Canon Theatre in Toronto
The Canon Theatre is a historic theatre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
The Canon Theatre began as the Pantages Theatre in 1920 as a combination vaudeville and motion picture house. Designed by the great theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb, it was the largest cinema in Canada (originally having 3373 seats) and one of the most elegant.
The Pantages was built by the Canadian motion picture distributor Nathan L. Nathanson, founder of Famous Players Canadian Corporation, the Canadian motion picture distributing arm of Adolph Zukor's Paramount Pictures. While Famous Players retained ownership, management and booking were turned over to the Pantages organisation, one of the largest vaudeville and motion picture theatre circuits in North America.
The Pantages circuit had its beginnings in Canada, in the Yukon. Pericles Alexander Pantages had been a sailor on a Greek merchant ship who left the sea in search of riches during the great 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. Although he found no gold, he became part owner of a small theatre in Dawson City - the Orpheum - that staged vaudeville and burlesque shows. From this beginning, he built an entertainment empire that would eventually include a Hollywood film studio, a powerful vaudeville booking agency and ownership or control of more than 120 theatres across Canada and the western United States - most of which were known as "The Pantages". The Toronto theatre was the easternmost house of the Pantages circuit, which then dominated the western market, but had been blocked in the east by the powerful Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville chain (later to be absorbed by the Radio Corporation of America into the motion picture company Radio Keith Orpheum, or RKO).
The Pantages empire - 30 years in the making - came to a sudden end in 1929 when Alexander Pantages was convicted of the rape of a 17-year old chorus girl and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Although the conviction was overturned on appeal, the scandal and the legal costs ruined Pantages. To the public, he had "got away with it" thanks to a clever lawyer. In 1930, he was forced to sell his theatres - at pennies on the dollar - with most of his assets going to RKO Pictures.
With the collapse of the Pantages circuit, the Pantages name came off the marquees of almost all the theatres. In 1930, the Toronto Pantages was renamed Imperial and became exclusively a cinema - no more live vaudeville. Management and control were resumed by Famous Players, which retained ownership for more than 50 years.
In 1972, the Imperial closed after a 9 month run of The Godfather, and was divided into six separate cinemas by Toronto architect Mandel Sprachman. It was officially reopened by Mayor David Crombie in 1973 as the "Imperial Six". Cinema 1 was built forward from the balcony edge toward the top half of the stage proscenium arch. Cinema 2 was located on the original balcony. Cinemas 3 and 4 were built in the original stage house, with cinema 3 being on top in the loft and cinema 4 underneath on the stage floor, and both accessed by a long glass walkway that ran the length of the building exterior above Victoria Street. Cinemas 5 and 6 were the original main floor seating divided in half by a partition wall.
All traces of its elegant past, such as gold leaf and faux marble balustrades, were painted over with garish 1970s colours of yellow, red, blue, black, and silver, with the walls carpeted in red and blue. The entrance at Yonge Street was a modern-looking, aluminum-paneled front, with no canopy or vertical, featuring a large circle opening above the entrance into a brightly-lit open outdoor square with bright modern marquee panels above on 3 sides, and 6 television screens on each side of the approach to the entrance doors showing movie trailers of features and coming attractions. The TV screens were later replaced by poster cases due to visibility problems with sunlight washing out the TV screens and technical problems with the early 1 inch video tape machines (12 in total, a separate machine for each screen).
The Imperial Six was a big money-maker for Famous Players throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, playing all the big releases including all the James Bond and Rocky releases. It had the same manager, Philip A. Traynor, from well before it closed for renovations in 1972, right up until its last day of operations by Famous Players in 1986. Mr. Traynor moved to the Plaza Cinemas and subsequently retired from Famous Players following the closing of the Imperial Six.
The Imperial Six sat on 3 major pieces of land. Famous Players owned the Yonge Street entrance, which bridged an alley and connected to the main building on Victoria Street, and they also owned the front half of the main theatre building, from the centre of the dome to the back wall of the stage house. The other half of the main theatre building, from the centre of the dome to the north wall of the main lobby, was leased from an elderly lady in Michigan, whose family had owned that property since before the theatre was constructed in 1920.
