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