How an immigrant's unlikely dream led to the grandest movie house in Toronto.
Placemaking tells the stories behind the buildings that define the GTA, beyond the downtown core.
During the golden age of Hollywood cinema, architect partners Harold Kaplan and Mandel Sprachman were the designated movie-house men of the GTA. The duo designed more than 20 art deco cinemas in the Toronto area alone—and another 40-plus across Canada—but perhaps the finest of them all was midtown Toronto’s Eglinton Theatre.
The theatre’s story begins with Agostino Arrigo, Sr., who immigrated to Toronto from Sicily as a teen at the turn of the 20th century. As legend goes, Arrigo worked feverishly for an uncle upon arrival and into the 1920s, setting aside his earnings in hopes of one day establishing Toronto’s most impressive movie house, which he thought would serve as a commercial epicentre for the then-vacant Eglinton strip. The Depression hit, but Arrigo had put aside enough money to realize his dream, and also to bring the city’s two most in-demand cinema architects on board for the project.
A deal was struck with Famous Players, and by 1934 Kaplan and Srachman had drawn up a design for the 775-seat theatre. Its grand opening at 400 Eglinton Avenue West took place in April 1936, with a screening of the Jack Oakie film King Of Burlesque.
Writer Tim Morawetz describes the Eglinton Theatre experience in Art Deco Architecture in Toronto as such:
After buying a ticket at the chrome-and-vitrolite ticket booth beneath the brightly lit marquee, moviegoers passed through an indoor lobby at street level, then descended a few steps into a streamlined foyer that featured gleaming metalwork and a fireplace. Popcorn in hand, they ascended a flight of steps to reach the gently raked auditorium, and perhaps climbed a few more stairs to get to the raised mezzanine with loge seating where smoking was permitted.
A visit to the Eglinton Theatre was an encounter with opulence. “Meet your friends at the new Eglinton—the last word in Luxury and Comfort!” proclaimed an ad for the cinema in the Toronto Daily Star on April 13, 1936. Kaplan and Sprachman were rewarded with the 1937 Governor General’s architecture award for the Eglinton’s grand design.
As multiplexes came to replace single-screen cinemas in the decades that followed, the Eglinton would remain one of the final, stubborn holdouts of its kind. When the cinema finally closed in 2002—according to Morawetz, after the Famous Players chain refused to comply with a requirement to make the building wheelchair-accessible—its interior was partially renovated and the space was reborn as an events venue, renamed the Eglinton Grand.
The area just west of Avenue and Eglinton looks markedly different today than it did when Agostino Arrigo first set his sights on the underdeveloped spot, but the theatre he envisioned still stands, a defiant deco survivor in a land of yoga studios and designer retail.