Famous Players Development Corp, an arms length real estate company spun off from Famous Players Ltd. in the 1970s and based in New York, attempted to play hardball with the Michigan owner during negotiations to renew the lease. Famous Players Development were holding out for a more favourable lease rate and when the lease expired, an agreement for a new lease still had not been reached. When the owner suggested that she would approach Famous Players' rival if they could not reach an agreement for the new lease rate, the representatives for Famous Players Development dared her to, suggesting that Cineplex Odeon would not be able to make use of "half a theatre". They were wrong. The same day that the owner's lawyers contacted rival cinema chain Cineplex Odeon Corporation, their then CEO Garth Drabinsky seized on the opportunity, and personally flew to Michigan and immediately signed a lease. The following day, on May 31, 1986, with the assistance of a bailiff and paid security, Cineplex Odeon seized control of the north half of the Imperial Six, effectively locking Famous Players out of their flagship downtown Toronto theatre, including the theatre offices, all the lobby space, 4 out of the 6 projection booths, all of cinema 2, and the back half of cinemas 5 and 6. Temporary walls were erected to keep Famous Players out of Cineplex Odeon's space.
Cineplex Odeon was determined to reopen their half of the theatre despite their not having an entrance on busy Yonge Street, and despite the main theatre requiring major work to replace the fire exits which were all on the Famous Players' end of the main theatre building. Initial plans were to completely gut their half and build a new multiplex cinema, which would augment the nearby Eaton Centre Cineplex, increasing their presence in downtown Toronto.
However, notwithstanding the tacky colours, the historic theatre with its elegant grand lobby, vaulted ornate plaster ceilings, columns and grand staircase, inspired a certain nostalgia for maintaining its historic grandness. Such grandness did not exist in any of the other theatre properties owned and operated by Cineplex Odeon, as most of them dated after World War II when J. Arthur Rank came to Canada to start Odeon Theatres of Canada in the late 1940s.
Plans to gut the building and build as many as 8 screens were dropped and instead plans were drawn up for a 3 screen cinema utilizing as much of the existing interior as possible. However, the need for a whole new system of fire exits, and the fact that the grand lobby occupied a major part of the space under the original balcony made the construction of 2 smaller cinemas on the main floor impractical. The final plan was for a single screen 800 seat stadium-style cinema utilizing the only complete auditorium on their half, what had been cinema 2 on the original balcony.
After a very costly construction project, the single-screen Pantages Cinema opened on December 12, 1987. The cinema entrance was located on Victoria Street, which did not get as much foot traffic as Yonge Street.
The war between Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon continued following a major corporate shakeup at Famous Players' head office following the loss of the Imperial Six, which saw the ousting of their long-time President George Destounis, even though Famous Players Ltd in Toronto was not involved with the failed lease renegotiation. The bitterness between the two rival chains was very much in play at the Gala opening of the Pantages Cinema. Famous Players organized a construction crew to stand by with jack hammers on their half of the building on the other side of a drywall partition built on the property line where the two rivals' halves met only 5 feet behind the Pantages screen, and intended to disrupt the gala screening of Wall Street.
Famous Players also called in the Toronto Fire Department complaining that there were not adequate fire exits for safe public occupancy. An inspection carried out by the Fire Inspector less than an hour before the scheduled gala event confirmed that the fire exits still had wet concrete and were incomplete, and the Fire Inspector ordered that the building remain closed to the public until the fire exits were finished, effectively canceling the opening event. The gala screening was moved to the Varsity Cinemas. Crews worked around the clock to finish the fire exits, and the cinema opened to the public the next day with its scheduled run of Wall Street. Following the opening, Famous players removed all the doors on every fire exit on their half to allow freezing cold winter air to fill their portion of the building. The partition wall between Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players had been constructed as a fire wall but was not insulated as an exterior wall.
Other films that showed during its brief time as a single-screen cinema were The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Colors, and a Gala screening attended by director Robert Redford for the launch of his film The Milagro Beanfield War.
After a long bitter legal fight, Famous Players eventually agreed to sell their portions of the original theatre and Yonge Street entrance to Cineplex Odeon, but the victory was a Pyrrhic one: as was standard practice for Famous Players when they sold a major downtown theatre property, they attached a condition to the sale forbidding Cineplex from ever again using the theatre for motion pictures. The last film ever to play in the Pantages Cinema was Die Hard.
