Historicist: Toronto's Yiddish Playhouse

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Historicist: Toronto’s Yiddish Playhouse

The Standard Theatre as a centre of Jewish cultural life in Toronto.

Weighing machine outside Standard Theatre on the northeast corner of Dundas West and Spadina, June 12, 1930. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1232a.

As an expression of a new, secular Jewish culture, “Yiddish theatre served an important psychological function for the Jewish immigrant” in Toronto, historian Stephen A. Speisman writes in The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 (McClelland & Stewart, 2005 [1979]). “[I]t was a place where he could laugh uproariously after a day in the factory,” Speisman continued, “where he could rise out of the indignity of his existence as a rag-picker to heights unattainable outside the fantasy of the stage, where the catharsis of weeping simultaneously over one’s own lot and over the tragedy of the fictional character was to be had for ten cents.”

In Toronto, the centre of Yiddish comedy and drama was on the northeast corner of Dundas and Spadina, the site of Isidore Axler’s Standard Theatre—the first purpose-built Yiddish playhouse in Canada. At its peak in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Standard was considered by journalist and historian Hye Bossin to be “the finest Yiddish playhouse in North America and probably the world.”

Theatrical wardrobe hanging outside the Lyric Theatre (in the former Agnes Street Methodist Church) at Bay and Dundas West, 1909  From the Toronto Public Library's Digital Collection

Theatrical wardrobe hanging outside the Lyric Theatre (in the former Agnes Street Methodist Church) at Bay and Dundas West, 1909. From the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.

Yiddish stock companies visiting Toronto performed at Orange halls and other venues until 1906, when the People’s Theatre, the city’s first Yiddish theatre, was opened in an old synagogue. The venue was so dilapidated that a balcony collapse during an early performance almost led to tragedy. Charles (Chanina) Pasternak, the owner and a Ward entrepreneur, brought another businessman (alternatively given as Simon Rabinowitch or a Mr. Abramaovitch) into the enterprise and relocated to a former Methodist Church at Agnes (Dundas) and Terauley (Bay) streets into a 900-seat auditorium. Known as The National when it opened in 1909—and later as The Lyric—the theatre hosted productions of New York touring companies. The shows were well-attended, but it doesn’t seem to have ever become a profitable business venture.

The biggest touring companies, like those led by Boris Tomashefsky and Jacob Adler, still preferred larger venues like Massey Hall, Hart House, or the Grand Opera House, which they could sell out with ease, to the rudimentary National. And the theatre’s practice of staging shows on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons earned the consternation of the orthodox community, some of whom refused to ever even enter the building or expelled attendees from their congregations. Moreover, by the early 1920s—when the Lyric was razed by fire—the theatre had been languishing as the city’s Jewish community, becoming more established and wealthier, had moved west from the Ward to re-center itself on the intersection of College and Spadina.

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(Left: Globe [August 29, 1922].)

Isidore Axler, an Austrian-born Jew who’d come to Toronto as a 20-year-old in 1909, believed that a more lavish theatre than the Lyric would attract the most prominent New York theatre companies and the most eminent stars of Yiddish drama and comedy. He raised funds for his Standard Theatre by selling shares—in the form of bricks costing $5—which would entitle the shareholder to discounted seats, Axler secured a site at the northeast corner of Dundas and Spadina, the former site of Dr. Henry H. Moorehead’s residence, which had been demolished in the late 1910s. And he retained the services of an architect, usually given as architect Benjamin Brown, who’d designed a number of the most striking buildings along Spadina Avenue, but there are suggestions it was actually John MacNee Jeffrey.

With shops at street-level, the 140 foot by 70 foot building reflected the restrained Art Deco style then popular for theatres, with little exterior embellishments. The 1,500-seat auditorium on the second floor was resplendent with Classical detailing for the stage, side walls, and the balcony seating and recessed ceiling above. The second-floor mezzanine outside the auditorium, the Globe reported, was “handsomely furnished with sofas, chairs and other comfort,” with subdued shades of pale blue and gold dominating the theatre’s attractive decorative scheme. With all modern conveniences, the theatre also contained a refreshment room at street level and a smoking room in the basement. “The edifice is unqualifiedly one of the finest of its class in North America,” the Canadian Jewish Review assessed, “and is a monument to Jewish enterprise in the city.”

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(Right: Globe [April 7, 1934].)

Opening night, which occurred on August 30, 1922—not August 18, 1921, as is frequently but mistakenly cited—was well-attended by Jew and Gentile alike, with Mayor Charles A. Maguire and Controller Jimmie Simpson among the dignitaries in attendance. Before speeches and the play, the Crown was entertained by a choir of men and soprano boys performing a number of selections accompanied by the orchestra.

That night’s play was a three-act Yiddish melodrama, “An Eye For An Eye,” written by Anshel Schorr. In it, a husband falsely accused of murdering his wife leaves his infant daughter in the care of a pawnbroker, and returns years later to reveal himself to his now-grown daughter, who helps him unmask the true killer. Jacob Cohn and Jeannette Paskevitch, who played the father and daughter, were praised for their “great dramatic ability” by the Canadian Jewish Review. In shifting from scenes of “intense dramatic feeling” to “ridiculously mirthful” moments as comic relief, the play was typical of the mix of high tragedy and low comedy found in secular Jewish theatre.

