509 Parliament Street, once known as the Carlton. Photo by Rémi Carreiro/Torontoist.
When the house lights come up for the last time at the Carlton Cinemas on December 6, it won’t the first time Toronto moviegoers will witness the closing of a theatre by that name. One version was a neighbourhood venue, the other a grand palace. Guess which one of those two is still standing?
The first theatre to bear the Carlton name welcomed audiences to 509 Parliament Street in Cabbagetown between 1930 and 1954. After the projectionists were sent packing, the building was used as a CBC production facility, primarily for radio. Since the Mother Corp’s departure to Front Street, the building has served as a dance space and currently houses 509 Dance and the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre.
Postcard for the Odeon Toronto (later Odeon Carlton), circa 1948. Image courtesy of asylumbythelake.com.
Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, January 7, 1949.
While the first Carlton was geared to its neighbourhood, the second theatre to bear the name was designed as a showcase for British cinema giant Odeon’s post-war entry into the Canadian market. The chain spent two years and two-and-a-half million dollars constructing the Odeon Toronto (as it was originally known) at 20 Carlton Street, with the resulting product outlined by John Lindsay in his book Palaces of the Night: Canada’s Grand Theatres:
In the auditorium, hundreds of hidden lights constantly changed colours on the smooth plastered walls. This frequently changing light and colour was accomplished through a patented lighting panel called a “Thyratron, painting with life.” The enormous two and a half ton contour (sculpted) curtain rose slowly, it various motors lifting each swag to a predetermined height. The curtain also changed colour to match the changing colour of the walls of the big auditorium. The smooth line of the balcony swept around in a great gentle curve flaring out at the side walls to accommodate large aisles. The auditorium held 2,300 richly upholstered seats, although it was spacious enough for 3,000 or more, and every inch of the floor was broadloomed. The woodwork was light blonde and the mural on the grand staircase was in pastel tones depicting the theme of picture making. The trim was stainless steel with huge areas of mirror and other glass. The Odeon Toronto’s marquee with its huge vertical sign was the biggest Toronto had ever seen before or since.
“Toronto had a North American movie premiere last night fit to make the most premiere-hardened citizen of glamorous Hollywood lift his eyebrows,” gushed the Globe and Mail when the Odeon opened on September 9, 1948. “It was what they call a ‘brilliant premiere,’ noted the Star. “That is to say, a lot of people gathered in the lobby to exchange small talk.” British actors Trevor Howard and Patricia Roc provided the star power, with the latter joking that the theatre was “really too good for Canada. We have nothing as grand in London, and if you don’t want it—well, we’ll just take it home with us.” Howard played upon his mother’s Canadian roots, noting that when Odeon offered to invite his local relatives to the opening, sixty-two responded. After a few words from assorted dignitaries on stage, the curtain drew back and the audience saw the Canadian premiere of David Lean’s version of Oliver Twist.
As the Odeon chain spread throughout Toronto, it ceased making sense to refer to this theatre simply as the Odeon, so its name was officially changed to the Odeon Carlton in 1956. Business continued to be brisk for the next decade—several accounts from around the time it closed referred to a successful run of Thunderball during the winter of 1966 that saw a steady stream of sold-out crowds during the seven daily opportunities to see 007 in action. The theatre also proved to be the last movie house in Toronto to regularly entertain the audience with live organ music from the “magnificent console” its ads touted.
Odeon Carlton, summer 1972. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 158.
By the early 1970s, the theatre’s size worked against it. Average weeknight crowds of two hundred and fifty patrons were not enough to pay the bills, so the site was sold to a developer. Burt Reynolds was the last star to grace the Carlton’s screen when White Lightning entertained the closing night crowd on September 27, 1973. When organist Colin Corbett played a farewell number, audience members rushed to the stage to ask for more. The credit roll was aborted and Corbett resumed playing tunes like “Auld Lang Syne.”
The imminent threat of demolition provoked a last minute rush of ideas on preserving the theatre. Alderman Art Eggleton spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt by city council to apply a heritage designation to stave off the wrecking ball, while the Canadian Opera Company proposed to convert the Carlton into an opera house/ballet venue. While opera officials had starry-eyed visions of the possibilities that the site offered (mostly because it wasn’t the O’Keefe Centre), National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director Celia Franca had a clearheaded view of the situation. She felt the rush to look at the Carlton was an emotional one based on the circumstances and that nobody had investigated the site too deeply. Despite a few protests and notions among city councillors to expropriate the property, demolition began in late November. The seats were passed around to other Odeon cinemas and a theatre chain in Vancouver, while the organ was shipped to Queens University and installed at Jock Harty Arena.
Cinemaphiles would have to wait until 1981 for films to show again at 20 Carlton, although the address was now applied to a new building slightly east of the original.
Additional material from Palaces of the Night: Canada’s Grand Theatres by John Lindsay (Toronto: Lynx Images, 1999) and the following newspapers: the September 10, 1948, October 6, 1973, and November 24, 1973 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the September 10, 1948, and November 23, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star.