedding party snapped by Bostonimages.com.

That’s where Gandhi ran in 70mm.

According to a the scant records online, the events venue was much larger than the Capitol, and did attract a business, but perhaps the offers and timing to develop the land into a condo proved too hard to turn down, although by 2010 the York had nothing connected to film exhibition. Once you gut the interior, it’s a ghost, and as beneficial as it is to reuse a structure rather than raze it to the ground, the death of a once premiere cinema venue is one to mourn because it marks a significant shift in the way we catch movies.

One can only theorize whether the original York could’ve survived as a neighbourhood cinema after the area underwent a massive condo building boom, or whether the tenants and owners came with wholly different expectations of how and where to catch movies.

The good news is the proposed condo – dubbed The Madison – isn’t ugly; it’s actually a striking twin tower edifice that fits over the old York’s shell and the same-sized parking lot that existed beside the cinema during the eighties. The architects: Kirkor, who coincidentally designed the Toronto International Film festival Tower atop the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

If you attempt to find any historical info on the York, it’s just not there, because for whatever weird reason no one cares to remember it. I’ve no idea when it was built, what it looked like before I started to catch films there, but it once served a community and aided businesses by sending forth reams of patrons hungry for food, drink, or just a walk around the residential streets that lay behind the south side of Eglington.

The last film I recall seeing there may have been Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (which classmate Drew snuck into after we all paid to see it. Weasel.). A current listing in Toronto Life pegs the York as being a “once dowdy movie theatre” with “grungy seats and popcorn crumbs.”

Piss off.

It was a bland, functional structure from the outside, and simple on the inside, but it wasn’t dowdy, the seats weren’t grungy, and during its heyday, it was a clean cinema that offered movies in premiere engagements in a wide film format that people remember with great fondness.

Just ask anyone who works at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and you’ll get a stark reality check that 2001: A Space Odyssey has done extremely well, making money, rekindling memories of what 70mm was like, and patrons telling some staffers to bring on more wide format classics. (Branagh’s Hamlet, please.)

So as the York is slated for demolition and all physical traces will vanish, here’s a salute to what was a functionally grand movie-going experience. You got your money’s worth, and certainly after catching Gandhi, you left sated with good cinema.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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