During its years as a Yiddish theatre, the Standard staged adaptations of classic Russian works by Gorky and Gogol, and of Shakespeare—both of which attracted packed houses—as well as plays written specifically for the Yiddish stage. “Many of these plays opened in the Old Country and showed the sweethearts separated by the girl’s father, a successful man, who would not accept a poor boy for a son-in-law,” writes Hye Bossin, describing the type of storyline that most appealed to the Standard’s core audience of older community members. “In America the boy becomes rich and the father-in-law poor. The girl has married another, a cruel but rich man. And so on. Of course, they always ended happily with everyone forgiving everyone.” Many featured song and dance numbers, with Yiddish lyrics to familiar tunes.

The actors and actresses sometimes had to roll with the unexpected. Vincent Geller, once the Standard’s publicity man, recalled one play when, at the dramatic climax of a tragedy, an actor was to cry that his world was collapsing—just as a section of scenery fell over. “It was a moment of indisputable realism,” he deadpanned. On another occasion, a play had to be interrupted when a horse needed for a scene in a blacksmith’s shop—who was being kept in the back alley—was “rescued” by a Humane Society worker that assumed the animal had been abandoned in the cold. “A frantic search failed to provide a substitute,” the Star (December 2, 1922) reported, “so that in spite of much stalling on the part of the actors, the curtain had to be rung down and the act was queered.”

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(Right: Star [May 25, 1934].)

Such moments of levity aside, the Standard had a well-earned reputation as a first-rate Yiddish playhouse, attracting Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre, and other leading companies from New York, and many leading actors like Jacob Ben-Ami, and Paul Muni (when he was still going by his birth name, Meshilem Weisenfreund).

Abe Littman, a theatre manager in Brooklyn, was recruited to manage the Standard’s on-stage operations shortly before it opened. In his two years at the theatre, which were among the Standard’s most successful, Littman assembled a company of players soon recognized as one of the finest Yiddish troupes outside New York, regularly touring them to Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, and New York. Littman, however, was lured to a job in Detroit and his departure signaled the beginning of a long decline at the Standard, where his company of actors was increasingly supplanted by touring companies.

The Standard Theatre represented high culture for residents of the College-Spadina neighbourhood, even if they had to sneak in a back door like boxer Sammy Luftspring did as a child. Admirers gathered at the stage door to greet their idols, bumped into them on the street, or dined with them in Spadina Avenue restaurants and delis. “The social life that grew up around the theatre attracted a set of brilliant young people,” Geller recalled, “and their sessions with the actors sparkled with gaiety and wit.”

Moreover, the centrally-located theatre became a social centre serving all facets of the Jewish community. Zionists hosted meetings there, sportsmen staged boxing cards, politicians made speeches, and visiting poets and lecturers brought other varieties of culture to the Standard. Perhaps most importantly, political activists, trade unionists, and communists held rallies at the Standard and turned the corner of Dundas and Spadina into “an unofficial Red Square,” in Geller’s words. “When you gave your ticket to the doorman,” he added, “you were admitted into a classless society.”

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(Left: Globe [January 28, 1929].)

The Standard was the site of a riot in early 1929, not long after Chief Dennis Draper, with the support of the police commission, issued an edict banning any discussion of Communism at public meetings in any language other than English—the goal being to prevent seditious talk in languages police officers couldn’t understand. On this occasion, at a meeting commemorating Lenin’s death, one of the speakers, trade unionist Max Shur (or Schur), said a few words in Yiddish and was promptly dragged off-stage by police observers. Outraged at these heavy-handed tactics, Philip Halpern, editor of a Yiddish-language newspaper, stood on a chair in the audience to give an impromptu speech entirely in Yiddish. He too was arrested amid growing pandemonium and tear gas being tossed by police.

Aggressive policing of left wing activists continued in 1933 when the Progressive Arts Club performed Eight Men Speak at the Standard Theatre. Written by Oscar Ryan and others, the agit-prop play used a mix of avant-garde staging techniques of stark lighting and projections, song, and propaganda to adulate party leader Tim Buck and other imprisoned Communists. The sold-out performance, where the audience cheered the singing of “The Internationale” but booed “God Save the Queen,” proved to be the play’s only performance—until a revival decades later—because the police commission threatened to revoke the Standard’s license if further performances went ahead as planned. In retrospect, the six-act drama doesn’t stand the test of time. “It isn’t a great piece of theatre,” one reviewer notes, critiquing it as “too didactic and simple-minded.” But, at the time, its revolutionary tone must’ve seemed frightening.

