Movie theaters have always offered a communal escape in tough times, whether from the bleak Depression of the 1930s or the uncertainty of war in the 1940s. Toronto’s oldest surviving theater, The Revue, literally passed out glasses of milk with each movie ticket so impoverished kids could get nutrition during the Second World War.
The past few years, however, have been a different story. Other platforms are meeting more viewers’ entertainment needs.
Back in the day, TV and home video rentals certainly gave feature films a run for their money. But streaming services, such as Netflix, so drastically changed the movie-going landscape that studios now consistently premiere releases online, taking their movies to the viewers.
Add in the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the repeated closures of cinemas and constant delay of big releases, and screens have played to empty seats more than ever.
Scott Hadley, general manager of Paradise Theater on Bloor West, explained that his venue aims to have something for everyone – think The Revue and that glass of milk – which is what helped them navigate the shutdowns.
“We had a few fully-masked concerts. We did livestreaming. We had a couple of adverts filmed here. We sold takeout meal kits when we could not open the restaurant, ”Hadley said. “The biggest one of all: we repurposed the theater lobby into a wine bottle shop.”
Paradise, which opened in 1937, is not alone either. More and more venues are turning to live events such as comedians and concerts or even offering rentals to stay afloat.
Logan Somers, digital media producer of the Regent Theater, noted that the cinema turned to podcasting to stay connected with audiences while livestreaming stage productions and offering films online during COVID closures. He said it’s been different given that the product his theater offers is more than just entertainment on a screen.
“At Cineplex, they scan your ticket and that’s the extent of the interaction. But here it’s a full experience, and you’re treated like family, ”Somers said. “People take pride in the environment because they feel like they are part of the product when they come and interact.”
Hadley acknowledged that the long-standing theater is a landmark for many that represents a certain nostalgia.
“With that comes a lot of responsibility to be a good steward of the building and of the ways in which it means a lot to a lot of people,” he said.
The manager has noticed audiences who are leaving the couch either want to see unfamiliar movies or a classic on the big screen.
“People come and enjoy the experience of a shared catharsis, and that’s the thing you can not replicate at home – that togetherness,” he said.
More than a century ago, that “togetherness” saw Torontonians dress up for the occasion, ready to be wowed by larger-than-life stars and stories they could have seen previously only in their dreams. Doug Taylor, author of “Toronto Theaters and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” said cinemas offered the best entertainment deals in town. Ten cents bought a ticket-holder access to a double feature, a cartoon, previews, a serial program and a newsreel.
Robinson’s Musee Theater was the establishment to kick-start it all. The museum-turned-theater, at what was then 91 and 93 Yonge Street, was the first to screen a motion picture in Toronto on Aug. 31, 1896. It was gutted by fire one year later, leading to its conversion to a vaudeville stage by Shea Amusement Company and eventual use as office space.
A parade of firsts soon followed. The Theatorium, later known as the Red Mill, was Toronto’s first permanent theater – established at Yonge and Queen in 1906. The Hippodrome, in current-day Nathan Phillips Square, was the largest movie palace in Canada upon its opening in 1914. It was outdone by the even larger Pantages Theater in 1920.
Conservatively, about 150 legitimate theaters have sprung up in the city over the past century, not counting the road shows and makeshift movie houses that came and went.
Glitzy bulbed signs and marquees still line the city’s streets, acting as historical reminders of theater’s undeniable heyday. Time will tell what exactly will be inside the last-standing outliers, such as the Fox Theater, which continues to showcase cinema.
Managers like Hadley are still filled with hope and optimism that, despite changing technology, one particular desire will not change. Driven by the idea that getting hundreds of people into the same room to look at the same thing is an ancient pastime, Hadley is confident cinemas aren’t going anywhere.
“The movie itself is only part of the cinema experience,” he explained. “There’s a ritual – a reverence – to seeing something on the big screen. After the past few years of enforced separation, I think people are hungrier than ever to feel part of something bigger than themselves. ”
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