Even before the Pantages closed to movies on August 26, 1988, Garth Drabinsky had a vision for restoring the complete theatre intact to its original 1920 look and creating a new live entertainment division of Cineplex Odeon. At the time, Toronto was experiencing a renaissance in live theatre, and there was an interest both to restore large historic theatres, such as the ambitious restoration already underway at the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre by the Ontario Heritage Foundation only one block to the south, and to create more venues that could attract big successful Broadway shows to Toronto, such as the successful runs that Cats had enjoyed earlier in the 1980s.
With the successful acquisition of Famous Players' remaining portions of the theatre, it was announced that the cinema would close and be restored to its former 1920 glory for the opening of The Phantom of the Opera. Work began in ernest immediately following the closing of the cinema, with interior demolition work removing all the 1973 partition walls, floors, fire exits and passageways, as well as excavating the entire basement underneath the original theatre floor to allow for deeper below grade spaces to accommodate modern live theatre amenities. All the original plasterwork, some of which had been hidden behind drywall during the 1973 multiplexing, was kept and restored. Tremendous effort was made to research the original paint colours from 1920, with experts on scaffolds using fine instruments to pick away layer after layer of paint. Black and white original photos were carefully studied to recreate faithfully everything from the fountain on the grand staircase, to the ticket box in the Yonge Street link, to the ornate marquee and canopy on Yonge Street with the original Pantages vertical as it had looked at its original opening in 1920.
The "new" 2200-seat Pantages reopened in 1989 with the first legitimate theatre production it had ever known, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical The Phantom of the Opera, which starred Colm Wilkinson and Rebecca Caine and played at the Pantages for more than a decade.
The Pantages was operated by a division of Cineplex Odeon known as Livent. After a battle for control of Cineplex between its founder, Garth Drabinsky, and Cineplex Odeon's majority shareholder, MCA, Livent became an independent company, with no ties to the parent corporation. Livent continued to own and operate the Pantages until 1999, when the theatre was purchased - along with other assets of the bankrupt Livent - by Clear Channel Entertainment.
Ownership fell to Live Nation (NYSE:LYV), owners of Broadway Across Canada and Broadway Across America, a subsidiary of Clear Channel, which turned management of the facility over to Mirvish Productions, also giving Mirvish right of first negotiation should the theatre ever be put up for sale.
In July, 2001, Live Nation announced a pledge of support for the theatre from Canon Canada, Inc. In recognition of this pledge, which guaranteed the continued life and health of this important, historic and beautiful showplace, the theatre has been renamed the Canon Theatre.
On January 24, 2008, Key Brand Entertainment, Inc., a private investment company dedicated to the development, production and distribution of live theatre, announced that it has acquired all of Live Nation, Inc.’s North American theatrical assets. Key Brand Entertainment is owned and controlled by British theatre producer John Gore and led by entertainment industry veteran Thomas B. McGrath.
As part of the financing arrangements for the purchase of Live Nation's assets, Key Brand agreed to sell both the Canon and the nearby Panasonic Theatre, in Toronto. Honouring the original lease agreement between Mirvish Productions and Live Nation, Key Brand offered Mirvish the right of first negotiation and Mirvish successfully bid to purchase both theatres.
This bid prompted Toronto-based theatre producer Aubrey Dan, of Dancap Productions, a minority shareholder in Key Brand, to seek an injunction forbidding the sale. Mr. Dan's injunction application was dismissed by the court on August 19, 2008, and sale of the theatres to Mirvish Productions allowed to proceed.
- Total seats (1920): 3373; (2005): 2295
- Seating: mezzanine, orchestra and boxes
- Entrance: 244 Victoria Street
- Secondary Entrance: 263 Yonge Street
- Owner: Mirvish Productions
Other Thomas Lamb theatres in Canada
- Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto
- Uptown Theatre, Toronto
- Capitol Cinema, Ottawa
- Temple/Capitol/Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts, Brantford
- Broadway Across Canada (Live Nation)
- Official site of Dancap Productions
- Official Mirvish Site
- Canon Theatre Seating Charts
- Pantages Theatre - Toronto
- wicked performance at Canon Theater Toronto