The Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre Centre

Winter wonderland.

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It is called the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, but only an on-site visit, or ideally, several, to see various performances, can do it justice. It is the world’s last operating double-decker theatre, designed by architect Thomas White Lamb for Marcus Loew and his theatre chain, back in the days of vaudeville. That would be in and around the date the Elgin (then called the Loew’s Yonge Street theatre) theatre first opened, December 15, 1913. The theatre above, then and still called the Winter Garden, opened the following February.

When we say “above”, it is meant very literally. Look up into the ceiling of the Elgin, and you are looking at the under floor of the Winter Garden. The upper theatre is a full seven storeys above its partner. The building had several sea changes, from its original vaudeville incarnation through silent films to the talkies. The Winter Garden, in fact, closed its doors in 1928, and remained dark and dormant for over 60 years. The lower theatre remained a movie palace for decades, but gradually fell into disrepair, and at one point the entire complex was considered a candidate for demolition.

In stepped the Ontario Heritage Foundation, and a partial retrofit was completed in 1984. A hugely successful run of Cats signalled the viability of a massive, $29 million restoration, and in 1989 the doors to the current, absolutely fabulous Theatre Centre swung open to the public. Included now are an additional 65,000 square feet of eminently usable space, including lobbies, lounges, dressing rooms, rehearsal studios and loading docks that can accommodate the most demanding and complex set constructions.

Drama, comedy, opera, dance and musicals are the fare, and the Toronto International Film Festival presents special screenings there. Arnie Lappin is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator, and has been on the scene from the first moments of restoration. He is a library unto himself of how the building came into its present splendid state, and tirelessly remarks how the over 100 volunteers who provide tours, assist in projects, staff the lobby information booths and help raise funds are the fundamental fabric of the complex.

There is also a partnership with the Toronto District School Board, resulting in invitations to students to attend performances. Many of these students might never otherwise have an opportunity to attend a live performance in such a venue. To date, nearly 3,000 students have participated in the theatre education program. It is all overseen by Richard Mortimer, General Manager.

The Centre has been a filming location as well, with a list of credits miles long. My friend Tia Carrere shot episodes of Relic Hunter here, and the massive hit Chicago was filmed here as well. But it is exciting to note that the opening night roster, way back in 1913, included Irving Berlin, and that the stage was also graced by (if that is the word I really want) Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Edgar Bergen and “Charlie McCarthy”, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. Walking around the place, especially backstage and in the bowels, where some of the original foundation stones from the excavation site way back when are preserved, you get a real sense of place, of history, of, well, habitation. Are there ghosts in the theatre? “Well”, says Arnie, “They say every theatre has a ghost or two.” One thing is certain; the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is still in the dynamic process of creating new memories, and will continue to do so for a very long time.


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August 1, 2004
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