East York icon opened as a movie house and vaudeville theatre in 1919
By Kris Scheuer
(Originally written Aug.17 for Town Crier.)
Surviving the Depression when many others didn’t is one of the stories the iconic Music Hall on Danforth Ave. has to tell since its opening in 1919.
Ryerson professor of communications and culture, Paul Moore, has some insight into why The Music Hall has weathered the years so well.
At the time Danforth was considered suburbia but was starting to expand on the heels of the Bloor Viaduct that was built in 1918. “One of the reasons why this particular theatre was so important is it marked a transition from small movie neighbourhood theatres to large Hollywood movie palaces,” says Moore.
In 1914, before the theatre was built, there were already 95 theatres in Toronto including a trio on Danforth, says Moore author of Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun.
In 1918, owners of the three existing Danforth theatres went to Queen’s Park to ask the government to stop The Music Hall from opening, Moore says. But it was to no avail, as the venue opened in 1919.
|It was with the 1,600-seat Allen’s Danforth Theatre that owners Jule and Jay J. Allen were well on their way towards an empire of 60 movie houses across Canada.
The vaudeville theatre and movie house offered a combination of live shows, music, newsreels, short films and a feature movie.
“Movies were still silent in 1919 so there was an orchestra that played before and during the show,” says professor Moore. “The musicians were as important as the show.”
It was built by C. Howard Crane and Hynes, Feldman & Watson Architects in a modified Georgian revival style and is listed as a heritage property by the city.
However, the good times didn’t last long for the Allens.
The family declared bankruptcy in 1922 and sold their theatres at “fire-sale prices” to Famous Players.
“It (became) a Greek theatre then the Century Theatres,” says Gerald Whyte, president of the Riverdale Historical Society. “It managed to survive but was in a state of disrepair before it was restored.”
The restoration is thanks to Glyn Laverik, current CEO of The Music Hall.
Much of the original interior is being restored although some things were not practical such as keeping the small, original seats.
“People expect bigger seats and people are wider than in 1919,” says Laverik.
Now seating about 1,000 the Music Hall still puts it in a good position to host large events such as the Tragically Hip this past May or upcoming musical The Toxic Avenger and the play Secrets From A Black Boy.
It also hosts community-oriented shows like The Riverdale Share Christmas concert. The area is packed with musicians who drop by to play at The Music Hall, including Jim Cuddy and Blue Rodeo.
CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi and comedian Rick Mercer also live within walking distance and have been known to hold events here as well, says Laverik.
If you are wondering if any ghostly spirits roam the theatre, Laverik says he hasn’t seen any.
“I’ve been here many nights working late,” he says. “I’ve never seen or heard anything. We are safe.
“We only have good spirits left here.”