Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres ....

This winter really got to me.   Most years I can
skip through the dark, cold, dreary days of the
winter season with nary a twinge.   I get out
when I can and hibernate in my craft room 
or take refuge in a good book when I cannot.

But this winter was different.  I think the
ice storm just before Christmas really got
the season off on a nasty footing and just
got gradually worse.    I'm sure you
all know exactly what I'm talking about
and have been experiencing it yourselves.

I've been eating stuff that I shouldn't in
quantities that I didn't need,  I've been 
voluntarily, morosely  housebound
because of the frigid weather and the 
treacherous conditions under foot, and
have had no ambition to do anything at all.

Because of this interminable winter
 I decided to skip March entirely.

March let me/us down.   No gentle
easing of winter's icy fist of doom,
no ever increasing bouts of warmer,
sunny weather,  no signs of tiny green
buds poking through the ground ....

Actually, no signs of the ground

March was a bust!!!

So lets just move on to April and
forget that March ever even existed.

When last we met I was describing the 
2014 Girls Weekend in Toronto that
my friend Darlene and I enjoyed in
February.   To continue that story
we are now on Saturday, the main
full day of the weekend.

We began by sleeping in a bit ... of course
and then rushed around getting showered
and dressed in time for the planned ... and
unplanned ... events of the day ahead.

Breakfast was at McDonalds since we were
in a hurry which wasn't too bad food wise.
They make good hot chocolate.

Our first event of the day was a tour of one
of downtown Toronto's theatrical gems ....
The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

Any theatre lovers out there???  

 I've loved the theatre and especially the 
musical theatre since forever!!   And I've 
been to just about all the theatres in the 
downtown Toronto area over the years for 
various shows.   But somehow I'd never 
been to anything in the Elgin and/or the 
Winter Garden theatres.  So the 
opportunity to explore and tour these two
historic theatres was an highly anticipated

The Elgin and the Winter Garden are two
theatrical spaces built one on top of the
other and are the only ones of that kind
left in the world.    The Elgin is on street
level while the Winter Garden is seven
stories above it.   Built in 1913 the 
theatres were mainly intended for use
during the heyday of vaudeville and
for the showing of the newly invented
moving pictures.

The interesting thing about these theatres
though is that in 1928, when vaudeville
was no longer popular with theatre goers
and loosing money and patrons it was 
decided to close the Winter Garden theatre.

So they did.

One night, after the last vaudeville show
performed there, the staff covered stuff
with tarps, shut off the lights, locked the
doors and walked away.   For 60 years!!!

They even ended up blocking off the grand 
staircase leading up to the Winter Garden
to keep curious people from going up there
to poke around and perhaps carry away 
souvenirs of the place.  

Interior of the Elgin theatre.  This is the larger of
the two theatres and the one on ground level.

The Elgin theatre suffered the fate that many
former live theatre spaces did during the
1960's when it was turned into a movie

Then, in the 80's, with a revival of interest
in live theatre and the successful restorations
of other historic theatres in Toronto the 
Ontario Heritage Trust decided to take on
the restoration of the Elgin and the Winter
Garden theatres.

They unblocked the grand staircase and 
opened the doors to the long abandoned
Winter Garden theatre and walked into
a time capsule.    Everything left just 
exactly as it was when the last 
vaudeville performance had ended
60 years earlier.   

They found the huge old movie 
projector,  they found stage equipment, 
the old lighting and they found an extensive
collection of hand painted vaudevillian
scenery just left there,  and although
the place had suffered the ill effects
of time, neglect and water from the
inevitable leaky roof,  they had 
plenty that could be restored or used
to reproduce to exacting detail 
what once had been.

And why was it called The Winter
Garden Theatre you might ask?

When you walk into the theatre you look up
in awe at the ceiling.   It is covered in foliage!
Branches and leaves and berries and flowers,
in many variations and colours.  With little
lanterns scattered around for lighting.  Some
of those had been stolen over the years, but those
on the main ceiling were still there.

This picture is of the ceiling below the
balconies.   The old foliage was not
salvageable so the restoration team
went out to wood lots around the city
and brought back real branches to use
and samples of leaves to recreate the
ceiling in all it's awe inspiring detail. 

One side of the theatre was badly water damaged
and had to be re plastered and re painted, but the
other side and the back were in good, salvageable

We were taken behind the stage of the 
Winter Garden to see some of the 
old lighting system and the incredible
movie camera, some of the equipment
left behind when the theatre was abandoned.

One of the old vaudevillian backdrops, 
restored and used to cover the fire 
screen on the stage.

The delicate hand pained back wall of the

The tour, conducted by a volunteer well
versed in the history and the restoration
of the theatres, lasted an hour and a half
and was thoroughly fascinating.  I love
hearing about the old buildings and
the history of Toronto so this was
a major thrill for me to experience and
I know Darlene felt the same way.

Yes, there are ghost stories and during the
Halloween season there is a haunted tour
of the place.    The tours are conducted
on Thursdays and Saturdays for a small
fee and well worth the money.

Oh, one more story.

The old seating in the Winter Garden was
not restorable.   So they went looking
for seating from another theatre of the
same vintage to replace them.   They 
found a warehouse full of seats from an
old Chicago theatre that fit the bill
perfectly, cleaned them up and reupholstered
them and retrofitted them into the Winter

Then they found out the history of those
seats and the theatre they came from.

Apparently it was a movie theatre (The
Biograph) and one night in 1934, after a showing 
of the movie Manhattan Melodrama, one couple in
particular left the theatre.    The woman was
wearing a red dress.   (Do you know
where I'm going with this?)

Waiting outside the theatre was the police
who were watching for that woman in the
red dress.  Her escort was accosted and told to 
surrender.   He chose to pull a gun and try to run 
for it.  The police opened fire and shot him.

The man was John Dillinger.

So if you go to the Winter Garden theatre
to see a show you might just end up 
sitting in the seat that John Dillinger sat
in on that fateful night.  

Unfortunately no one knows just which one
of the seats it is.   But that's fine.   Hopefully
you'll have a better night in it then Mr
Dillinger did.

Hope you enjoyed this little bit of Toronto
history and I haven't bored you too much.
There is more to tell of our Saturday after
we left the theatre but that'll do for another post.


Link to the Elgin and Winter Garden site
for more info and history.


Judy S. said...

Interesting post! I think there's a Winter Garden in NYC also.

Andrea said...

It looks a beautiful theatre. Not a big theatre goer, I've been to 2 or 3 shows down in London a few years back.

Brigitte said...

I can thoroughly feel with you concerning this long and extreme winter. We've had this kind of winter too, and when the time comes when spring should start you just can't stand it any longer and you only wish for the snow and ice to go away and for the green to appear in nature. This year we here in Europe have been more fortunate and have been enjoying warm temperatures throughout the whole winter months. More than unusual. I hope that everything will warm up very soon where you live.

Very interesting to read about the old theatres that you visited in Toronto. I also try to find out a bit about historic buildings when we travel somewhere. It's always interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Sonda said...

What an interesting history of the theatres. It looks like you had fun!