The neighbourhood was changing, with second generation Jewish immigrants becoming more assimilated, and more interested in sound motion pictures than Yiddish melodrama. “East, west, all around the theatre were change and activity, crystallization and sundering, the heterogeneous lives of a homogeneous people,” Geller recounted poetically. “A phenomenon our neighbors have marvelled at but never understood. And there stood the theatre growing more forlorn from year to year; becoming less of a playhouse and acquiring the earmarks of a landmark.” Having made money in only a few out of more than a decade in business, in its final years of live theatre, the Standard’s management was actively trying to appeal beyond the Jewish community, with nearly a third of those attending later productions being Gentiles. But the audience drifted away, and when the Standard gave up Yiddish comedy and drama, few appeared to mourn the loss. That it lasted as long as it did was due to Axler’s passion for Yiddish culture and his artistic success as impresario. “The live theatre ended largely because the audience ended,” Littman told Bill Gladstone of the Canadian Jewish News (February 8, 2007).

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(Right: Star [October 5, 1934].)

By early October 1934, the old Standard, now re-modelled to include a projection room and outfitted with the most modern film and sound equipment, began screening movies as The Strand. The venue was further upgraded and redecorated with new carpets, and a new neon marquee, installed over the course of the summer of 1941. Then, it reopened as the Victory Theatre—operating as part of Nat Taylor’s Twentieth Century chain—with a gala ceremony attended by Mayor Fred Conboy and others on October 9, 1941.

It thrived for a time, continuing to attract the Jewish residents of the neighbourhood, as actor Al Waxman once reminisced of his regular Saturday routine of a hot dog at Shopsy’s and a matinee at the Victory next door. Amid declining attendance at movies, the Victory was nearly bought by “Honest Ed” Mirvish before he decided that acquiring the similarly languishing Royal Alexandra—which he bought in 1963—presented a better investment opportunity.

View of Victory Burlesque [the former Standard Theatre] and Shopsy's Restaurant on the northeast corner of Dundas West and Spadina, c  1960  From Chuckman's Postcard Collection

View of Victory Burlesque [the former Standard Theatre] and Shopsy’s Restaurant on the northeast corner of Dundas West and Spadina, c. 1960. From Chuckman’s Postcard Collection.

Instead, in September 1961, the Victory Theatre joined the growing number of Toronto cinemas which had shifted to striptease. As a burlesque house attracting many of the most prominent performers of the day, the Victory Theatre loomed large in the city’s cultural imagination in the 1960s. A regular hangout for university students, it was the subject of Robert Fulford’s classic 1965 essay on straight-laced Toronto’s morality police, “Crisis at the Victory Burlesk“—which he also revisited decades later.

The theatre made appearances in literary works by Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, F.G. Paci, Jane Urquhart, and Robertson Davies, as well as artwork by photographer Michel Lambeth and painter Robert Markle. Moreover, in later years, the strip club doubled as a concert venue, hosting concerts by acts like Rush, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Kiss, Peter Frampton, Bachman Turner Overdrive, and Max Webster.

Detail from photo of northeast corner of Dundas West and Spadina, August 3, 2012, by wyliepoon from Flickr via Creative Commons

Detail from photo of northeast corner of Dundas West and Spadina, August 3, 2012, by wyliepoon from Flickr via Creative Commons.

Changing neighbourhood demographics prompted Hang Hing Investments to acquire the theatre in 1975. For nearly 20 years, as the Golden Harvest Theatre (and briefly as The Mandarin) the venue screened Cantonese and Mandarin films until closing in the fall of 1994, a casualty of the increasing availability of Asian films on home video (both in legitimate releases and pirated copies).

When architect Mandel Sprachman was hired to renovate the building—since designated under the Ontario Heritage Act—for its new purpose in the 1970s, he had a unique perspective. His grandfather’s house had been located nearby, and he’d spent many days killing time at The Strand. His father’s architecture firm, he asserted, handled the renovations that converted it into the Victory, where Sprachman then worked as an usher for a time.

“Of all my theatre work, the Golden Harvest was the most intriguing, because the theatre began catering to the Yiddish New Canadians,” Sprachman reminisced in John Sebert’s The Nabes (Mosaic Press, 2001), “and, with a few bumps in between, ended up catering to the Chinese New Canadians.”

Sources consulted include: Hye Bossin, Stars of David (Jewish Standard, 1956); Arlene Chan, The Chinese in Toronto (Dundurn, 2011); Rosemary Donegan, Spadina Avenue (Douglas & McIntyre, 1985); Robert Fulford, Crisis at the Victory Burlesk: Culture, Politics and Other Diversions (Oxford University Press, 1968); Bill Gladstone, ed., Only Yesterday: Collected Pieces on the Jews of Toronto (Now & Then Books, 2013); Allan Levine, Toronto: Biography of a City (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014); Sammy Luftspring, with Brian Swarbick, Call Me Sammy (Prentice-Hall of Canada, Ltd., 1975); John Sebert, The Nabes: Toronto’s Wonderful Neighbourhood Movie Houses (Mosaic Press, 2001); Stephen A. Speisman, The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 (McClelland & Stewart, 2005 [1979]); Doug Taylor, Toronto Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen (The History Press, 2014); and articles from the Canadian Jewish News (February 8 & 15, and March 15, 2007); the Canadian Jewish Review (September 8, 1922); the Globe (August 29 & 31, 1922); the Globe and Mail (October 8 and November 5, 1941); and the Star (December 2, 1922; October 5, 1934; November 5, 1941; January 15, 1995; and August 23, 1996).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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