From Vaudeville to TIFF

In downtown Toronto there stands the last operating Edwardian stacked theatre in the world.  The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres were built in 1913, eventually sank into B-movie obscurity, and then underwent a major restoration in the 1980s.

I had a chance to take a tour of these two grand theatres and both are visual treats, but today I look at the Winter Garden Theatre only.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre9
Lower level

It sits seven stories above the Elgin and in between the two theatres, are layers of open lobbies accessible by the “Grand Staircase”, an escalator, or the original hand operated elevators.

Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre18

Like the Elgin, the Winter Garden was originally built to feature vaudeville shows and silent films, but the Winter Garden was given an entirely different look and feel, intended to provide premium acts for the upper middle class.

The theatre was decorated to simulate an intimate outdoor garden and is probably one of the most unique theatres in the world.

The walls are painted in a garden theme with leaf boughs and specially treated, real beech tree branches hanging from the ceiling.

Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre10

In 1928 when talking films were becoming hugely popular, the Elgin Theatre downstairs was equipped with a sound system, but the Winter Garden was simply closed and sealed up.

… and it remained sealed for almost 60 years.

In 1981, the property was acquired by the Ontario Heritage Foundation and in 1987 the process of restoring the theatre began.

Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre11
In the lobby of the Winter Garden

What they discovered inside the Winter Garden was a largely preserved time capsule, including a treasure of vaudeville stage scenes and costumes that had simply been left untouched.  It is reported to be the largest surviving collection of vaudeville scenery in the world.

Most of it is in a storage facility outside of Toronto, but several large impressive stage scenes are on display.

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One of three massive stage backdrops, made of linen, preserved from vaudeville days

The painted wall scenes presented a challenge for the restoration team and eventually they were painstakingly cleaned using raw bread dough.

The sticky dough was rolled in small balls along the walls to lift off the dirt and grime without damaging the delicate paint work underneath.

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In the lobby of the Winter Garden

Inside the theatre, there is a feeling of sitting under giant trees lit by small lanterns.

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I remember the slack-jawed awe I felt attending a performance in the Winter Garden shortly after it was re-opened in 1989.  It was – and still is – a feast for the eyes.

Although used primarily for small stage productions that don’t require an orchestra pit, the Winter Garden, like its sister the Elgin, is used for premiere events at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

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If you ever get a chance to tour the theatres or attend a performance in this historic building, I highly recommend it.  The Winter Garden will be opening its doors to the public as part of the Open Doors Toronto event at the end of May.

75 comments

    • Sorry Judy – I found your comment stuck in my spam folder. The nerve!

      The old theatres were places of magic in more ways than one. I learned through a friend of mine that there is an entire organization in the US of people involved in restoring old Art Deco theatres. He discovered this group while researching an old Art Deco theatre he’s bought and trying to restore. It seems to be a trend and these people are sharing their learnings with each other. Learning about this kind of collaboration makes me happy.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s as though you are on a big treasure hunt in your own city Joanne. Imagine what fun it would be to perform here and I noticed Heather’s enthusiasm when she saw it.

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    • That’s a great way to express it Sue. It is a big treasure hunt! Now if only there was a pot of gold at the end 😉

      I admit that I harbour a secret desire to be on stage … but I think one needs some talent for that to happen :/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my goodness, I’m practically hyperventilating. So gorgeous, so stunning and, man, I wanna perform in there! Wow. Just. Wow.

    On a side note, don’t you love how film festivals sound like they’re having an argument? You’re having a TIFF, we get MIFFed. 😀

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  3. I love these theatres – I’ve seen everything from TIFF movies, to stage shows to Opera Atelier. I have never done the tour though so perhaps I will try at this year’s “Doors Open” – I was just starting to plan this year’s viewings this afternoon! The R.C Harris Water Plant is top of my list so far for this year.
    I heard about using dough to do the cleaning when I was in Vienna – apparently that was what they used in the Schonnbron Palace (none of us in the tour guessed the correct answer).

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    • oooo – you’re right!!
      Although I think Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of the plays that is performed every year outdoors in one of the city parks. It’s included in a summer series called Shakespeare in the Park.

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  4. This is so gorgeous. Thanks for sharing. What a treat it must be to sit there and watch a peformance whilst under the trees. That staircase is incredible, visual treats indeed!

    We used to make erasers back in the day, with bread that way, it really does work well. (Okay I grew up on an isolated hillside in South Africa.) We also made our own honemade glue with flour and water.

    Beautiful Joanne,
    Peta

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  5. OMG! When I next get to TO (Lord knows when) I have to see this place. I didn’t even know it existed. Exquisite grandeur – I adore these sort of restorations. Nice tour, Joanne!

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    • The old theatres have a character that’s missing from the modern theatre.
      I have a friend who bought an old Art Deco theatre in his home town that had sat neglected for years. He set it up as a non-profit organization and has been restoring it over the past couple of years. He’s been getting considerable support from the local community who are thrilled that the theatre has been reopened for special occasions as the restoration has permitted.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This place is worth the visit just to experience how unique it really is. I can’t believe it was sealed up for so long. Maybe if it had been left open, it would have been eventually razzed by someone without a sense of how special it is.

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  6. Thanks for sharing the amazing photos, Joanne. What lovely old theaters. I’m so glad they are being restored, and that the found items weren’t just loaded into a dumpster (as they might have been if a commercial operation bought the place).

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    • I vaguely knew about the Heritage Foundation, but I didn’t realize they actually owned property. Nor did I know that the Elgin and Winter Garden were publicly owned through the Foundation.

      I’ve always stayed away from formal tours because of the whole crowd/entourage thing, but I’m learning to pick my moments and so far the experiences have been very good.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I just added this to my bucket list, Joanne. What a beautiful magical place to see a performance. Stunning creativity. I’m so glad that such painstaking care was taken in its restoration. Thanks for the gorgeous photos and history. 😀

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    • I was shocked at the bread dough too … and, how exactly does one come to the idea of ‘let’s try raw bread dough’ as a solution?!!
      Maybe it’s one of those secret weapons generally known by the restoration people in the world.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Funny thing about the bread dough. I just watched an episode of “Call the Midwife” and one of the characters was cleaning an old oil painting using the same technique. Who knew it was a “thing”? What treasures these theatres are, Joanne. Definitely worth a look next time I’m in Toronto.

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