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The Last Two-storey Theatre

For the week of  Monday, December 12, 2011

On December 15, 1913, the Elgin Theatre, then called Loew’s Theatre, on Yonge Street, Toronto, opened its doors. Two months later, the Winter Garden Theatre, built over the Elgin, was inaugurated. These two stacked theatres, designed by the renowned American architect Thomas Lamb, belonged to a chain of theatres run by entrepreneur Marcus Loew. Though built one atop the other, the two rooms were constructed in different styles. The Elgin’s décor was of classical inspiration, while the Winter Garden indeed evoked a garden, with hand-painted landscapes and branches of beech hanging from the ceiling.

Elgin Theatre. Photo taken by Hill Peppard in 1989
© City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 122, Series 881, File 53, Item 7.
At first, both theatres staged vaudeville shows – a form of variety show popular at the time – and silent films. However, with the advent of talking pictures, attendance declined and the Winter Garden closed in 1928, while the Elgin was converted into a movie theatre. In 1969, the building was sold to Famous Players Corporation, which used it to screen second-rate movies, and gradually the theatre became outdated.

In 1981, when the decrepit building was about to be demolished, it was bought by Ontario Heritage Trust with the aim of reviving it. Major restoration work costing $29 million started in 1987 and ran until 1989. The purpose was to restore the two rooms to their original appearance and modernize their facilities. Great changes were made: floors were added, and a basement was excavated to expand the existing facilities (bathrooms, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, etc.), broken glass was replaced, layers of paint were stripped, and the watercolour paintings of the Winter Garden were cleaned using raw bread dough so as not to damage them. Various decorative items were also restored or replaced. During the restoration, stage props dating from 1913-18 were discovered. These have been restored and now constitute the largest collection of vaudeville props in the world.

Winter Garden. Photo taken by Hill Peppard in 1989
© City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 122, Series 881, File 53, Item 4.

On December 15, 1989, seventy-five years after their first opening, the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres, seating 1,561 and 922 respectively, reopened. Since then, the two theatres have staged a great variety of shows: dance, comedy, operas and galas. These double-decker theatres have come to symbolize Toronto’s cultural life.

The last two-level theatres in the world still in operation, the Elgin and Winter Garden were designated as a national historic site in 1982.

To find out more about the history of Canadian theatres, read these articles: The Show Place of Toronto, The Grand Old Lady of Granville Street, A Gem of a Theatre, Something for Everyone, Take a Bow, The Granada, a Theatre of Dreams, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Tutus at the Eaton Auditorium and Downtown Gala Held for Vogue Theatre in the archives of This Week in History. For more on the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres, visit the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

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